What type of fish comes to mind when you think of school lunch? Is it breaded, deep-fried fish sticks served with a mayonnaise-based tartar sauce? Because that’s what I think of and it’s not exactly the most nutritious representation of fish. Thankfully, more skilled food service directors are finding new, creative ways to incorporate nutritious seafood options into their menus without going over budget. I discuss here why this is so important.
U.S. children are not eating enough seafood.
In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report on the health advantages of eating seafood with a press release that said that children are not eating enough of these foods. They pointed out that seafood consumption by U.S. children has declined every year since 2007. The AAP listed concern about mercury contamination as one reason why fish and shellfish make up a relatively small part of most children’s diets when compared to other sources of animal protein like red meat and chicken. The AAP said, however, that for most types of seafood the nutritional benefits outweigh the risks.
What nutritional benefits does seafood offer?
Fish and shellfish are lean protein foods that are low in saturated fat and rich in vitamins and minerals. You probably have heard that fatty fish are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are critical for brain development and they continue to play a role in brain health throughout life. Research has shown that omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
What are the best seafood choices?
Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Drug Administration issued advice on choosing the healthiest seafood to eat. They created a chart to help families choose which fish to eat, and how often, based on their mercury levels. Catfish, cod, haddock, salmon, scallop, and shrimp are some of the fish included in their best choices’ category.
How much seafood should kids eat?
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends including a variety of fish that are low in mercury – two to three servings per week for adults and one to two times per week for kids.
What can we learn from school meals about seafood?
I think there are a few good lessons that we can learn about serving seafood from school meals. The first is to start introducing it early on like they do in elementary schools. One important caveat is that fish and shellfish make up two of the top eight allergens that account for 90% of all the food allergies in the United States. Monitor your child for any symptoms of an allergic reaction after introducing them to these foods. Also be sure that your child is offered these foods in developmentally appropriate forms to avoid choking hazards.
The second lesson that we can learn from school meals is to make it a regular event. School food service directors plan cycle menus that repeat every 2-4 weeks to manage costs and maximize efficiency. This means that children are exposed to recipes containing seafood multiple times throughout the year and they become more familiar. If seafood is something that your family does not eat often, it might take a few tries for everyone to enjoy it. You can also try offering it in a variety of ways and starting with fish with more mild flavors like cod, haddock, or sole.
The third and final lesson that we can learn from school meals is to make seafood versions of common recipes. If your family likes grilled cheese you could try a cheesy tuna melt. If you all enjoy tacos and quesadillas then make a catfish version. Swap in shrimp for chicken in a stir fry.
Be sure to check out our Guiding Stars earning recipes where we have many delicious seafood options for you to try at home.