Tilapia

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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a raw tilapia fillet on a table before being prepared for babies starting solids

When can babies eat tilapia?

Tilapia may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Tilapia receives a “satisfactory” rating in our guide, Best & Worst Fish for Babies. Like most fish, tilapia contains trace amounts of methylmercury due to air pollution that settles into the ocean and binds to the flesh of fish. Compared to other fish, tilapia is relatively low in mercury and considered safe for babies around 1-2 times per week.

What are tilapia and where do they live?

Tilapia is the common name for a sprawling group of white fish that live in freshwater lakes, lagoons, rivers, streams, and brackish coastal areas in warm regions of the world. Humans have been eating tilapia since ancient times in Southwest Asia and North Africa, where tilapia originated and held symbolic meaning for patriarchs, pharaohs, and philosophers alike. Also known as amnon, bolty, tlhapi, and trondro, tilapia is an excellent source of protein and nutrients, plus it’s highly adaptable—winning qualities in fish farming. In fact, tilapia is so easy to cultivate that it is now one of the world’s most farmed fishes, earning the nickname “aquatic chicken” because of its mild taste and ability to prosper on commercial plant feed in a variety of controlled conditions.

Caden, 8 months, tastes tilapia for the first time.
Mahalia, 14 months, eats tilapia.
Adie, 20 months, eats a tilapia fish cake.

Is tilapia healthy for babies?

Yes. The fish is low in mercury, high in protein, and packed with essential nutrients for growing babies. Of note, tilapia contains lots of vitamin B12, an important nutrient for brain development and healthy blood. It’s also high in selenium, which supports a healthy immune system, and can offer vitamin D, an important bone-building nutrient that can be hard to obtain from food sources.

While farmed tilapia lacks the omega-3 fatty acids that we like to see in fish for babies, it has a big advantage over many ocean fish: less mercury. Mercury is a persistent and progressive toxin to which babies are particularly susceptible.1 Thankfully there are lots of fish low in mercury, like tilapia, that babies can enjoy. Furthermore, fish offers nutrients that are particularly important for babies (such as vitamin D and selenium) that can be hard to find in other foods. To minimize exposure to mercury from fish, simply focus on those fish that are lowest in mercury and limit the amount and frequency of fish that have higher amounts of mercury. More on this topic in our guide, Best & Worst Fish for Babies.

★Tip: Try to avoid premade or processed fish cakes, patties, and sticks, as most are extremely high in sodium. To make your own at home, try our recipe for cod cakes and swap in a white fish of your choosing. For more on how much sodium babies can have, see our Sodium page.

Environmental Tip Icon As you would with all fish, consider where and how tilapia was caught or raised when purchasing it for your family. Farmed tilapia from raceways in Peru and ponds in Ecuador, as well as farmed tilapia raised in tanks that recirculate wastewater, are all sustainable choices. If possible, avoid farmed tilapia raised in China.

Is tilapia a common choking hazard for babies?

No. Tilapia is not a common choking hazard, though bones in fresh fish can present a risk if not removed. To minimize the risk, be sure to pick out any lingering bones before serving. As always, make sure you create a safe eating environment and stay within an arm’s reach of baby during meals. For more information on choking, visit our sections on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with the list of common choking hazards.

Is tilapia a common allergen?

Yes. Finned fish are a common food allergen.2 It’s estimated that only 0.2 percent of people are allergic to finned fish worldwide, and the prevalence of fish allergies in children, while variable, is even less than in adults.3 4 5 About 40 percent of people with finned fish allergies don’t experience their first allergic reaction until adulthood.6 Unfortunately, most individuals who are allergic to finned fish do not outgrow the allergy.7

Some individuals with finned fish allergy may react from inhaling airborne proteins that are aerosolized when cooking fish.8 9 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 tilapia.

If you suspect baby may be allergic to fish, make an appointment with an allergist before introducing tilapia. As with all common allergens, introduce tilapia in small amounts and watch closely as baby eats to see if any adverse reaction occurs. If all goes well, gradually increase the serving size over time.

How can tilapia affect baby's poop?

Tilapia isn’t generally thought of as a food that promotes pooping. That said, it can play an important role in healthy bowel movements as part of a balanced and varied diet. Diets featuring white meats like sole may promote the presence of beneficial bacteria, like Lactobacillus, which contributes to a healthy and diverse gut microbiome.10 11 Pooping patterns can vary significantly from child to child, so be sure to talk to your pediatric healthcare provider if you have concerns about baby’s pooping or digestive function.

How do you prepare tilapia for babies with baby-led weaning?

an infographic with the header "how to cut fish for babies": a thin deboned filet for babies 6 months+, bite-sized pieces for babies 9 months+, small flakes and pieces with a fork for toddlers 12 months+

6 to 12 months old: Introduce the fish by serving deboned, freshly cooked tilapia in sections about the size of two adult fingers together. Keep in mind that baby will likely smush the fish in their hand—this is okay. Alternatively, you can offer cooked, flaked tilapia mixed into soft, scoopable foods like Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, or hummus.

12 to 24 months old: If you have the time and inclination, try homemade fish cakes by adapting our cod cakes recipe—just use tilapia in place of cod. For more advanced eaters, break cooked tilapia into flakes and pile high on buttered toast, or serve plain on a plate with a dollop of mayonnaise or tahini as finger food or fork practice. You can also continue to serve whole pieces or mashed fish as described above.

For a quick, easy-to-reference guide on the foods that deliver the nutrients babies need the most, see our Nutrition Cheat Sheet.

What are recipe ideas for cooking with tilapia?

Like other white fish, tilapia can be prepared in any number of ways: baked, boiled, deep-fried, pan-fried, or preserved by drying, fermenting, or salting. When cooked, its flesh firms up while maintaining flakiness and a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Tilapia is eaten worldwide, from India, where the fish is often poached with vegetables and spices to make nadan meen curry, to Ghana, where the whole fish can be marinated, grilled, and served with a starch like banku (fermented dough), plantains, or rice.

Recipe: Coconut Milk-Poached Tilapia with Lime

Yield: ¼ cup (113 grams)
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Age: 6 months+

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces (113 grams) boneless skinless tilapia
  • 1 lime
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) unsweetened full-fat coconut milk (ideally from a BPA-free can)
  • 1 sprig fresh cilantro (optional)
  • 1 pinch ground turmeric (optional)
  • ½ cup (80 grams) cooked rice (optional)

This recipe contains common allergens: coconut (coconut milk) and finned fish (tilapia). Only serve to a child after these allergens have been safely introduced. While coconut allergy is rare, it’s classified as a tree nut by the United States Food and Drug Administration. 

Directions

  1. Defrost frozen tilapia in the fridge before you plan to cook.
  2. Wash, dry, and zest the lime, then halve and juice it. Set aside 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) of lime juice for this meal and reserve the rest for another use.
  3. Place the tilapia, lime zest, and coconut milk in the pot. The milk should almost cover the fish. If it does not, add water until there is enough liquid.
  4. If desired, add the cilantro sprig and turmeric to the pot.
  5. Cover and set the pot on medium-high heat. Once the mixture reaches a boil, lower the heat to create a steady simmer.
  6. Cook until the fish flakes easily, between 5 and 10 minutes depending on the thickness. The fish is done when a knife inserted into the thickest part reveals no translucent flesh. If you like, use a thermometer to check that the fish’s internal temperature has reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius).
  7. Use a spatula to transfer the tilapia to a cutting board. Drizzle the lime juice on the fish.
  8. Set aside 1 ounce of the tilapia (about the size of an adult thumb) for baby’s meal. Keep baby’s fish whole or break it into flakes depending on baby’s eating skills. Store the rest of the fish for future meals – or snack on it as baby eats!
  9. Scoop the fish onto the child’s plate. If you like, serve alongside cooked rice and stir in some of the coconut milk used to poach the fish.
  10. Serve the tilapia and let the child try to self-feed. If baby needs help picking up the fish, pass a piece in the air for them to grab.

To Store: Coconut Milk-Poached Tilapia keeps in an air-tight container in the fridge for 3 days.

Flavor Pairings

The mild taste of tilapia means the fish is versatile! It can add a healthy boost of protein to all sorts of dishes, from hearty legumes like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils; to flavor-forward fruits like avocados and mangoes; to starchy foods like potatoes and rice. The fish lends itself to endless flavor pairings: try acidic ingredients like lemon, lime, and tomatoes; herby flavors from basil, cilantro, or parsley; and spices like cumin and paprika.

Reviewed by

E. Cerda, MSN, CNS, LDN

A. Gilbaugh, RD, CNSC

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. 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
  2. Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish allergy. Retrieved January 27, 2020
  3. 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 January 17, 2021.
  4. 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 January 17, 2021.
  5. Moonesinghe H, Mackenzie H, Venter C, et al. (2016). Prevalence of fish and shellfish allergy: A systematic reviewAnn Allergy Asthma Immunol, 117(3):264-272.e4. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2016.07.015. Retrieved January 11, 2022
  6. Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish allergy. Retrieved January 27, 2020
  7. Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis – Fish. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
  8. 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 September 30, 2021
  9. 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 September 30, 2021
  10. Zhu, Y., Lin, X., Zhao, F. et al. Meat, dairy and plant proteins alter bacterial composition of rat gut bacteriaSci Rep 5, 15220 (2015). DOI: 10.1038/srep15220. Retrieved January 4, 2022
  11. Azad, M., Sarker, M., Li, T., & Yin, J. (2018). Probiotic Species in the Modulation of Gut Microbiota: An Overview. BioMed research international, 2018, 9478630. DOI: 10.1155/2018/9478630. Retrieved January 4, 2022