To say that just like any other living thing fish need food to survive, would be kind of obvious, right? I thought so! However, what might not be quite so obvious is that not every fish species requires the same diet. Just like there are carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores amongst land-dwelling animals, so there are in water-dwelling ones. This is not to mention where the fish species choose to feed from, or what size pieces of food they can manage!
All the above mentioned leads to a myriad of fish foods being available, and you only have to wander down your local fish stores food aisle to see that’s true. There are hundreds of products available, each claiming to be the feed that you need, and more importantly to be the best food for your fish. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees in this environment, to know which is the fish food you need.
For this very reason, knowing what to feed your particular fish, we have created this beginners guide to all the types of food available. In it, we will cover information about all the different types of food, pros, and cons of each, which fish they are suitable for and much more. So without further ado, let’s get started………
Table of Contents
- Who eats what and where?
- Different foods available
- Flake foods
- Live foods
- Spirulina And Seaweed
- Algae Wafers
- Vacation Foods
- Fresh food
- Homemade foods
Like all living creatures, fish are designed with mouths, teeth, and a digestive tract that is suited to certain types of food. Without going into too much detail this is basically done by mother nature who moulds them to be able to eat what is abundantly available in their environment. If it is meat and fish, they are generally carnivores, plant matter makes herbivores and a mix of both means omnivore.
Carnivorous fish generally hunt, kill and feed upon other animals such as fish and invertebrates. This does not mean that they will not eat herbivorous matter if it is offered to them, but rather that they need meat as the staple ingredient in their diets.
Herbivorous fish require plants, plant matter, algae, vegetables, and fruit in their diet. Again, like carnivores, this does not mean that they will not eat meat/fish/invertebrates, but rather that the majority of their diet should be made up of plant and plant matter.
Examples include – Surgeonfish, Parrotfish, Plecostomus, and Silver Dollar.
Omnivorous fish eat a mixture of both the carnivore and herbivore diet. They do not, however, tend to hunt and kill like carnivores, rather they will scavenge.
As well as requiring different diets fish also need food that they can eat at various levels of the aquarium. In general, fish will feed at the level where they spend most of their time living.
Top dwelling fish will eat the majority of their food at the surface of the aquarium.
Examples include – Bettas, Hatchetfish, Rainbow Fish, and some Gourami.
Mid dwelling fish will eat food as it floats towards the bottom of the aquarium or sometimes at the surface.
Examples include – Tetras, Goldfish, Silver Dollar, and Barbs.
Bottom-dwelling fish will eat food that has sunk to the bottom of the aquarium or grows on the bottom such as algae.
In their natural environments fish will find their own food and eat the correct diet to keep them healthy. In the home aquarium, however, they cannot do this and need us to provide for them. In order to do this, we need to buy the right foods which means understanding them. The following is a comprehensive tour through the various foods and some examples of fish they are suitable for.
Of all the fish foods available flaked has to be the most commonly found, the most commonly used, and the easiest to feed to your fish. You simply open the container, sprinkle some on the water, and watch as your fish feast upon it. However, not all flaked food is created equal, and not all flaked food can be given to every fish.
The main two categories of flaked fish food are cold water flakes and tropical flakes. The difference between the two being that tropical fish flakes should contain more protein and less carbohydrates than the cold water variety. Both, however, have the same ingredients, in varying quantities, and should be as follows:
- Fish and squid meal
- Brewer’s yeast
- Soybean meal
- Vitamins and minerals
You should avoid flaked foods that are packed with fillers and carbohydrates as they are not beneficial to your fish. They are simply there as a method of making your fish feel full but offer no nutritional value. These foods are often cheaper than higher nutritionally packed foods, however, this is a false economy as it could be detrimental to your fishes health.
Other varieties of flaked food available include marine and cichlid and overall this type of feed is a great basic staple. It is best, however, when mixed with other types of food such as bloodworm, mysis shrimp, and cyclops as part of a varied and healthy diet.
Flaked food stores incredibly well and has a shelf life once open of around a month. It will, however, spoil quickly should it be exposed to moisture so is best kept in a completely dry place.
For smaller fish, flakes can be crushed so that they are easily edible. Bare in mind though that flake quickly falls to the bottom and becomes waste so don’t overfeed. Flake also loses nutrients very quickly once it is in the water so is not suitable for bottom feeders such as Plecostomus.
A good alternative that could also feed bottom-dwelling fish are crisps. These are a denser version of the flake that floats longer, dissolve slower, and retain their nutrients for longer. They are also a ‘cleaner’ version of the flake that leaves less waste. On the downside, they are a little more expensive.
Species of fish that flake are a suitable food source for include the majority of tropical fish, cold-water fish, and marine fish that are happy to feed from the surface of the aquarium.
Freeze-dried foods are a great supplementary addition to almost any fishes diet. They have a great nutritional value, come in a wide variety of options, and taste great to your fish. They are not, however, to be used as a fish staple diet and should be fed sparingly, you might say like a treat!
With freeze-dried foods the ingredient, for example, bloodworm appears all shriveled up thanks to a process call freeze-drying. This is where the bloodworm is rapidly frozen and the surrounding pressure reduced to remove the frozen water.
It needs to be said that freeze-dried foods have their pros and their cons. They are an excellent alternative to live food, for example, which may carry diseases, but also inferior to live food in that the freeze-drying does cause some loss of vitamins. They also need to be soaked in water before feeding them to your fish to aid digestion and avoid issues with the swim bladder.
Freeze-dried foods have a long shelf life and can be crumbled up to feed smaller fish. Unlike dried food which generally have a mix of ingredients, freeze-dried are just one ingredient whole. Varieties available include plankton, krill, bloodworm, daphnia, brine shrimp, and glass shrimp. Fish that will enjoy and benefit from freeze-dried food are carnivores and omnivores although some herbivores may also have a nibble if it is available.
The general rule of thumb for frozen food would be that if you can find it live, you can probably find it frozen plus more. Brine shrimp, krill, mysis, cyclops, glassworm, bloodworm, you name it, it’s all available. This is alongside specialty foods such as Discus formulas, shark formulas, cichlid mixes, Malawi mixes, and various whole fishes, mussels, squid, spinach, and cockles.
Unlike flake and freeze-dried foods, some varieties such as whole fish, squid, Malawi and cichlid mixes may make up the bulk of a fishes diet. This will depend, however, on the species of fish and you should do your research as to additional foods. However, every fish is different with some being pickier than others. I, for example, have a Frontosa Cichlid who will eat nothing but whole fish and seaweed so that is what he gets.
Frozen foods are simple to feed to your fish and have a really great shelf life. You simply defrost the amount of food that you require and place it in the aquarium. On the downside, if you’re me especially, remembering to defrost the food can be a bit of an issue. You should never refreeze excess food that you have thawed out for your fish and I wouldn’t recommend serving it after being in the fridge overnight either.
Frozen foods are suitable for a whole variety of fish that are carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores as long as you are feeding the right variety. Bettas, for example, love the bloodworm, daphnia, and brine shrimp whilst Plecostomus love the spinach and algae. Oscars, on the other hand, are the fish worlds garbage cans and will probably eat any!
Pellet foods contain the same basic ingredients as flaked food and should be checked to ensure that they do not have too much filler and carbohydrate in them. As mentioned before these ingredients are not beneficial to your fishes health and wellbeing, other than to make them feel full. Pellets are a good staple food for most fishes diet but will, like flakes, need additional nutrition from sources such as bloodworm and mysis shrimp.
The majority of fish keepers who feed pellet do so because they have predatory fish such as catfish and sharks. Pellets, in the main, are rather large chunks of food that smaller fish would have trouble eating. However, there is a range of other sizes also available with some being so small it almost looks like powder. The largest size resembles a good sized chunky gravel.
Pellet, unlike flake, is suitable for fish that dwell and eat on all levels of their aquarium. This is because it comes in three varieties; floating, slow sinking, and sinking. Buoyancy is achieved for the floating and slow sinking by filling them with lots of air. Whilst this makes them great for top feeders such as Betta, care should be taken with mid-level and bottom feeders as they can cause buoyancy issues.
Another option when it comes to pellet is to use the stick on tablets. These, not only can be placed at any level of your aquarium simply by holding them on the glass for a few seconds but also give you a great view of your fish feeding. However, care needs to be taken when feeding these as most of the ones available are meant as more of a treat than a nutritional food.
Pellets are most suitable for and most commonly fed to bottom dwellers such as Plecostomus, Loaches, Corydoras, and Bichirs. Bettas, who are top feeders also love them as long as they are of the micro kind. Cichlids, who have their very own variety of pellet can be hit and miss. The floating is not suitable as few species like to feed at the surface, whilst the slow sinking doesn’t sink slow enough for them to predate upon.
There are two main types of live food available for your fish, one of which is judged as ethically wrong by some in the fish keeping industry, and one of which is judged perfectly acceptable. We will look at both of these options separately.
Live Food is available in a large range of choices including bloodworm, daphnia (water flea), tubifex, artemis (brine shrimp), ghost shrimp, copepods, and Cyclops. It isn’t, however, the easiest food to source or to keep. Having a shelf life of only around seven days in a fridge many shops choose not to keep it and be left with dying or dead stock, and fish keepers can’t always use the amounts they buy within that time.
There are, however, some great reasons to feed your fish live foods, such as the fact that no nutrition is lost from the food at all. Every little bit of goodness makes it to your fish. It also allows your predatory fish to hunt and have their appetite stimulated naturally. Something which is extremely helpful, especially in wild-caught fish, who may not recognize things that don’t move such as flaked food or freeze-dried as food. Watching your fish hunt can also be very interesting and entertaining though of course, that provides your fish with no nutritional benefit.
Please note some live foods can be grown easily at home. There is a guide on how to do this with mosquito larvae in the recipe section of homemade foods later.
Live feeders, by comparison, are probably more widely available but certainly not an accepted by everyone feeding choice. This is due to the ethics involved with feeding your fish other live fish or even in the case of some Oscar and Arowana keepers live mice. We, however, will leave the ethics up to you and just discuss the pros and cons of feeding them.
Feeder fish are bred with the sole purpose of becoming food and are often not kept in the best of conditions. This can lead to them becoming stressed and developing diseases, and as you can imagine feeding diseased fish to your fish is really not a good idea. However, if you obtain them from a reputable source, you should find this issue.
Nutritionally, feeder fish really have no value to your fishes diet. They do, however, as with live food in general, allow your fish to stimulate its appetite naturally and hunt. For this reason, it is recommended that you only give feeder fish on an occasional basis and alongside a varied and nutritional diet.
Read our complete guide to BLOODWORMS all you need to know about this popular live fish food.
Please note that some fish are classified as piscivores meaning that the majority of their diet in their natural habitat is made up of fish. They, however, would not be eating feeder fish which are commonly Goldfish and Guppies. Rather, they would be eating fish from their natural habitat with some nutritional value.
It contains lots of protein, can boost your fish’s immune system, aid digestion, and keep their colors bright. Due to these benefits many flakes, pellet, and wafer products have spirulina in them.
Spirulina is a highly nutritious planktonic algae that is found naturally in volcanic lakes in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It gets its name from the spiral structure it is made up of and should be a part of every fishes diet.
Seaweed is another nutritious algae that fish, especially herbivorous cichlids and saltwater fish like Clowns and Tangs love. It contains carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals and is available in sheets that you can clip to the side of your aquarium as well as being in many varieties of food. Again, like spirulina, it should be a part of every fishes diet.
Packs of seaweed like the one we use above are packed with all the nutrients your fish need to help them thrive in a home aquarium. They are the nearest food that you can give them to replicate what they would eat naturally in the ocean and some riverbeds.
Algae wafers are a bit of an anomaly in the fish food world as they are made to dissolve far quicker than say flake or pellet. They sink quickly, soften slowly, releasing particles of food, and are not designed to be eaten all at once.
Anyone who uses algae wafer for their bottom-dwelling and feeding fish will have noticed that the fish eating it spends time mouthing at the wafer. For species such as Plecostomus, they are rasping on the wafer, releasing pieces of food, whilst shrimp, for example, are tearing it apart.
Algae wafers come in a variety of sizes and are packed full of plants, vegetable, and algae that any herbivore will not be able to resist.
Designed to slowly release food to your fish over a period of approximately fourteen days, vacation blocks can seem a heaven sent way of feeding your beloved fish whilst you are on holiday. However, they are not the fabulous invention that they claim to be. Most vacation blocks are made of ingredients such as calcium sulfate or agar agar and hold very little food. Hence they are very low in nutrition and not of real benefit to your fish.
Rather than using vacation blocks, our advice would be, that you invest in an automatic feeder. These release a programmed amount of food at preset intervals and mean that your fish can enjoy the foods that they are used to.
It is also worth remembering that most fish can go for a fairly long period of time without being fed at all. Do your research on the particular species you have, however, before leaving them unfed.
Many fish species love a little fresh food every now and again. Pacus, for example, like peas and lima beans, goldfish, and Plecostomus a little cucumber. Predators, by comparison, enjoy Beefheart, squid, and silversides. Whilst Pufferfish and Loaches enjoy a good crunchy snail!
The list is endless when it comes to fresh foods that can be served to your fish, but you should do some research as to which ones suit or are enjoyed by which species of fish. Herbivores and omnivores are the most likely to eat fresh foods such as vegetables and fruit, whilst predators and omnivores will eat meatier items such as mussels and prawns.
Popular vegetable choices include peas, romaine lettuce, squash, and cucumber. Peas should be removed from the pod and squashed between the fingers before placing them in the aquarium. Items like squash and cucumber will need to be cut into slices and skewered with a fork. This will keep the food anchored to the bottom and stop it from floating around.
Good fruit choices include melon, apple, banana, grapes, mango, papaya, plantain, and pears. You need to be aware, however, that adding fruit to saltwater aquariums will increase the amount and growth of algae. This is due to the natural sugars found in fruit.
For predatory fish, mussels, shrimps, prawns, white fish, Beefheart, silversides, cockles, earthworms, mealworms, and crickets are all popular choices. Uneaten ‘treats’ should be removed from the aquarium within four hours as they will foul up your water. This also applies to fruit and vegetables.
In recent times there has been a definite growth in the number of fish keepers choosing to make their own foods to feed to their fish. This is a fantastic option and in many cases the best, providing you have some knowledge of fish nutrition.
The majority of homemade foods consist of mix of fresh and frozen ingredients that are held together with a binder such as gelatin or agar. What the recipes consist of varies depending on the species of fish you are feeding but common factors are usually vitamin supplements and garlic powder.
Vitamin supplements for fish are used for the same reasons we as humans use them. They boost the beneficial levels of various vitamins in their system and ensure they are receiving enough. Common vitamins found in a fish supplement are Vitamins K, B-complex, C, D, and A.
Garlic, on the other hand, benefits for fish are up for debate. There are no actual scientifically proven benefits. However, a lot of fish keepers swear by it claiming that it can:
- Enhance appetite
- Boost the immune system
- Kill parasites such as freshwater ich and marine white spot
As previously mentioned the recipe for homemade fish food will vary dependent on the species of fish and type of diet they require. The following are recipes for you to try that would suit marine species, tropical herbivores, and tropical carnivores and omnivores.
For the marine feed, you should blend together a mix of scallops, prawns, squid rings, cod, mussels, and Nori seaweed. Ensure that you do not mix it to a smooth paste, rather leave it as a lumpy mixture with pieces easy to swallow. When blended transfer the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. This way you can either defrost a full cube for large feeding or shave off a small piece for smaller ones.
For the tropical herbivore feed, you will need frozen peas, spinach, cucumber, oats, and unflavoured gelatin. Simply blanch the vegetables and puree them before stirring in the oats. Finally, mix the gelatin with hot water and add slowly to the vegetable mix before transferring to an ice cube tray and freezing. Again, whole cubes can be defrosted for larger feedings and shavings for smaller ones.
For the tropical carnivore and omnivore feed, you will need a mix of vegetables, unflavoured gelatin, beef heart, shrimp, and white fish. The vegetables should be cooked and blended to a puree and left to cool. Whilst cooling, blend the fish and meat together before adding them together and mixing. Finally, mix the gelatin with hot water and transfer into ice cube trays and freezing.
Please note that I have not mentioned the vitamins and garlic that can be added to these recipes as not everyone chooses to include them. I also have given no weights or measurements for the ingredients as these can be adjusted to suit your fish species dietary requirements and preferences.
Finally in, our homemade section there is, as mentioned earlier, growing your own fish food, in particular, mosquito larvae. This process is incredibly simple and a great source of regular food for your fishes but you do need to be aware that any unused larvae will hatch into mosquitos which can become a real pest. To avoid this any larvae you do not use from this process need to be disposed of down a drain. To have a go at growing your own mosquito larvae follow these simple steps:
- Fill a five-gallon bucket with water. Preferably this will be rainwater as larvae grows best in natural rainfall. If you do use tap water ensure that you treat it with a dechlorinator.
- Place the bucket in a shaded area out of direct sunlight which could fry the larvae.
- Check the bucket on a regular basis for mosquito eggs which should be laid within a week or two. Do not remove any debris that has fallen in the bucket as mosquito larvae thrive in dirty water.
- Once you have eggs in the bucket keep a close eye on them for the next forty-eight hours as they will hatch within this time.
- The hatchlings, called wrigglers, should be caught with a very fine net and quickly transferred to your aquarium. It’s as simple as that!
The best types of fish foods for a variety of tropical fish, saltwater and coldwater species are:
- Dried flake foods
- Pellets ( sinking or floating)
- Live foods
- Spirulina And Seaweed
- Algae Wafers
- Homemade foods
It would be easy to get lost within the sea of all the products and choices available to us in the food section of the aquarium world. However, it’s really not that complicated and can be navigated successfully with ease. Choices and decisions to make can be limited simply by looking at what our individual species need. Do your research, ask your breeder or fish store what they have been eating, and start from there.
Feeding your fish the wrong food is one of the mistakes in out 30 Fishkeeping Mistakes Beginners make. Don’t you be one of the ones to make this silly mistake.
Where you go from there will be different and vary from fish species to fish species, and fish to fish. Not all fish, even of the same species, will eat the same things easily. However, as long as you remember the golden rule of providing a varied, nutritional, and healthy diet, you should feel free to mix it up. Explore the options and find a diet that suits both you and your fish.
[author title=”About the Author”]
I have been working in the tropical fish industry for over 30 years now and I’m still learning. Everyday is a school day in this hobby. In my spare time I play golf very badly!