Food & fluids

Don’t like fish?

Fish may be highly nutritious, a good source of protein for growth and good Omega 3 fatty acids for our brain and nerves. But not everyone likes it.

Just the smell, taste and texture, even the thought of eating it is enough to make some people want to vomit. This type of reaction is a food aversion but there can also be other reasons why fish is avoided. 1

Reasons for fish avoidance


We all have foods that we like less than others. This is not such an extreme food aversion that makes us want to be sick. It’s just that we prefer other foods more than the fish being offered to us.

Understanding why people don’t like a food can be useful in helping them to maybe try it again, served in a different way. Try to determine which sense is the most offended. Is it the smell, taste or texture that is causing the problem? See ideas for your next move below.

Food neophobia

This is the fear of, or reluctance to try, new foods and is particularly common in toddlers and young children.
Research around the introduction of solids to children have found that as children grow their palates and taste buds also change, along with their willingness to accept changes in flavour, texture and the smell of foods.
It is recommended that a parent should offer a new food at least 10-15 times before it can be deemed “disliked” and then avoided. 2
As the child grows up and learns more, about the goodness of a certain food and becomes more adventurous and accepting of change in general, they may be more willing to set aside earlier opinions about a food and be willing to try it again.


Fear can be a powerful contributor to food aversions. E.g The experience of choking on a fish bone stuck in the throat would put most people off eating fish, at least for a while. Once again trying to pin point where the anxiety is actually coming from is important.
Often fear around foods has nothing to do with the food its self but rather is associated with the an awful experience or memory of something else happening at the same time. E.g. a family breakup or angry moment when eating a fish meal could lead to anxiety around eating fish again in the future.
Professional help may be needed to unravel some of these fears and anxieties.

Fish or shellfish allergy

This is an immune response which for fish is less common in young children, usually developing later during adolescence or adulthood. Symptoms of a fish and shellfish allergy may include, hives and itchy rashes; vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea. 3 It rarely causes anaphylaxis, a response leading to breathing difficulties and /or a sudden drop in blood pressure, but it is important to avoid self diagnosis. As symptoms can develop rapidly consultant your GP for advice regarding treatment.

An allergy is not something that can be changed or challenged and does need to be respected, particularly if you are minding someone else’s child. If you have been told the child has an allergy be sure to also ask about what you should do in the event of them having an allergic reaction while they are in your care.

Lack of familiarity

A lack of familiarity with the food is also quite common. Children often model the behaviour of their parents. If they haven’t grown up fishing or eating fish, or have fish avert parents then eating fish is not something they are accustomed to and they may lack the knowledge about how to prepare and cook different fish varieties. 4, 5
Fish can also be seen as expensive, boring and bland. So learning how to accentuate the best flavours of fish with herbs and spices, trying different cooking methods and keeping portion sizes small can really make a difference to the acceptability of this food.

Accessibility issues

For people living in inland and rural places access to fresh fish may have to be in the frozen form. However as markets grow this is becoming more cost-effective with a widening array of frozen fish types, preprepared dishes and crumbed fillets becoming available.

Social factors

Embarrassment about its smell and the negative comments made by friends and other mates is the most common reason given by people for not taking fish to school and work for lunch. Some fish (eg sardines and anchovies) have a much stronger odour than others ( e.g. salmon and tuna).
One factor contributing to the strong odour of fish, which you can regulate, is the temperature under which it is stored. Always keep fish chilled until needed. If taking fish to a picnic or lunch then pack it alongside chiller packs or small drink bottles that have been frozen.

How to raise the profile of fish in your family meals

  • Make your own fish tradition. E.g take children fishing when they are very young and eat it regularly. Learning about different fish varieties and trying different ways of preparing it is a good place to start.
    For many families their annual holidays wouldn’t be complete without one treat of fish and chips and for families wanting a healthier takeaway there are always fish burgers, subway® or sushi.
  • Keep fish fresh. If you plan a fresh fish meal then try to buy and use it on the same day. Also ensure that your kitchen is well ventilated so that the smell of fish cooking doesn’t permiate through your whole house.
  • Dream up fish combinations. Fish can be very bland in flavour which makes it easy to combine with other foods. If trying to improve somebody’s acceptance of fish then mixing it with foods that are already familiar to the person can really help. Such as adding fish to mashed potato or carrying on to make this into fish cakes; or adding tuna to corn fritters; mixing salmon with cottage cheese and chives to make into mini bread roll ups.
  • Offer a Sushi snack or meal as this can be an easy way to encourage children to try eating fish.
  • Become a pescetarian. Many vegetarians are now extending their protein base by becoming pescetarians and including fish into their diets. This can be a very good way for vegetarians to boost their protein and B group vitamins important to cellular growth; DNA and red blood cell formation etc.
  • Avoid smelly, soggy, fish sandwiches. Try taking cans of tuna or salmon, or fish in foil pouches instead. These can then be opened when needed and added to a rice or pasta salad or to fill a wrap or roll at school or work .
  • Avoid trying to force or shame people into eating foods they dislike. Getting angry or trying to coax them into it by offering sweet treats in return can often strengthen their fears and adversely affect their health.
    Studies of children with neophobia in Australia recently found that their intake of fruit and vegetables were lower and their intake of discretionary foods (sweet/fatty snacks) were higher than in the non-neophobic groups of children who ate from a wider group of foods.6
    Try using non-nutritive rewards with children such as a sticker or offer special privileges to children who step outside their comfort zone and  are brave enough to try new things.

Fish for good health 

From a nutritional perspective fish can assist brain function, strategic planning, timing, eye sight, nerve and muscle health, making it the perfect food for all of us throughout life, particularly for developing athletes.

If you or a family member are not able to eat fish and you are concerned about some of the nutrients such as protein, polyunsaturated fat intake and vitamin D that you may be missing out on, then contact us today.

Important note:
In severe cases of food aversion if as a parent you notice that your child ‘s exclusion of food like fish is extending to the point where whole food groups are being excluded over weeks and months, and you are concerned that this is also affecting their health and growth, then don’t delay. Consult your GP and talk to a Dietitian asap.


Other articles written by Lea on this topic:

Fish for good health

Fish and mercury contamination

“Picky eating” affects all age groups

Vegetarians face extra hurdles

Do you know someone struggling to eat?

1. Logue, A.W. (2004). The Psychology of Eating and Drinking. New York: Brunner-Routledge. p. 90.

2  Birch L.L., McPhee L., Shoba B.C., Pirok E., Steinberg L. What kind of exposure reduces children’s food neophobia? Looking vs. tasting. Appetite. 1987;9:171–178. doi: 10.1016/S0195-6663(87)80011-9.  [PubMed] [Cross Ref]

3 Allergy NZ

4. Bogl.LH. Silverntoinen, K. Hebestreit,A. Intemann, T. Williams, G. Michels, N. Molnar, D. Page,A. Pala, V.Papoutsou,S. Pigeot,I. Reisch,L. Russo, P. Veidebaum, T. Moreno,L. Lissner, L. Kaprio, J. Familial Resemblance in Dietary Intakes of Children, Adolescents, and Parents: Does Dietary Quality Play a Role? Nutrients. 2017 Aug; 9(8): 892.

5 . Birch LL. Development of food preferences. Annu Rev Nutr. 1999;19:41–62. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.19.1.41.  [PubMed] [Cross Ref]

6. Perry,R A. Mallan, KM. Koo,J. Mauch,CE. Daniels, LA. Magarey,AM. Food neophobia and its association with diet quality and weight in children aged 24 months: a cross sectional study Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2015; 12: 13.Published online 2015 Feb 13. doi:  10.1186/s12966-015-0184

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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