It's natural to feel a little iffy about fish. On the one hand, you know it's super-nutritious. On the other, the scary thought of mercury contamination is enough to make you skip it entirely. (And then there's the small matter of whether your kids, after you spend the money on it and the time preparing it, will actually eat it.)
But this is a case where the benefits outweigh the potential risks, and thankfully, there are pretty easy, common-sense ways to minimize the risks. In fact, the FDA and EPA are so concerned about people avoiding fish that they're releasing new advice to encourage people to eat it—and the information about safe consumption is clearer than ever.
Which varieties are safe?
The fact is, most fish contain some amount of methylmercury, a form of mercury that can be toxic to the brain in large amounts. Really big fish that live a long time tend to have the most contamination, which is why the FDA singles out tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel as ones you should avoid completely for your family.
But many other varieties have much smaller amounts of mercury—in some cases, just trace amounts—and are safe for even small children and pregnant women. Some fish and seafood with the lowest amounts include:
- Salmon (Atlantic, Chinook, Coho, Pink, Sockeye)
- Pollock (Atlantic & Walleye)
- Oysters (Pacific)
- Scallops (Bay & Sea)
See the full chart from the FDA, which lists mercury content, here.
How much is okay?
The FDA says that to get the health benefits, kids should eat fish 2-3 times a week—but their portions should obviously be smaller than for grown-ups. Here's what an appropriate portion looks like:
Children younger than six: About 3-5 ounces per week
Children ages 6-8: About 4-6 ounces per week
Children ages 9 and up: Portions increase as calorie needs increase, up to 8-12 ounces per week (the amount recommended for adults)
Keep in mind that this advice is different for fish that you or other people catch in rivers, streams, and lakes. In those cases, limit it to 1-2 ounces a week for children under six years and 2-3 ounces for older kids (and don't serve any other fish that week).
What about tuna?
Canned and pouch tuna is a popular choice for families because it's convenient and affordable. Both light and albacore tuna do contain higher amounts of mercury than the varieties listed above, so it's important to follow the FDA's advice. They say that light tuna, which has less than albacore, is safe to eat but that you should serve other varieties of lower-mercury fish as well. If you choose albacore, kids should get half the recommended servings above (for example, no more than 2-3 ounces a week for kids ages 6-8).
Why is fish worth it?
Fish has a lot of high-quality protein, iron, and minerals. Some varieties (like salmon, anchovies, and sardines) contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for heart health and developing brains. Some (like salmon) even contain vitamin D, which can be hard to get through food.
How can I get my kids to eat it?
I've struggled with this too. My best advice is to try serving it in lots of different ways, and you may just hit on something they really like. For me, that was fish tacos. Wrapping it in a flour tortilla and letting them pile on the toppings they like was a game-changer (this is the recipe that won them over). Ditto for glazing salmon with barbecue sauce.
For more information about the safety of fish, read the FDA's full document, "Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know", here.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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Image: Mother and daughter preparing fish via Shutterstock