Kids are great at counting. They count their fingers and toes or how many toys they have. But when it comes to their favorite foods to eat, they hardly ever count fish and seafood among them — but we parents sure wish they would!

Oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, are excellent sources of vitamins A and D as well as the omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) essential for healthy growth and brain development. As parents, we want to prepare our kids’ palates for a wide range of flavors and plant the seeds for lifelong, healthy eating habits, and introducing kids to eating fish and seafood at an early age is vital.

History of tuna fish sandwich with a tuna sandwich stacked.

As a parent who knows that fish is part of a healthful, well-balanced diet, I looked for ways to introduce fish to my son as soon as he could eat solid food. The first fish dish I prepared for him was a combination of salmon and mashed sweet potato. The sweetness of the potato, its soft texture, and orange eye-pleasing color masked and muted the flavor of the stronger-tasting salmon.

I have since discovered that one of the simplest ways to move fish to the center of your kid’s plate and into their lunchbox — besides burying fish beneath mashed tubers — is to focus on what kids love about the sensory experience of food: texture, presentation, and tactile involvement, such as dipping, scooping, and using their little hands to pick up small portions.

Here are over a dozen fish recipes and school lunch ideas for your entire family to love at dinner and for your little one to take to school.

Tinned tuna, sardines, and mackerel

Use stainless steel mini cookie and sandwich cutters to create tuna fish sandwich shapes to “reel little ones in” on the pleasure of a tuna sandwich. This is especially appealing to toddlers, who love to pick up small bites to feed themselves.

Tiny tuna melts entice too. Spread tuna salad on a mini bagel, saltine, or round cracker, place them on a baking sheet, cover the tops with shredded cheese, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for five to seven minutes, or until the cheese melts.

And compact, round finger foods (ahem, meatballs) are beloved and easy to make with fish, such as tinned sardines and mackerel. Serve the fish balls with pasta for dinner, then parlay them into lunch the next day with ketchup or a sweet sauce for dipping.

Think outside the tuna can and mash smoked mackerel and cream cheese together to make a delicious sandwich or tortilla roll-up. Did we mention kids like rolled-up foods, too? And when you cut a tortilla roll-up into 1-inch pieces and set them on their sides, you get everyone’s favorite: tortilla pinwheels!

Halibut or cod

To you, chicken nuggets, we say “Hit the bricks!” as we welcome baked fish nuggets. Meatier white fish, such as halibut or cod, will stay moist and tender on the inside, and a panko coating will give these the crispy texture kids love. Kids can dip fish nuggets in tartar sauce, ketchup, or herby yogurt dip.

For school lunch, tuck nuggets into a tortilla for a crispy fish taco and top with colorful pineapple salsa or slaw. Or use black cod to create a zesty orange chicken-inspired meal to serve with fried rice that will travel well in a thermos.

The whole family will rave (at least mine did) over a crispy Alaskan cod BLT. Use slider buns for a pint-sized lunch version and serve with French fries.

School lunches with a tray of blt cod sandwiches.
Courtesy Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute


Salmon’s stronger taste may not appeal to kids at first bite, but we have ideas to get your them to fall for it hook, line, and sinker. First, take a cue from fried chicken soaked in buttermilk and make salmon au lait. Soaking the salmon in milk before cooking gives it a softer, more kid-pleasing texture, and the milk neutralizes the salmon’s smell, too.

Add smoked or canned salmon to kid-friendly fare, such as scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, or pasta with peas. Or add smoked salmon dip to their lunch box to enjoy with crackers and fresh vegetables.

Salmon burgers (shrimp burgers, too) topped with avocado slices, sauces, and relish are a fun twist on burger night. And speaking of avocado, create salmon guacamole dip for an after-school snack or lunch treat.

A “deconstructed sushi” or simple poke bowl lunch is fun: sticky rice, edamame, cooked salmon, and drizzles of spicy mayo. Serve with nori sheets so kids can try their hand at scooping the rice and make a hand roll. To make spicy mayo, whisk a tablespoon (or less) of hot sauce into one-third cup of mayo. Sauces, such as a sweet, sticky honey glaze, make salmon yummy.

And who doesn’t love fish on a stick? Thread salmon kebabs and brush with peanut glaze. Serve with veggies, in a lettuce wrap, or alongside peanut noodles.

Seafood: Crab, shrimp, and scallops

Just as fresh, tinned, and pouched fish offer versatility, crustaceans and mollusks can also please a kid’s palate. Crab cakes, fritters (pieces of fish, meat, or vegetables bound by batter and skillet fried), and seafood pancakes are perfect kid-friendly vehicles for serving seafood at every meal of the day. Baked coconut shrimp is the ultimate seafood finger food — sweet, crunchy, and delicious with honey mustard sauce.

shop button TinnedFish x

Seafood-filled dumplings are a breeze to make, customizable, and perfectly portable for lunch or a snack. Plus, kids can help in making them.

  1. Begin by finely mincing shrimp and scallops with herbs, soy sauce, and a bit of egg white to bind them.
  2. Fill wonton wrappers with 1 tablespoon or more of filling, then fold into a half- moon shape.
  3. Wet the edges of the wonton to seal closed. Warm 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, and pan-fry the dumplings until browned on the undersides, about three minutes.
  4. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of water, cover the pan with a lid to finish cooking, and steam for five to seven minutes, or until the tops are soft and the bottoms are crispy. Serve with soy sauce for dipping.

Theresa Gambacorta is a food writer and 25-year veteran of New York City's restaurant industry. Her writing has appeared in such titles as La Cucina Italiana, Men's Fitness, Muscle and Fitness, and Centennial's special interest publications. She is the co-author of chef Joey Campanaro's Big Love Cooking (Chronicle) and is currently working on a cookbook about Persian cuisine to be published by Knopf.

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