Why Kids Don't Eat Enough Seafood and How They Can Enjoy It
What comes to your mind first when you hear "kid's meal" or a "kid-friendly recipe"? Chances are, it's chicken nuggets, a burger, a deli sandwich, pizza, tacos or mac and cheese. Fish sticks might make the list, but that fried food is likely the only source of fish or seafood that most kids consume regularly. And that's not doing their health any favors.
Related: A Month of Healthy Meals for Kids
Increasing kids' (and adults') intake of seafood and fish in healthier preparations can provide many health benefits, including muscle-building protein, health-supporting vitamins and super-powered omega-3 fats.
Read on to learn more about why fish and seafood are such smart choices for kids and adults alike. Additionally, here's how to get your dose via the safest fish and seafood—prepared in ways you'll look forward to diving into.
Why Aren't More Kids (and Adults) Eating Seafood?
If you struggle to get your kiddo to consume their recommended dose of seafood and fish (more on what this is below), you're not alone. According to a 2019 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids in the U.S. don't eat nearly enough fish and shellfish—especially compared to other protein sources. In fact, the report found that 90% of the animal protein children typically eat comes from sources other than fish.
Perhaps it's the smell, the texture or the fact that many kids may not have been exposed to it while in the womb or at a young age. Or maybe they tried fish once but didn't enjoy that particular preparation and now write off the entire category, explains Roxana Ehsani, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"Even though seafood is chock-full of important nutrients, many varieties have a unique taste that kids may not particularly enjoy. Plus, it makes sense that many parents aren't feeding this protein to their kids if they aren't eating it themselves," adds Lauren Manaker, M.S., RD, LD, a registered dietitian, mom and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina.
That's a very apt point that the kids aren't the only ones falling short. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans reveal that while 3 in 4 Americans—of all ages—consume more than enough meat, poultry and eggs, nearly 90% don't meet the seafood quota.
Mercury Levels and Sustainability
One of the biggest reasons some people avoid fish and seafood is that certain kinds may be overfished or pose potential health risks. Some fish, such as swordfish, albacore tuna and king mackerel, contain methylmercury, a poisonous compound from mercury. Methylmercury can affect brain development and cause severe fatigue or blurred vision when ingested in high doses.
"Almost all fish has at least traces of mercury, thanks to how much of this metal is found in our waters. Since mercury is a neurotoxin, risks associated with consuming too much mercury involve the effects it can have on the brain. Too much exposure to this neurotoxin is linked to a reduction in fine motor skills, memory and attention," Manaker says. "But this should not sway parents to avoid offering seafood to their children—or from eating it themselves—as this food offers too many beneficial nutrients to ignore. Instead, they should stick to the recommended servings per week and choose seafood options that are lower in mercury."
Beyond the mercury content, some species—including Atlantic halibut, albacore/bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod—are severely overfished and at risk of becoming endangered.
However, by leaning into the widely available low-mercury varieties, Ehsani says, "The benefits of consuming fish and seafood far outweigh the negatives."
Why Should Kids Eat More Seafood and Fish?
Due to their high content of protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, choline and heart-healthy omega-3 fats, fish and seafood can be especially beneficial for the youngest of diners.
Babies who consume fish and seafood within the first 12 months of life can prevent or significantly reduce the development of certain allergic diseases like asthma, eczema and allergic rhinitis, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatric Allergy and Immunology. Additionally, eating fish when pregnant can be vital to prenatal development. Children's neurodevelopment may be boosted when a pregnant person consumes more than 340 grams or about 12 ounces of fish a week, per a 2016 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
"A child's brain is nearly 60% fat, and omega-3 fatty acids are important molecules that support the brain's ability to perform," says Manaker. "Omega-3 fatty acids also support a child's eye development and bone health. Some data suggests this fatty acid may play a role in a child's behavior too. Including low-mercury seafood options in a child's diet is one simple thing parents can do that may have a profound impact on their health."
"Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory fats that are essential for healthy brain function and health, heart health and even eye health," Ehsani says. "In kids, they're especially important to help build their brain structure and help construct new cells."
The current recommended adequate intake of omega-3 fats per day for kids varies by age and sex:
- 0 to 12 months: 0.5 grams/day
- 1 to 3 years: 0.7 grams/day
- 4 to 8 years: 0.9 grams/day
- 9 to 13 years (boys): 1.2 grams/day
- 9 to 13 years (girls): 1.0 grams/day
- 14 to 18 years (boys): 1.6 grams/day
- 14 to 18 years (girls): 1.1 grams/day
"Fish and seafood are excellent ways to get in those omegas-3s," Ehsani says, as well as a diverse source of protein beyond meat, poultry and eggs. "But if they don't like fish, they can also get omega-3s from flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds or fortified eggs."
Related: The 8 Best Vegan Omega-3 Rich Foods
How to Increase Your Kid's Intake
So, how can you balance these serious risks and drawbacks with what seem like big rewards? First, be sure to serve low-mercury fish options most often to your kids—and yourself. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, cod and canned light tuna are all excellent options. Then cross-reference those fish and seafood with those that are sustainably raised and in good supply. We did the research for you and have your best bets compiled in our guide to 5 of the healthiest fish to eat—and 5 to avoid.
How Much Should Kids Eat?
According to the FDA and EPA, children 1 year and older can safely consume fish twice a week, Ehsani continues. Your best estimate for the appropriate portion size is to base it on body size.
Body weight = 1 serving size
- 20 pounds = 1 ounce
- 40 pounds = 2 ounces
- 60 pounds = 3 ounces
- 80 pounds = 4 ounces
- 100 pounds = 5 ounces
- 120 pounds = 6 ounces
- 140 pounds = 7 ounces
- 160 pounds or more = 8 ounces
"Some kids will enjoy eating fish just as adults do. But for others, including it may require a bit more effort and creativity," Manaker admits.
Family-Friendly Ways to Enjoy Fish and Seafood
- Give it a shot in a sandwich: mash canned tuna with avocado for a creamy spread.
- Try milder-smelling fish like tilapia and shrimp before more aromatic ones.
- Make salmon burgers instead of beef burgers.
- Get creative with different presentations.
- Try a variety of cooking methods (grilled, sautéed, air-fried, roasted or steamed, for instance).
- Include a dipping sauce with hand-held items like shrimp or fish sticks.
- Add cooked tuna or salmon to your kid's current favorite foods, like mac and cheese.
- Make a fish or seafood quesadilla instead of chicken or beef.
- Prepare sweeter dishes like our Raspberry-Pineapple Fish Tacos