As the son of an Italian mother, growing up in our household meant savoring every bite of chicken parmesan, sipping on perfectly aged wine, and, of course, partaking in the traditional spectacle of ‘La Vigilia’ – the feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve. Now, to the uninitiated, the idea of seven different types of fish adorning a single table might seem nothing short of miraculous. But, nestled within the folds of this family tradition lies a little secret, a key to unlocking the mystery of this grand feast.

Before we give away that secret, let’s set sail on the crucial voyage of selecting the perfect fish. Navigating fish markets and grocery aisles isn’t just about finding a healthy protein; it’s a quest for the freshest, most nutritious, and sustainably sourced treasures of the sea. And fear not, for I am here to share with you three simple, yet game-changing rules that will give you confidence to choose the finest catch for you and your family.

Rule 1: Look for Fish That are Low in Heavy Metals

First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand the risks associated with heavy metals like mercury and lead found in fish. These metals, which can cause central nervous system issues and take months or even years to leave the body, are prevalent in our oceans due to both natural processes and human activities like industrial pollution. Certain chemicals, such as DDT (an insecticide and possible human carcinogen) and PCBs (manmade chemicals that can weaken our immune system), also pose risks, particularly affecting bottom feeders like eels, sea trout, and sea bass.

Rule 2: Always Choose Wild Caught Over Farm Raised

The second key point is the issue with farm-raised fish. Often seen as a cheaper, more convenient option, farm-raised fish like catfish and tilapia can carry their own set of problems. They are prone to diseases, may contain higher levels of Omega 6 acids, and lack the natural diet and environment that give wild fish their nutritional value. An extreme example of this is farm-raised salmon. In captivity, salmon look an unappetizingly grey color. In order to combat this, companies feed farm-raised salmon red dye to appear more appetizing. What seems like a nutritious meal is in reality an artificially colored, weak fish.

Rule 3: Eat Fish High in Omega 3 Fats, Not Omega 6

Despite these concerns, there are compelling reasons to include fish in your diet. Fish are high in EPA (can prevent heart disease; natural anti-inflammatory) and DHA (primary building block of brain, nervous system and eyes), Omega-3 fatty acids essential for brain health, heart disease prevention, and anti-inflammatory properties. They’re also rich in high-quality protein and vital nutrients like Vitamin D, B12, iodine, and selenium.

Bad, Better, Best

With the wisdom of our three golden rules in hand, let’s apply our model to specific types of fish. We’ve categorized the most popular fish into “Bad, Better, Best” categories:

If you want to learn more about fish and all of the benefits and risks, we recorded an entire podcast. Check it out here!

The Little Secret

As promised, I’ll share with you a cherished family secret. By the time the 4th or 5th bottle of wine gracefully empties, amidst the clinking of glasses and the chorus of laughter, no one really keeps count anymore. No one meticulously notes who has savored which fish or how many. In these moments, the fish, though lovingly prepared, become mere backdrops to something far more enchanting.

It’s not just about the seven fish gracing our table; it’s about the indelible memories we create, the stories that weave through generations, laughter that resonates through the walls, and the warmth of togetherness. The true essence of our tradition lies in the company we cherish, the bonds we strengthen, and the joy of simply being together.