When can babies eat herring?
Herring may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. When possible, choose Pacific herring over Atlantic herring, steer clear of those caught from the Baltic Sea, and rinse canned fish under water to reduce sodium.
What are herring and where do they live?
Herring are small forage fish that thrive in cold waters and migrate in massive schools along the world’s coasts and open seawaters. There are many species within the herring family, but most on the commercial market come from the world’s northern waters, where their nickname “silver of the sea” hints at the color of their shimmering skin. For hundreds of years, the fish has nourished northern coastal regions and Jewish communities, where pickled herring remain a beloved staple on holiday tables and at everyday gatherings today. The tiny fish’s popularity across cultures is why you see it marketed under many different names—bloaters, kippers, matjes, nishin, rollmops, seledka, sild, and surströmming to name a few!
Is herring healthy for babies?
Yes. Herring is a nutritional powerhouse. The fish offers tons of protein, all essential amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA to fuel cardiovascular health, central nervous system development, cell growth, and eyesight. The fish is also a phenomenal source of vitamin B12 for healthy blood and neurodevelopment, as well as other B vitamins for energy production. Herring is among the few naturally-occurring food sources of vitamin D, which babies and toddlers need to grow healthy bones. The fish even offers vitamin E and selenium for immune function and iron for healthy blood.
Herring is also lower in mercury than other species of fish.1 Mercury, a heavy metal that ends up in our oceans and lakes from coal pollution, is a particularly persistent and progressive toxin to which babies are most susceptible.2 Thankfully there are affordable and accessible low mercury fish options for babies, including herring, salmon, sardines, and canned mackerel. When possible, choose Pacific herring over Atlantic herring, and steer clear of the fish from the Baltic Sea. While still low in mercury, Atlantic herring can have more mercury, and studies have found herring from the Baltic Sea contain higher levels of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) when compared to herring from other regions.3 4 5 Dioxins and PCBs have been found to disrupt the thyroid’s hormone function and may affect the brain.6
★Tip: When shopping for preserved herring, choose pickled herring over smoked, and look for lower-sodium options in glass jars or BPA-free cans. If low-sodium options aren’t available, rinsing canned or jarred fish can remove some of the sodium.7
Is herring a common choking hazard for babies?
No. Herring is not a common choking hazard, but fish bones can present a risk. Most of the bones in sardine, herring, and other small fish are so tiny that it is impossible for fishmongers to remove them from fresh or frozen herring before sale. Canning softens the bones, making them edible and safe for babies and toddlers to eat.8 Bones or no bones, make sure to create a safe eating environment and always stay near baby at mealtime, because, in theory, an individual could choke on any food. For more information, visit our section on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with common choking hazards.
Is herring a common allergen?
Yes. Finned fish are a common food allergen.9 While it’s estimated that only 0.2 percent of people are allergic to finned fish worldwide, the prevalence of fish allergies in children varies greatly.10 11 About 40 percent of people with finned fish allergies don’t experience their first allergic reaction until adulthood.12 Unfortunately, most individuals who are allergic to finned fish do not outgrow the allergy.13
Some individuals with finned fish allergy may react from inhaling airborne proteins that are aerosolized when cooking fish.14 15 If this is the case for your baby, you may wish to avoid cooking fish in the household when baby is present.
Due to the risks of cross-contamination or mislabeling, allergists often recommend that individuals allergic to one species of finned fish avoid all finned fish, regardless of the labeling. This is an individualized recommendation, so be sure to confirm with your allergist before offering other finned fish if your baby is allergic to herring.
If you suspect baby may be allergic to fish, consult an allergist before introducing herring. As with all common allergens, introduce a small amount of herring at first and watch closely as baby eats. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the amount served over future meals.
How do you prepare herring 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: Offer whole herring fillets, cooked and with bones removed, or herring filets from a can. Canned or packaged herring should be rinsed under water to remove some of the sodium but can be offered with skin and bones still intact, as both are made soft and edible by the canning process. A fillet may be served on its own as finger food or mashed and mixed with soft foods like cooked vegetables, grains, or yogurt for baby to scoop with hands.
12 to 24 months old: At this age, homemade herring patties can be a great way to serve the fish, as the round shape can be easier for toddlers to pick up and munch independently. Alternatively, offer a herring fillet broken into flakes for the child to try to pick up. You can also mix the flakes into cooked grains, pastas, or vegetables. If you are a fan of savory flavors in the morning, use herring to boost the protein in cooked egg dishes or pile it on top of a bagel, bialy, or toast.
Is it snack time already? Browse our 100 Snacks for Babies and Toddlers.
Recipe: Forshmak (Herring and Apple Salad)
Yield: ½ cup (125 grams)
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Age: 6 months
- 1 pickled herring fillet (1/4 cup / 35 grams)
- 1 tablespoon (18 grams) unsweetened whole milk Greek-style yogurt
- 1 medium apple
- 1 sprig fresh dill
- 1 pinch white pepper (optional)
- 1 teething rusk, thin rice cake, or rye bread
This recipe contains common allergens: dairy (yogurt), finned fish (herring), and wheat (teething rusk, rye bread). Only serve to a child after these allergens have been safely introduced.
- Rinse the fillet under cold water to remove excess sodium. Pat dry.
- While the pin bones of pickled herring may be soft enough for babies and toddlers to eat, pull out any that you see if you prefer. Tweezers can help!
- Place the fillets in a small food processor along with the yogurt.
- Wash, dry, peel, and halve the apple. Use a box grater to shred one half into the food processor. Store the other half for a future meal – or snack on it as you cook!
- Wash and chop the dill, then add to the food processor. Stems are okay!
- Add the white pepper if you like, then blend until smooth.
- Scoop out a spoonful or two of forshmak for the child’s meal. Exact serving size is variable. Let a child’s appetite determine how much is eaten. Store the rest in an air-tight container in the fridge for a future meal.
- Spread the forshmak your vehicle of choice—thin rice cakes or toasted rye bread for older children.
- Offer the forshmak as finger food and let the child eat independently by trying to scoop up the food with hands. If help is needed, you can pass the teething rusk or thin rice cake in the air for the child to grab from you.
To Store: Forshmak (herring salad) keeps in an air-tight container in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for 2 months.
Herring is an oily fish that tastes delicious on its own or offset by acidic, creamy, or sweet flavors that are enhanced with herbs and spices. Lightly pickle fresh herring in apple cider vinegar or marinate in a creamy sauce, then try mixing the preserved fish with sweet fruits and vegetables like artichoke, beet, carrot, shallot, or sweet potato, or acidic ones like apple, lemon, and tomato. Season with your favorite herbs and spices to put your own spin on this beloved little fish!
E. Cerda, MS, CNS, LDN
A. Gilbaugh, RD, CNSD
J. Truppi, MSN, CNS
V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP
K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT
S. Bajowala, MD, FAAAAI. Board-Certified Allergist & Immunologist (allergy section)
R. Ruiz, MD, FAAP. Board-Certified General Pediatrician & Pediatric Gastroenterologist
- United States Food and Drug Administration. (2017, Oct. 25). Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish (1990-2012). Retrieved February 2, 2020.
- Rice, K., Walker, E., Wu, M., Gillette, C., Blough, E. (2014). Environmental mercury and its toxic effects. Journal of Preventative Medicine and Public Health, 47(2): 74-83. DOI:10.3961/jpmph.2014.47.2.74. Retrieved September 1, 2020.
- Sunderland, E.M. (2007). Mercury exposure from domestic and imported estuarine and marine fish in the U.S. seafood market. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(2),235-242. DOI:10.1289/ehp.9377. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
- European Food Safety Authority. (2005, July 4). EFSA Provides Advice on the Safety and Nutritional Contribution of Wild and Farmed Fish. Retrieved September 30, 2020.
- Opinion of the Scientific Panel on contaminants in the food chain [CONTAM] related to the safety assessment of wild and farmed fish. (n.d.). EFSA Journal, EFSA Journal. DOI:10.2903/j.efsa.2005.236. Retrieved September 30, 2020.
- Sher, E.S., Ming Xu, X., Adams, P.M., Craft, C.M., Stein, S.A. (1998). The Effects of Thyroid Hormone Level and Action in Developing Brain: Are These Targets for the Actions of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Dioxins? Toxicology and Industrial Health, 14(1-2), 121-158. DOI:10.1177/074823379801400110. Retrieved October 12, 2020.
- Vermeulen, R.T., Sedor, F.A., Kimm, S. Y. (1983). Effect of water rinsing on sodium content of selected foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 82(4), 394–396. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
- Okada, M., Moschino, T., Kato, T. (1988). Bone softening: a practical way to utilize small fish. Marine Fisheries Review, 50, 1-7. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
- Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish Allergy: Video. Retrieved September 1, 2020.
- Tong WS, Yuen AW, Wai CY, Leung NY, Chu KH, Leung PS. (2018). Diagnosis of fish and shellfish allergies. J Asthma Allergy, 11, 247-60. Retrieved October 8, 2021.
- Tsabouri, S., Triga, M., Makris, M., Kalogeromitros, D., Church, M. K., & Priftis, K. N. (2012). Fish and shellfish allergy in children: Review of a persistent food allergy. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, 23(7), 608–615. doi:10.1111/j.1399-3038.2012.01275.x. Retrieved October 8, 2021.
- Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish Allergy. Retrieved September 1, 2020.
- Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis – Fish. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
- Crespo J.F., Pascual C., Vallecillo A., Esteban M.M. (1995). Sensitization to inhalant allergens in children diagnosed with food hypersensitivity. Allergy Proc, 16:89–92. DOI: 10.2500/108854195778771381. Retrieved October 8, 2021.
- James J.M., Crespo J.F. (2007). Allergic reactions to foods by inhalation. Curr. Allergy Asthma Rep, 7:167–174. DOI: 10.1007/s11882-007-0017-z. Retrieved October 8, 2021.