Fish is a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for a child’s brain and eye development. It is also low in saturated fat and high in protein, vitamin D, and other important nutrients. However, some types of fish can contain mercury at harmful levels, potentially impacting a child’s developing brain and nervous system. Most experts agree that children should eat a balanced diet that includes fish, but it is important to follow some safety guidelines.
(From a 2004 advisory provided by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))
Young children should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish due to extremely high mercury levels.
Children can eat two child-size servings a week of any fish and shellfish, other than the four listed above. A child-size serving is one ounce of fish for one and two year olds; 1.5 ounces for children ages three to six; and two ounces for a child over age six.
Fish sticks are not of concern since they are typically made with fish low in mercury; however, they are also not a good source of omega-3s.
Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in lakes, rivers, and coastal areas in your area. If no advice is available, children can eat one average meal per week of fish caught in local waters, but should not eat any other fish that week.
Children should not eat more than two child-size servings a week of canned chunk light tuna and no more than one serving a week of canned solid white or albacore tuna. (FDA).
Some advocacy groups recommend young children not be given any tuna. Chunk light tuna is considered lower in mercury since it typically comes from skipjack, a smaller type of tuna. However, sometimes yellowfin tuna, a larger fish, is used for chunk light, so it is not always clear what type of tuna is actually in the can unless it is clearly stated on the label.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) developed a wallet card based on data from FDA and EPA to help consumers choose fish low in mercury. The card lists types of fish by amount of mercury and shows how much tuna a person can safely eat based on their weight. For example, a 20 pound child should eat no more than one can of white albacore tuna every 10 weeks and one can of chunk light every three weeks. [http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/walletcard.pdf]
Fish4health.net was developed by Charles Santerre, a toxicologist at Purdue University. The website contains a reference card indicating mercury levels of fish and how much is safe to serve to children. The card highlights six fish that are both low in mercury and high in healthy fats: herring, mackerel (Atlantic, jack, chub), rainbow trout (farm raised), salmon (wild or farm raised), sardines, and whitefish. [http://fn.cfs.purdue.edu/fish4health/Walletcard/walletcard.html]
Environmental Defense Fund created a pocket seafood guide based on fish that is best for the environment, but also highlights which fish to limit due to elevated mercury levels. [http://www.edf.org/documents/1980_pocket_seafood_selector.pdf]