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Learn to Love Sardines

Canned tuna was a staple in my house when I was a kid. Back in the day, my elementary school didn’t have a cafeteria, so we actually went home for lunch every day. While I can’t even begin to count the number of tuna sandwiches my mom made for our one-hour school lunch, I don’t have a single memory of sardines. Canned sardines may have been stocked in our neighbor’s pantries, but we never ate them in my house. As a result, I rarely eat them today. I’m certainly not alone. US per capita consumption of canned sardines is just 0.2 lbs, while canned tuna weighs in at 2.2 lbs.

So why am I suddenly interested in sardines? Well, one could say that sardines are having a “moment.” They’re nutritious, affordable (canned seafood is generally less expensive than fresh), and versatile. But for me, my interest was sparked in January when I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, for a sponsored conference.

Portugal is known for its love of cod, sardines, and other fish dishes. In the summer, there are festivals devoted to fresh sardines, and tins of sardines, known as conservas, can be found in just about every tourist shop. Many of the tins are decorated with beautiful vintage designs, and I even brought a few home as souvenirs. And on one afternoon in Lisbon when I stopped by the popular Time Out Market for lunch, I noticed that the wallpaper in the ladies room featured a sardine design. Yes, the Portuguese love their sardines, so I’m learning to love them too.

A 3.75-oz can of sardines with the bones has more than 22 g protein, 350 mg calcium, about 200 kcal, and a boatload of other nutrients including selenium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. And like salmon, trout, and other fatty fish, sardines are an excellent source of omega-3s, with more than 1,000 mg per serving. Omega-3 fats are important for heart, eye, and brain health. In fact, research shows that people who regularly consume seafood are less likely to have depression compared with those who eat little to no fish. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend an intake of 250 to 500 mg omega-3s (both EPA and DHA) each day, and consuming a variety of seafood at least twice per week can help consumers reach that goal.

One popular canned seafood brand here in the United States sells sardines seven different ways, including in extra virgin olive oil, in water, no salt added, with olive oil and lemon (my favorite), in marinara sauce, and skinless and boneless. There are plenty of people who eat sardines right out of the tin including my son who packs them when he’s camping, but there are plenty of other ways to incorporate these tiny fish into creative recipes as well. As a sardine newbie, so far my eating adventures have included sardines as an ingredient in crisp, green salads, a flavorful topping on lentil soup, and mashed and mixed into deviled eggs. I recently asked some fellow RD food bloggers to share their favorite sardine recipes, and here’s what they served up:

Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, a dietitian in Seattle, says she likes to drain a can of water-packed sardines, mash with half an avocado and a touch of salt and pepper, and spread on whole grain crackers or a slice of bread. And Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, of Jessica Cording Nutrition buys the boneless, skinless variety that’s packed in olive oil. She tosses the sardines into an arugula salad with zucchini noodles and adds avocado if she has some on hand.

I’ve tried sardines with and without the bones, and though I thought I’d be squeamish about the bones, they’re so tiny I barely noticed them. While I still tend to gravitate to canned tuna, I love the omega-3 boost I get with sardines, so I’ll continue to experiment with new recipes and applications. And if you’re wondering what I plan to make for dinner this week, a homemade pizza topped with roasted veggies, fresh basil, mozzarella cheese, and oil-packed sardines sounds just about right!

For more information about the health benefits of seafood, view the RDN toolkit “Seafood Nutrition: Understanding the Science, Communicating to Clients, Resources and Recipes to Share” from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.

— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast Liz’s Healthy Table, and the blog and website by the same name. Liz has written several cookbooks including No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy Kid-Tested Recipes From the Meal Makeover MomsThe Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers: Improving the Way Your Family Eats, One Meal at a Time!, and the playful new coloring book series Color, Cook, Eat!. Liz hosts the Meal Makeovers video series for CNN Accent Health, which runs in doctor’s offices nationwide.

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