When it comes to fish, it seems the question on everyone’s mind is one about safety. I mean, what seafood is best for our bodies and safe for dinner? Of course, it makes sense. As parents, we want fish that’s delicious and stocked with the nutrients our kids need. We want fish that is packed with vitamins and rich in flavor. So here are the five best fish for the environment, growing brains and bodies, and finicky taste buds.
Shopping for salmon can be a bit confusing. (Between filing taxes, farm-raised, and wild options there is a lot to choose from.) But there’s good reason why this majestic fish remains such a popular choice among parents and kids: it’s full of vitamins, lends itself to countless easy preparations, and has an undeniably rich, delicious flavor. Available during the late spring and summer months, Wild Alaskan salmon — a category that comprises the pink, coho, sockeye, chum, and king (Chinook), varieties — is always the best choice. These fish come from relatively stable populations, are caught using traditional, low-impact methods, and are low in PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
In contrast, farmed Atlantic salmon (most of which come from Canada) present a host of risks: the majority are raised in densely-stocked pens in coastal waters, a practice that often leads to pollution and disease and can threaten surrounding waters and native fish. Plus, due to their feed, farmed salmon contain significantly higher levels of PCBs than wild salmon, prompting the Environmental Defense Fund to warn against feeding kids more than one portion each month.
2. Rainbow Trout
Unlike certain types of farmed fish, freshwater rainbow trout is a great choice for dinner because it’s raised in an ecologically responsible way, is replete with B vitamins, and has a soft texture and full flavor that kids naturally like. Most of the country’s trout comes from Idaho, where it’s farmed in inland tanks and ponds, so there’s no danger of the fish mingling with native species. In many ways, farmed trout is safer than wild trout, which once proliferated in the Great Lakes but have been over-fished over the past decades and are now full of PCBs. Especially good when roasted or pan-fried, rainbow trout are good for other reasons too: they respond well to a diet that includes alternative proteins like soybean and wheat. That’s a good thing for small fish like herring and anchovies, which are often ground up in massive quantities to make fishmeal for larger, farmed fish. Rainbow trout are available year-round.
Back in the 1920s, shortly after the country’s first tuna cannery opened in Los Angeles and every kid wanted tuna sandwiches for lunch, moms had to do little more than choose between Bumble Bee and StarKist at the grocery store. Nowadays, the situation is a bit more complicated, but canned or fresh, tuna is still one of the top fish to feed children. It has a fantastic roster of nutrients — plenty of omega 3s, yes, but also lots of vitamin A and magnesium — however, whether you’re buying albacore, yellowfin, bigeye, or skipjack (most canned tuna consists of albacore or skipjack), read the labels and seek out fish that are caught by trolling or pole-and-line gear, not longlines, which tend to catch endangered sea turtles, birds, and sharks. Also noteworthy: tuna caught via longlines are usually larger and possess higher levels of mercury. And, though I love sushi as much as the next guy, bluefin tuna (known as maguro or toro at sushi restaurants) should be avoided altogether due to exceptionally high levels of mercury and a severely diminished population owing to over-fishing. When buying tuna steaks, be sure to ask how the fish was caught; when buying canned tuna, look for the Marine Stewardship Council seal.
Tilapia may not have the star power of the other omega 3-rich swimmers on this list, but this freshwater fish has sparked the interest of seafood experts in recent years who’ve found that it’s well-suited for farming and doesn’t lead to lots of environmental problems. Native to Africa, tilapia has firm, neutral-tasting flesh that’s a natural partner to marinades and sauces, plus it’s a good source of antioxidants and calcium. What’s more, it grows rapidly and lives off waste and algae, which means it’s not dependent on precious marine resources. Combined with low concentrations of contaminants, it’s little wonder that tilapia has become a favorite choice for parents. (In fact, tilapia production has tripled over the last twenty years; today, about six billion pounds are raised each year.) There’s one thing to look out for when buying this fish, though: while tilapia farmed in this country is safe, the fish raised in Latin American and Asian countries is poorly regulated and should be avoided.
Sardines just might be the world’s most underrated fish. After all, even Notorious B.I.G. rapped about eating them for dinner to illustrate his humble roots. What many people don’t know, however, is that few other fish are as ocean-friendly, packed with healthy benefits for kids, and tasty at the same time. Though the country’s sardine population nearly vanished in the 1940s, today the prolific breeders exist in such abundant numbers along the Pacific coast that there’s no longer a danger of over-fishing. And unlike larger fish that are more likely to contain harmful contaminants, sardines are free of mercury and PCBs, which means you can serve them frequently. More good news: the silvery, fatty fish are also among the best sources of brain-building omega-3s; in fact, one can of sardines boasts roughly 1.9 grams, even more than what’s found in a similar portion of salmon. Fresh sardines are available during summer months, but there are plenty of canned options, too; brands like Wild Planet, Cole’s, and King Oscar are all excellent.