These days parents are bombarded with information on nutrition for children. The news is full of stories about children being overweight, eating too much junk food, not eating enough fruit and vegetables, missing out on calcium and missing out on iron. There are so many different ‘experts’ saying so many different things that it’s no wonder parents can become confused about what they should be feeding their children. But at least there is one food they can be sure about – the outstanding health benefits of regularly eating fish.
Fish is one of the few foods the experts agree on. All the research shows that fish is a rich source of many of the nutrients needed for young bodies as well as playing an important role in helping to prevent many of the diseases of later life.
Fish is rich in protein, the nutrient the body needs to build strong healthy muscles and bones as well as to help repair the scrapes and scratches that are part and parcel of growing up. Protein is needed by every part of the body – skin, hair, nails, heart, lungs as well as muscles and it is a vital nutrient for healthy development. Children need to eat a protein food at lunch and dinner and fish can be a very healthy choice.
Apart from protein fish are also rich in several essential vitamins and minerals. All fish are rich in selenium, iodine and zinc. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect the body from toxins and may play a role in helping to prevent cancer. Iodine is essential for a healthy metabolism and zinc helps to boost the immune system and fight off coughs and colds.
The oil rich fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and sardines) are all rich in vitamins A and D. Vitamin A is needed for healthy skin and eyes and vitamin D is important in helping the body to absorb the calcium needed for growing bones. Normally we make vitamin D when we expose our skin to sunlight but if children are not outside very often or if they use sun-block in the sun, they may not be making all the vitamin D they need. Oil-rich fish is one of the few foods that contain vitamin D so it is good to encourage children to eat oil-rich fish at least once a week. All fish contain B vitamins, the vitamin that helps the body to release the energy from food. Fish contain lots of vitamin B12 which is vital in growing new blood cells.
One of the most important nutrients found in oil-rich fish is omega-3 fats. These special fats cannot be made in the body so it is important that we get them from the food we eat. Omega-3 fats are particularly important for children as they play an essential role in the early development of the brain and nerves. Almost 60% of the brain is made up of fat and half of this is omega 3 fats. While in the womb the baby gets omega-3 fats from the foods the mother eats, but after birth they need to get them from breast or fortified formula milk. As they move away from breast or formula milk, children need to start getting more omega-3 fats from their food to allow the brain to continue to develop and grow. There is a great deal of research into the potential role of omega-3 fats in protecting memory and in preventing and treating conditions like dyslexia and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Diseases like heart disease are becoming more common and omega-3 fats help to protect against heart disease. Getting children into a good habit of eating fish will help not only to encourage healthy growth and development but also to help protect against some of the diseases of adult life.
But my child won’t eat fish…
This is the biggest problem. Most of us already know that fish is a remarkably healthy food, with any number of potential health benefits, but how do you persuade a reluctant child to eat, or even just try, fish?
It is worth remembering that most children will refuse foods at some stage – usually around the age of 2-3 but the fact that they refused fish at this age doesn’t mean that they will never like it. Like most foods, the earlier after weaning that the child tastes the food the more likely they are to be happy eating it. One reason children may refuse fish is that they are just not used to it – parents who don’t like fish themselves may never have offered it to their children and it can be a whole new experience. Just like babies starting on solid food, children need time to get used to the new tastes and textures of fish and it may take several attempts before they will be comfortable about eating the new food.
If your child refuses fish…
- Do offer fish at least once a week. It can take time for children (and adults) to get used to the new taste and texture of fish. As they get more familiar with how fish feels in their mouth, they will start to be more comfortable eating it. Do be patient. Start with very small amounts of fish - even a mouthful with a meal (maybe offer it as a starter) and gradually work up. It generally takes about 6 weeks of trying a new food to become comfortable with it, so take your time.
- Do start with white fish like whiting and haddock which have a milder flavour. As your child gets used to the fish you can add in new varieties and start introducing the stronger tasting oil-rich fish.
- Don’t force children to eat fish – this usually puts them off. Do encourage them to try even one small taste each time you serve fish and let them eat more if they want to.
- Do eat fish yourself. Most children will copy what they see their parents doing – if they see you eating and enjoying fish, they are more likely to try it themselves.<
- Do offer fish to children as early as possible. Fish is an ideal food for weaning – but take care to remove all the bones, especially and small, fine bones.
- Do get older children involved in cooking and preparing meals with fish – many children are willing to eat anything they have made themselves.
- Do try lots of different kinds of fish – cod, haddock, salmon, trout, tinned fish and fresh fish, fish steamed, baked or even occasionally deep fried.
Fish to watch
Shark, marlin and swordfish are not suitable fish for children and should be avoided. Tinned tuna should only be eaten twice a week, and fresh tuna only once a week. These fish all contain mercury which can be harmful to the nervous system of young children if eaten in large amounts.
Fish, Asthma and Children
Eating fish may help to protect children from developing asthma. Several studies have found that children who regularly eat fish, especially the oil-rich fish have a significantly lower chance of developing asthma when compared to children who never eat fish.