Sardines

Age Suggestion: 6 months +
Nutrition Rating:How nutritious a food is with a focus on the specific nutrients babies need for optimal growth. The more nutritious a food, the more stars it will have.
Prep Time:How much time a food takes to prepare safely for a baby. The more time-consuming a food is to prepare safely, the more clocks it will have.
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Common Allergen: Yes (
  • Fish
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May cause allergic reactions.

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an open tin of sardines before being prepared for babies starting solids

When can babies eat sardines?

Sardines may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. One of our favorite foods for babies, sardines are low in mercury, high in omega fatty acids, and fantastic alternative to canned tuna.

What are sardines and where do they live?

Sardines are small forage fish that are a vital food source for humans and oceanic creatures alike. They’re named after the Italian island of Sardinia, where the little silver fish were once abundant, but they’re not native to Italy. The name “sardine” collectively describes multiple species of small forage fish that live in schools in both coastal and deep waters in the world’s oceans. Ever heard of brisling, herring, iwashi, kipper, pilchard, shad, or sprat? Each has unique attributes, but they are all marketed as “sardines” around the world.

Amelia, 9 months, eats deboned sardines.
How to remove the backbone of sardines
Max, 11 months, eats canned sardines with mayo.

Are sardines healthy for babies?

Yes. Sardines are an excellent food for babies. The tiny oily fishes are one of the top seafood sources of omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA to fuel cardiovascular health, central nervous system development, cell growth, and healthy eyesight. They also are packed with protein, all essential amino acids, and vitamin B12 for healthy blood and neurodevelopment, as well as other B vitamins for energy production. Sardines are 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 to protect cells, selenium for immune function, iron for healthy blood, and calcium for strong bones.

Sardines get a “best choice” rating in our guide to the Best & Worst Fish for Babies, in part because they are lower in mercury than many other fish species.1 A general rule of thumb is that the larger the sea animal, the higher the mercury concentration in its body. For example, tuna are large fish and typically high in mercury.2 Preserved sardines are a fantastic alternative to tuna from pouches or cans.

Sardines are sometimes sold fresh at fish counters, but more commonly are found canned. Some cans might be labeled as “boneless sardines,” which means that the fish’s primary bones have been removed and any remaining bones are tiny and softened by the canning process, making them edible for babies. Some sardines are packaged in brine or marinade containing lots of sodium or sugar, so be sure to read the fine print on the label before purchasing canned sardines, and wait on regularly serving smoked sardines until a child is older.3

★Tip: When shopping for canned sardines, look for “low-sodium” or “no salt added” options in BPA-free containers. Brands that fit the bill include Connétable, Crown Prince, King Oscar, Reese, Season Brand, and Wild Planet. Note that Wild Planet sardines still have the backbone (which can be easily removed; see our video on this page for how to prepare).

Are sardines a common choking hazard?

No. Sardines are not a common choking hazard, but fish bones are. 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.4 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.

Are sardines a common allergen?

Yes. Finned fish like sardines are a common food allergen.5 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.6 7 Unfortunately, most individuals who are allergic to finned fish do not outgrow the allergy.8 About 40 percent of people with finned fish allergies don’t experience their first allergic reaction until adulthood.9

Some individuals with finned fish allergy may react from inhaling airborne proteins that are aerosolized when cooking fish.10 11 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 sardines.

If there is a family history of seafood allergies or you suspect baby may be allergic to fish, consult an allergist before introducing sardines. As with all common allergens, introduce a small amount of sardines 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 sardines for babies with baby-led weaning?

6 to 12 months old: Offer whole sardine fillets, cooked and with bones removed, or whole sardines from a can. Canned or packaged sardines can be rinsed under water to remove excess 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.

12 to 24 months old: As baby develops the pincer grasp (where the thumb and forefinger meet), try offering a sardine fillet broken into flakes for the child to try to pick up. You can also mix the flakes into cooked grains, pastas, or vegetables; pile the flakes on buttered toast, or mix with a dollop of mayonnaise, tahini, or yogurt to encourage hand-scooping or utensil practice. If you are a fan of savory flavors when you wake up, small oily fish like sardines and herring are great additions to the morning routine. Mix flaked sardine into egg dishes, porridge, rice, or mashed avocado on toast.

Get a list of foods high in nutrients baby needs with our Nutrient Cheat Sheet.

Recipe: Sardine Two Ways

sardine paste spread on thin crackers on a countertop

Yield: ½ cup (100 grams)
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Age: 6 months+

Ingredients

  • 3 ounces (85 grams) boneless sardines (ideally from a tin marked “no salt added” and “BPA-free”)
  • 1 tablespoon (18 grams) unsweetened whole milk Greek-style yogurt or vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 pinch paprika (optional)
  • 1 sprig fresh parsley (optional)
  • 1 teething rusk, thin rice cake, or slice of bread

This recipe contains common allergens: dairy (yogurt), finned fish (sardine), and wheat (bread). Only serve to a child after these allergens have been safely introduced.

Directions

  1. Rinse the fillets under cold water to remove excess sodium. Pat dry.
  2. While the pin bones of preserved sardine are soft enough for babies and toddlers to eat, pull out any lingering bones if you like. Tweezers can help!
  3. Set aside 1 fillet to serve as a finger food. Place the remaining fillets in a small food processor along with the yogurt and paprika if you are using it.
  4. Wash and chop the parsley, then add to the food processor. Parsley stems are okay!
  5. Blend until smooth. Scoop out a spoonful or two of the mixture 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.
  6. Spread the blended sardine on your vehicle of choice—teething rusks for beginners, thin rice cakes for toddlers, or toasted bread for older children.
  7. Serve the sardine fillet and the blended sardine on the teething rusk, thin rice cake, or bread as finger food. 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: Canned sardines, once opened, don’t last long in the fridge—maybe a day. And alas, the freezer doesn’t work either. Store any leftover sardine in an air-tight container in the fridge and pull it out to eat as a snack after baby goes to bed.

Flavor Pairings

Sardine 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. Try serving the preserved fish with fruits and vegetables like apple, artichoke, beet, carrot, celery, lemon, onion, or sweet potato. You can also mix sardine with mashed tomato to make a pasta sauce, sesame tahini to serve alongside cucumber, or goat cheese to spread on bread. Season with your favorite herbs and spices to put your own spin on this beloved little fish!

Reviewed by

J. Truppi, MSN, CNS

V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP

K. Rappaport, OTR/L, MS, SCFES, IBCLC

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

  1. United States Food and Drug Administration. (2017, Oct. 25). Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish (1990-2012). Retrieved February 2, 2020.
  2. United States Food and Drug Administration. (2017, Oct. 25). Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish (1990-2012). Retrieved February 2, 2020.
  3. Sampaio, G.R., Guizellini, G.M., da Silva, S.A., de Almeida, A.P., Pinaffi-Langley, A., et al. (2021). Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Foods: Biological Effects, Legislation, Occurrence, Analytical Methods, and Strategies to Reduce Their Formation. International journal of molecular sciences, 22(11), 6010. DOI:10.3390/ijms22116010. Retrieved July 22, 2021.
  4. 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.
  5. Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish allergy. Retrieved January 27, 2020.
  6. Tong WS, Yuen AW, Wai CY, Leung NY, Chu KH, Leung PS. Diagnosis of fish and shellfish allergies. J Asthma Allergy. 2018;11:247-60.
  7. 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.
  8. Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis – Fish. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
  9. Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish Allergy. Retrieved September 1, 2020.
  10. Crespo J.F., Pascual C., Vallecillo A., Esteban M.M. (1995). Sensitization to inhalant allergens in children diagnosed with food hypersensitivityAllergy Proc, 16:89–92. DOI: 10.2500/108854195778771381. Retrieved October 8, 2021.
  11. James J.M., Crespo J.F. (2007). Allergic reactions to foods by inhalationCurr. Allergy Asthma Rep, 7:167–174. DOI: 10.1007/s11882-007-0017-z. Retrieved October 8, 2021.