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Everyone recognizes the beloved culinary tradition characterized by battered or breaded fried fish, often accompanied by an array of classic side dishes such as French fries, coleslaw, macaroni salad and lemon slices: the fish fry.

This tradition is particularly prevalent on Friday nights during Lent, the Christian season of repentance, where it serves as a popular option for restaurants and church fundraisers alike. This year’s Lenten season is Feb. 14 through March 28. Additionally, in certain regions, such as the Midwestern and northeastern U.S., fish fries hold significant cultural importance, especially within Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist communities, where dietary regulations during Lent call for avoidance of meat on Fridays. 

Fish and chips is one of the best-selling meals at The Kerryman Irish Bar and Restaurant in Chicago. Owner Colm Kennedy said the dish is most popular on Fridays, partly because of the tradition of eating fish on Fridays and partly because of the restaurant’s fish and chips special for $14 from 4-7 p.m.

“Our sales on Fridays are always going to be strong,” Kennedy said.

Despite challenges such as some rising food prices, the popularity of fish fries continues. Through mindful consumption and alternative cooking methods, health and wellness professionals can help clients, consumers and patients not only preserve the tradition, but also promote heart health, harnessing the nutritional benefits of fish while embracing variety and accessibility.

Fish fry prices 

In 2023, food prices increased by 5.8%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. While prices increased in 2023 for all food categories tracked by the USDA ERS except for pork, prices grew more slowly in 2023 than in 2022 for all categories. Fats and oils had the largest average price increase (9.0%) between 2022 and 2023, followed by sugar and sweets (8.7%), cereals and bakery products (8.4%) and processed fruits and vegetables (8.0%). Pork prices declined 1.2% in 2023, and several categories grew more slowly than their historical average rate, including fish and seafood (increased by 0.3% in 2023), fresh fruits (0.7%), fresh vegetables (0.9%), eggs (1.4%) and beef and veal (3.6%).

However, things may be looking up. Food prices are expected to continue to decelerate this year. In 2024, all food prices are predicted to increase 1.3%, with a prediction interval of -1.4 to 4.2%. Food-at-home prices are predicted to decrease 0.4%, with a prediction interval of -4.5 to 4.0%, and food-away-from-home prices are predicted to increase 4.7%, with a prediction interval of 3.1 to 6.2%, according to the USDA ERS.

The Kerryman’s three biggest sale days for fish and chips happen on St. Patrick’s Day, the day of the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade and Ash Wednesday. The Irish restaurant has experienced price increases across all of its food segments; however, staffers have not passed on the increase to the customer because they want to offer their guests a great experience at a fair price, Kennedy said. Prices are reviewed weekly.

At Two Holy Martyrs Parish St. Symphorosa in Chicago, the team that organizes the church’s fish fry was putting together the menu for this year and found that prices for items stayed relatively the same across the board.

“For a raise in price on one item, they were able to get another menu item at an equal or lower cost from previous years,” a statement from the Two Holy Martyrs Transformation Committee said. “This is allowing our team to offer all menu items at the same prices as they have in the past few years.”

What to tell consumers 

Amidst the excitement, it’s crucial to remind clients, consumers and patients to approach this cherished tradition with mindfulness, according to information from Cleveland Clinic. Moderation is key when indulging in fried fish, as fish fries are high in saturated fat content. During frying, oils saturate the breading, resulting in a calorie-dense and unhealthy dish. To mitigate this, tell consumers to explore alternative cooking methods such as baking, broiling or grilling, which avoid excessive oil use while retaining flavor and texture. Air fryers can also deliver crispy results without the need for copious amounts of oil. Additionally, preparing low-fat sauces can complement the dish while maintaining its healthfulness.

Kimberly Snodgrass, RDN, LD, FAND, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and nutrition expert, said to let consumers know they can also pan fry their fish. Pan frying uses minimal oil which is better for consumers, but her preferred method of preparing a fish is grilling.

“It brings out the flavor, and it’s just so good,” she said.

For those seeking variety, consumers can consider other seafood options like shrimp or crab cakes, which offer a flavorful departure from traditional fried fish. Beyond the Lenten tradition, they can incorporate fish into their regular diets due to the nutritional benefits. Fish is rich in essential vitamins and nutrients, including Omega-3 fatty acids, which play a crucial role in heart health. These fatty acids aid in thinning the blood, reducing the risk of cardiovascular issues such as blood clots, strokes and heart attacks. Remind consumers that by integrating fish into their meals, they can bolster their overall cardiovascular health and promote well-being.

For those new to incorporating fish into their diets, they can start with mild varieties such as tilapia, cod or walleye and gradually introducing fish into one’s culinary repertoire. These options offer a subtle flavor profile that may be more palatable to consumers unaccustomed to the taste of fish.

Consumers shopping for fish on a budget can try purchasing frozen fish, canned fish or wait for their store to have a sale on fresh fish. Snodgrass recommends consumers make friends with store staff who can give a heads up when the fish will be on sale.

“Canned seafood is good on a budget,” Snodgrass said. “Frozen keeps longer. Fresh is best, but canned and frozen does have its place.”

Snodgrass said the No. 1 question coming from clients, consumers and patients is why are dietitians promoting fish so much; what about chicken? The answer is: all foods have a place in our diet, Snodgrass said. A colorful plate filled with different textures and tastes is key.

“Fish is so good for you,” she said. “It’s heart healthy. It helps control our cholesterol and triglyceride. You want that ticker to keep ticking.”

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