When can babies eat anchovies?
Fresh anchovies may be introduced as soon as your baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Because preserved fish tends to be super salty, it’s best to wait until after your child’s first birthday to serve canned anchovies, jarred anchovies, or fish sauce to limit sodium consumption.
Background and origins of anchovies
Slender and silvery, anchovies are forage fish that are a vital food source for humans and oceanic creatures alike. There are more than 140 species around the world—from the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, to the Black and Mediterranean Seas. They swim in large schools in ocean shoals, and when caught, they are either sold fresh in local markets, frozen for sale far away, or preserved in salt. For centuries, cultures around the world have eaten fresh anchovies as a delicacy and fermented anchovies as a flavor booster in cooked dishes, from grilled meats, to sauces, to stews.
If you are able to find fresh anchovies, buy them. They are not at all like their salty, pungent preserved cousins, and they make a wonderful first food for babies. But if all you have available are preserved anchovies, be sure to read the label. Canned and jarred anchovies are notoriously high in sodium, and early and excessive exposure is thought to play a role later on in hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.1
Are anchovies healthy for babies?
In moderation, fresh anchovies can be a healthy addition to your baby’s meal. Anchovies are packed with protein, plus they contain many essential nutrients that your baby needs for healthy growth: calcium, folate, magnesium, niacin, selenium, and vitamin A. They are also a top seafood source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, a healthy fat that makes up a large percentage of a baby’s brain and is critical for visual and cognitive development.2 Anchovies are also among the fish lowest in mercury.3
Preserved anchovies taste very different from the fresh fish. Preservation methods vary, but most often they are packed in salt—the reason behind the fish’s distinct taste. Salt leaches liquid from the anchovy, concentrates the flavor, and infuses the fish with umami—the “fifth taste” that mysteriously combines bitter, salty, sour, and sweet into one savory sensation. Preserved anchovies can be a real treat for adults and kids alike, just be sure to read the fine print on the labels:
- Watch the salt. From fish to fruits and vegetables, canned products often have high levels of sodium. While anchovies packed in oils and flavorings can have higher levels of nutrients thanks to preservation methods, they are often way too high in sodium for babies’ tummies. “White anchovies” packed in olive oil or boquerónes packed in vinegar and water are a healthier option for kids. Note: Rinsing canned fish under water can reduce the sodium content significantly.4
- Be careful with BPA. BPA is a chemical used to line the interior of cans and plastic bottles that can disrupt your baby’s bodily functions. Look for cans or pouches that are marked “BPA-free” when purchasing anchovies for a baby.
There are also environmental considerations. Like so many other fish, anchovies are overfished to the point where some regulatory bodies have limited the catch in an effort to avoid wiping out the fish populations. Even then, the populations are at risk due to other environmental factors like rising sea temperatures due to climate change.5 A widely-respected go-to resource, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends avoiding most commercial sources of anchovies because of these environmental impacts and more.6
Are anchovies a common choking hazard for babies?
No. The slender shaped fish is not a common choking hazard for babies, though their tiny bones can cause problems if not removed. Always pick out the backbone and any other bones that remain. (Tweezers will help.) To aid swallowing, serve anchovies with a moist dip or sauce. You can also mix them into mayonnaise or yogurt as you would with canned tuna to reduce the choking risk. Regardless, stay close during mealtimes, as in theory, an individual could choke on any food.
Is anchovy a common allergen?
Yes. Finned fish like anchovies are a top food allergen.7 That said, it’s estimated that only 1% of Americans are allergic to finned fish.8 If you have a family history of allergies, or suspect your baby may be allergic to finned fish, consult an allergist before introducing anchovies at home.
As with all new foods, introduce anchovies by offering a scant quantity for the first couple of servings and watch closely as your baby eats. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the amount in future servings.
How do you prepare anchovies for babies with baby-led weaning?
Every baby develops on their own timeline, and the suggestions on how to cut or prepare particular foods are generalizations for a broad audience. Your child is an individual and may have needs or considerations beyond generally accepted practices. In determining the recommendations for size and shape of foods, we use the best available scientific information regarding gross, fine, and oral motor development to minimize choking risk. The preparation suggestions we offer are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for child-specific, one-on-one advice from your pediatric medical or health professional or provider. It is impossible to fully eliminate all risk of a baby or child choking on any liquid, puree, or food. We advise you to follow all safety protocols we suggest to create a safe eating environment and to make educated choices for your child regarding their specific needs. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen here.
6 to 12 months old: Avoid due to high sodium levels, unless you have access to fresh anchovies. To serve fresh anchovies, gut the fish and remove the head and backbone underwater, picking away any lingering bones. Then cook the fish and offer whole or flaked into other foods.
12 months old and up: Continue to serve fresh anchovies, if available, and at this age, you may now introduce canned and other preserved anchovies. Look for products with the lowest levels of sodium possible: canned anchovies can be very high in sodium, which, in excess, is not healthy. Once you open the can, pull the backbone out of each fish and rinse the fish under water to remove excess sodium. While the bones of canned anchovies are edible, they may stick in a child’s throat and cause discomfort. Once deboned and rinsed under water, flake into other foods or serve on their own; any shape or size is fine at this age.
18 months old and up: Cook and serve anchovies as desired. Offer fresh, cooked anchovies in whole filets (boneless and skinless), bite-size pieces, or mashed in a fish salad. Freely offer canned anchovies, continuing to choose brands that pack them fresh (and not in a salty brine), when possible.
Introducing common allergens to babies can be scary. We have a First 100 Days plan that walks you through exactly when to introduce each one with the right amount of time between them.
Dislike anchovies? Try boquerónes—the Spanish word for anchovies marinated in vinegar and oil. The little white fish are not as salty as most preserved anchovies, plus they have a delicious mild taste. Try using a fillet as a substitute for salt in your salad dressing, or eat it whole with a little drizzle of your finest balsamic vinegar… just like they do in Spain!
Recipe: Anchovy Toasts
Recommended Age: 12 months +
- 1 small tin preserved anchovy fillets (packed in water)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon chives or parsley (optional)
- Thin rice cakes or whole-grain bread
- Rinse canned anchovy fillets. Transfer to a blender or a mortar and pestle.
- Add the olive oil, along with the herbs if you are using. Blend or mash until smooth.
- Spread the anchovy mix on thin rice cakes or whole-grain, toasted bread to serve. (Thin-style rice cakes or toasted bread)
Anchovies are versatile! When served fresh, they are delicious on their own with a squeeze of citrus and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Preserved anchovies are a great flavor enhancer in cooked dishes—from pasta sauces to curries to meat stews.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press
- Kuratko, C., Barrett, E., Nelson, E., Norman, S. (2013). The Relationship of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) with Learning and Behavior in Healthy Children: A Review. Nutrients, 5(7), 2777-2810. doi: 10.3390/nu5072777
- U.S Food & Drug Administration. (2017). Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (1990-2012). Retrieved May 25, 2020
- R T Vermeulen, F A Sedor, S Y Kimm, Effect of Water Rinsing on Sodium Content of Selected Foods. Retrieved June 14, 2020.
- Gay, A. (2016). Overfishing and El Niño Push the World’s Biggest Single-Species Fishery to a Critical Point. Oceana
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Anchovy Recommendations. Retrieved May 25, 2020
- Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish allergy. Retrieved May 25, 2020
- Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis – Fish. Retrieved May 25, 2020