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My wife hated fish sticks as a kid. She doesn't know if it was the strong fishy flavor or the mushy texture, but she says that she could only manage to choke down each bite with a big dollop of her mother's tartar sauce to mask the taste. For years she wouldn't eat fish of any kind (fortunately that's not the case now).
Her story isn't unusual. Those fish sticks have a lot to answer for - from talking to patients it seems like those disgusting fish sticks have turned thousands of people off of eating fish. It's tough going, sometimes, to convince people that fish is delicious if you cook it right.
Still, with the popularity of chicken nuggets and the like among kids, it seems like if you could find a good fish stick it might be a good way to get your kids to eat fish. I've spent the last few months scouring my local supermarkets for good fish options, to no avail. It seems like almost every major brand of fish sticks - Gorton's most notably - includes monosodium glutamate (MSG) in their ingredients. Yuck! When they don't contain MSG, other brands are unacceptably high in sodium.
I'd given up on the idea of frozen fish sticks altogether until I spotted today's test items on the shelf at my local Whole Foods. They're made by Starfish, a company that specialized in frozen fish and shrimp. I picked up their Classic Battered Cod and Classic Battered Haddock, then spotted their gluten-free Crispy Battered Halibut and Crispy Battered Cod.
These products are about 180 calories per 3-ounce serving and the amounts of sodium range from 340 milligrams of sodium in the Classic Battered Haddock to 620 milligrams of sodium in the gluten-free Crispy Battered Halibut. (The other three varieties are under 450 milligrams of sodium - quite acceptable!)
The boxes for all four varieties include instructions for deep-frying, but the healthier (and less messy) option is, of course, oven baking at 450° for 14-15 minutes (a little longer for the gluten-free varieties). I expected that the gluten-free versions were battered with cornmeal, and I was almost right: they're battered with a combination of corn flour and rice flour, which explains the almost tempura-like crust these have once baked. It makes a thick, crispy outer shell that has a fairly bland flavor, but good crunch. The fish itself is definitely real, actual fish: the filets flake nicely and both varieties have good flavor. No mealy, mushy fish here!
The Classic Battered varieties have a lighter, crispier crust that has more flavor than the gluten-free versions. Similarly, the fish in both Classic Battered varieties we tried were well cooked, light and flavorful. Of both the gluten-free and Classic varieties, I would say that the Cod versions of both were marginally better than the Haddock or the Halibut - I think the cod retained its moisture better.
All in all, four varieties that all get two thumbs up. These are fish sticks that your kids will enjoy - and so will you!