How to Pick the Best Fish Foods That Aquarium Fish Can’t Resist
With so many brands and types of fish foods at the pet store, how do you know which one to get? Many beginners just reach for a jar that has a picture of their fish on the front without considering whether or not their fish will actually eat it. Living animals actually have preferences when it comes to the taste, ingredients, and form factor, and picky eaters may even refuse the most expensive, high-quality brands if they don’t suit their needs. Let’s talk about the different types of fish foods that are most readily available to fishkeepers and what types of fish they are most appropriate for.
Dry, Prepared Fish Foods
Flake foods are one of the most common fish foods at pet stores because of their cheaper cost and universal usage. They float at the surface to feed top-dwelling fish and then slowly sink to feed midwater and bottom-dwelling creatures. They can be crumbled to a smaller size that caters to baby fry and nano species. Plus, they come in many varieties with different ingredients to satisfy the diets of carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores. Because the flakes are so thin and soft, fish can easily bite into them to tear off chunks. However, that also means the flakes can disintegrate quickly in water, so they may not be the best food for slow eaters or constant grazers.
Feeding Xtreme Crave flakes made with high-quality krill and spirulina
Pellet foods are another staple fish food that come in floating, slow-sinking (or semi-floating), and sinking versions to feed fish that swim at different levels in the aquarium. Because they are firm and compact, they do not melt immediately in water. However, that also makes them harder to crumble, so you want to pick the correct size that can be easily swallowed whole by your fish. If you have ever noticed a betta fish repeatedly eat and then spit out its food, it could be that the pellet is too big for them to gulp down. Some of our favorite pellets include community fish pellets, nano pellets for tiny fish, floating betta fish pellets, plant-filled pellets for African cichlids and goldfish, and koi food.
Koi eating large floating pellets
Wafers and sticks are designed to dissolve slowly in the water and therefore are often given to grazers who want to nibble or rasp on food over the course of hours. They are also used to feed larger animals that can take much bigger bites. Depending on the eating habits of your animal, you may want to get floating sticks for an oscar versus sinking sticks for plecos. Like most types of dry foods, wafers and sticks contain a mix of both meat and vegetable matter. In fact, even algae wafers have proteins in them, but they also include higher amounts of spirulina, seaweed, and plant ingredients.
Kuhli loaches eating Xtreme Bottom Wafers
Freeze-dried foods primarily consist of a single protein source — such as bloodworms, daphnia, and tubifex worms — that fish would naturally eat in the wild. The freeze-drying process is used to preserve the food’s nutritional value and original appearance, making it an irresistible treat for your fish. In addition, these tasty invertebrates are commonly gut-loaded with healthy foods and multivitamins before they are freeze-dried. For example, you can choose to buy regular, freeze-dried brine shrimp or spirulina brine shrimp that were specially fed nutritious spirulina beforehand. Because almost all of the moisture has been removed, freeze-dried foods tend to float at the surface and can be crumbled into smaller pieces for easier consumption. Finally, unlike most live or frozen foods, they can be easily stored on a shelf at room temperature.
Get your fish to come to the front of the tank by sticking a cube of freeze-dried brine shrimp or tubifex worms to the glass wall.
Powdered foods are primarily used for feeding baby fish and shrimp, tiny nano fish, and filter-feeding shrimp. The nice thing about powdered foods is that they drift all around the tank so that fry can forage without leaving the safety of their hiding spots. The key is to avoid dumping in too much powder all at once, but instead provide multiple small meals all throughout the day so that their tiny stomachs are never left hungry. If you are worried about water quality issues from uneaten powder, we like to use snails and shrimp as clean-up crew members to gobble up any remaining crumbs. Our favorite powdered foods include Hikari First Bites and our own Easy Fry and Small Fish Food.
Hikari First Bites
Gel Fish Foods
Gel food is a unique addition to the fishkeeping hobby that has been popularized by companies like Repashy Ventures. You mix the powder with hot water and wait for it to harden into a jello-like consistency. Because it stays solid for up to 24 hours underwater without making the tank cloudy, this sinking food is one of the best foods for plecos, slow eaters, and aufwuchs grazers (or animals that like to constantly forage on algae, zooplankton, and biofilm found growing on surfaces). You can feed it to goldfish because of its softness and easy digestibility, and you can pour the liquid gel on hardscape or decorations for otocinclus and other catfish to scrape off with their suckermouths. Best of all, Repashy gel food comes in multiple flavors that cater to specialized diets, and you can easily add other ingredients (e.g., medication or pureed vegetables) into the gel. For step-by-step instructions, read how to make gel food in only 7 minutes.
Red dwarf platies eating a chunk of Repashy Community Plus gel food
Frozen Fish Foods
Frozen fish food is another option that is very close to what fish normally eat in nature because, like freeze-dried foods, they consist of whole ingredients that were gut-loaded with nutritionally dense foods and then flash-frozen to retain much of their original nutrients and taste. They do not dissolve quickly in water and will sink to the bottom of the tank. If you browse the freezer at your local fish store or pet store, you can find foods of all different sizes, ranging from baby brine shrimp to bloodworms to silversides. While these meaty foods are of course excellent sources of protein, frozen crustaceans — such as daphnia and brine shrimp — have hard-to-digest exoskeletons that can act like fiber to help your fish’s digestive track run more smoothly.
Most of the time, frozen foods come in a frozen slab or sheet of individual cubes. However, monster fish like stingrays and arowana have huge appetites, so their owners often go to grocery stores to buy human-grade seafood like frozen cocktail shrimp, fish filets, and prawns. Also, many species of pufferfish need to given crunchy clams and oysters to file down their ever-growing teeth. See our full article for more information on how to feed frozen foods.
Individually packaged cubes of frozen bloodworms
Live Fish Foods
Many fishkeepers will argue that live foods are one of the best fish foods you can offer because they provide hunting enrichment for your fish and the movement entices underweight or growing fish to eat more. Plus, live foods are often used to quickly condition aquarium fish for breeding. Similar to frozen foods, they tend to feed cleanly and won’t add a lot of mess to your aquarium. Because you are dealing with live worms, insects, and other creatures, they can range greatly in size, ease of care, and availability.
Some live foods, like blackworms and mealworms, can be purchased at your local fish and reptile stores, whereas others, like micro worms and vinegar eels, can be cultivated at home. Our favorite live food that we regularly keep on hand is baby brine shrimp. The brine shrimp eggs can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer until you need them and then hatched within 24 hours for immediate feeding, so there is no need for regular upkeep. For more details, read about the top 10 live foods to feed your aquarium fish.
Peacock gudgeon fry eating live baby brine shrimp
Specialty Fish Foods
Some animals need larger amounts of algae and plant-based foods in their diet, so you can supplement by feeding them vegetables meant for people. For instance, we like to feed canned green beans to raise baby plecos, canned carrots to increase redness in cherry shrimp, and blanched (or lightly boiled) zucchini slices for otocinclus catfish. Catappa leaves (or Indian almond leaves) are another great food for baby shrimp and fry because they can constantly graze on the biofilm (or slimy coating of microorganisms) that grows as the leaves decompose in the water. If you have an excess of floating plants or trimmings in your planted tank, you can give them to your goldfish or Mbuna cichlids to chow down on. Also, saltwater fishkeepers already know that sheets of plain, dried seaweed are great for herbivores, so try feeding them to your mollies and other plant eaters as a special treat.
Otocinclus eating a blanched slice of zucchini
Calcium and other essential minerals are important for healthy growth of livebearers, strong shell development in snails, and proper molting in shrimp. Therefore, look for calcium-enriched pellets like Hikari Fancy Guppy, Xtreme Shrimpee Sticks, and Hikari Crab Cuisine. If you are afraid that your slow-moving snails will get outcompeted during mealtimes, then use Nano Banquet Food Blocks, which stay stable in the water for many hours.
Shrimp foods often contain extra calcium and minerals that snails, shrimp, and other crustaceans need.
If you’ve ever kept clown plecos or royal plecos before, you know they are one of the few wood-eating catfish in the aquarium trade that like to munch on driftwood. In our experience though, they cannot live on wood alone and need additional foods to maintain a healthy weight. Researchers believe that these fish are not actually digesting the wood but rather the microorganisms, algae, fungus, and biofilm layer growing on the rotting wood. Since most of the fibrous wood is passed as a waste product, we like to feed high fiber foods that contain wood products — such as Sera Catfish Chips, Xtreme Sinking Wafers, and Repashy Morning Wood gel food.
Why Won’t My Fish Eat This Food?
Be aware that fish are living animals that have their own preferences. Sometimes you may buy a fish food that is specially marketed toward a certain species or everyone on the internet swears their fish love it, but when you try it in your own tanks, no one wants to take a bite. All you can do is to try mixing that fish food with another known food that you know they like and keep offering it to see if they will take it over time.
Consider how old the fish food is. Many dry foods have expiration dates that last for years, but once you open the container, the food starts to degrade from repeated exposure to moisture and oxygen. If it gets too stale or spoiled, your fish may stop eating it or can even become sick. To lengthen the freshness of the food, do not stick wet fingers into the container, squeeze out as much air as possible from resealable bags, keep containers closed when not in use, and consider storing your dry fish foods in the refrigerator or freezer. Based on the advice of aquatic veterinarians, they recommend only using flakes, pellets, and other prepared foods for the first six months after opening to avoid potential health issues.
Another common problem is when your fish become “addicted” to only eating a specific kind of live or frozen food and then start to reject other fish foods that they previously consumed. Offering a wide variety of foods is very important to ensure your animals get all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients they need to thrive. For example, a person who only eats hamburgers every day won’t fall sick immediately, but they may run into long-term health problems down the road. Also, training a fish to eat at least one type of dry, prepared food makes it easier for you to use an automatic fish food feeder or pet sitter if you have to go out of town for a while.
So, if your discus are only eating frozen bloodworms, train them to eat other foods by mixing pellets or freeze-dried foods with the frozen bloodworms and feeding them together. Gradually increase the ratio of dry food to bloodworms until the picky eaters are willing to eat the dry food on their own. Fasting your fish for 2–7 days may also be necessary so they’re hungry enough to accept the new food.
Pea puffers typically only eat live and frozen foods, but we’ve had good luck with Hikari Vibra Bites because they look like bloodworms.
Finally, if you are keeping an oddball fish that has special feeding requirements that severely limit the variety of foods you can offer, don’t forget to dose their meals with vitamin drops and other supplements as needed. When fish have nutrient deficiencies in their diet, the immune system becomes compromised, and they are more prone to catching diseases.
Feeding fish is one of the most enjoyable parts of the hobby, so we hope this introduction to all the different kinds of fish foods has inspired you to try something new with your aquariums. For more ideas on how to expand your fish’s palette, read about our top 5 high-quality foods that we love to feed.