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Making Vegetarian Gel Food for Fish: Five Minutes, Five Easy Steps

by Nicole Putnam

( click images for full size picture )

Anyone who keeps fish will quickly learn that not all fish foods are created equal; some are definitely better than others, relying on any one type of food can lead to nutritional deficiencies in the long run.

As well as live and fresh green foods, fish food comes in wet and dry forms, just as cat and dog food does. Dried foods include flakes, pellets, crisps, freeze-dried foods, tablets and wafers. Then there are the so-called wet foods. These include frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and daphnia, to name a few.

What goes into commercial foods?

Commercially prepared food will usually display the nutritional information on the packaging, which is determined by its ingredients. This nutritional information is normally given as a percentage breakdown of protein, fat, fiber (i.e., roughage), moisture (i.e., water) and ash (i.e., indigestible material other than roughage).

Dried foods such as flakes and pellets are typically very rich in protein, often upwards of 40% by weight, and typically made from what is broadly known as fishmeal, though it made be derived from things like squid and shrimp as well as by-products from the fishing and fish farming industries.

Some dried foods contain less protein, and these are typically derived from algae, fungi, and plants of various types, including Spirulina, kelp, brewers yeast, brown rice, wheat, soya, and pulverized vegetables such as carrots and zucchini (courgette).

The importance of fiber and ash

No matter how nutritious dried foods may be, what they commonly lack are fiber and ash, the things that bulk out the natural foods most fish consume. Simply put, this makes dried foods not very filling, and so even if a fish has received the nutrition it needs for the day, it still feels hungry.

Herbivorous characins such as Distichodus are classic examples of fish that need bulky, high-fiber foods.

This may well be why fish often appear ravenous, begging to be fed every time you walk past! If you fed them a pinch of flake or a sprinkling of pellets every time they seemed hungry, you’d massively overfeed them (and potentially pollute the tank) long before they actually felt full enough to stop begging for food.

ABCs of Vitamins and Veggies

Certain vegetables are especially rich in vitamins A, B, and C. Fish thrive when they are fed a variety of foods. One reason for this is that, just as with humans, a varied diet increases the likelihood that they will get adequate amounts of the vitamins needed for healthy growth and development. Below is a list of vegetables that are an abundant source of each vitamin: A, B, and C.

Vitamin A: Retinol (preformed Vitamin A) is only found in foods of animal origin, such as liver; however, compounds called carotenoids are metabolized into Vitamin A. The best known carotenoid is beta carotene. These are of particular interest to fishkeepers, since they are often used as color enhancers in commercially prepared fish foods. In the olden days of fish keeping, before the advent of color enhancing foods, fishkeepers used to feed their fish bits of grated carrot! Dark green and orange foods are rich in Vitamin A. These include carrot, spinach, green bean, sweet potato, winter squash, broccoli, and pumpkin.

Vitamin B: B vitamins are a group of eight individual vitamins, often referred to as B-complex vitamins. These are thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), cyanocobalamin (B12), folic acid and biotin. B vitamins are essential for the breakdown of fats and proteins, and the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose. Most vegetables are not a significant source of B1 or B2, and B12 is not present in any fruits or vegetables. Good sources of B vitamins include pea, potato, winter and summer squash, sweet potato, broccoli, kale, carrots, and spinach.

Vitamin C: In addition to the role Vitamin C has in boosting the immune system, it is also an antioxidant, meaning it protects cells from free radical damage. Vitamin C is abundant in many fruits as well as vegetables. Such fruits include kiwi, strawberry, orange, cantaloupe, tomato, peach, banana, apple, and grape. Vegetables high in Vitamin C are broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, corn, cucumber, green pepper, kale, pea, potato, spinach, green bean, winter and summer squash, and sweet potato.

Nicole’s Veggie Gel Food Mix

Homemade frozen gel foods offer a convenient and cost effective way to give them the fiber they need to feel full. They also deliver the vitamins they need in a highly digestible form. Because vegetable-based gel food is low in protein, it won’t cause problems with water quality or clarity. Best of all, vegetable-based food has the fiber-rich ingredients many fish require to keep their digestive systems healthy. Many aquarium fish are either herbivorous or omnivorous in the wild, and do best on a diet containing plenty of fiber. These include such aquarium standards as Goldfish, Silver Dollars, Guppies, Mollies, Platies, Swordtails, Plecos, and non-carnivorous cichlids such as Mbuna.

The following instructions are for making a vegetable-based gel food suitable for a wide variety of aquarium fish. Meatier frozen food recipes exist and are available in a number of books and websites, including the European Shrimp Mix recipe given in Ad Konings’ book Enjoying Cichlids and Bob Fenner’s Marine Mash listed in Conscientious Aquarist.

What you’ll need

One difference between my vegetarian frozen food recipe and some of the other recipes is that it doesn’t require a blender and can be prepared using a microwave instead of a stove. I believe that this makes it particularly easy and convenient to prepare.

A selection of ingredients useful for making fish food.

To make this recipe, you’ll need a microwave, a microwave safe measuring cup, a small spoon, and a mold in which to put your gel food. I use a 32-ounce (one-liter) yogurt container cut in half, but an ice cube tray or a disposable plastic cup would work equally well.

About 1 cup (~8 oz/0.25 liter).

a 4 oz jar of vegetable flavored baby food **
a 0.25 oz (7 g) packet of Knox unflavored gelatin
4 oz (1/2 cup) of drinking water
** (I prefer the Beech Nut brand because it is preservative and additive free, but Gerber Simple is another such brand. Beech Nut flavors I recommend are: Tender Golden Sweet Potatoes, Tender Sweet Carrots, Tender Sweet Peas, Tender Young Green Beans, Butternut Squash, Carrots & Peas, Corn & Sweet Potatoes, and Country Garden Vegetables. Fruit flavored baby foods can be used also, but sparingly, due to the higher sugar content.)

1) Pour 4 oz (1/2 cup) of drinking water into a microwave safe cup.
2) Microwave for about 3 minutes, or until the water is boiling vigorously (a rolling boil).
3) Dissolve 1 packet of gelatin in boiling water. Stir, smoothing out as many lumps as possible.
4) Pour 4 oz of baby food into the cup of gelatin-water mix. Stir evenly, removing any lumps that float to the surface.
5) When mixture has thoroughly blended, pour into mold. Let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
6) Transfer gelled mixture from mold onto a plate or cutting board. Cut into the pieces suitable for the size of your fish.
7) At this point, you can store a portion in the refrigerator for ease of serving, and freeze the rest. I recommend estimating how much your fish will eat in a week, and keeping that much in the refrigerator. Store in an airtight Ziploc bag or Tupperware container. After about a week, discard uneaten gel food from the refrigerator. Frozen gel food will keep for approximately one month; longer than that and the gel food begins to show signs of freezer burn.

Get creative!

Once you get the knack of making Veggie Gel Food, you will be tempted to experiment. By all means, do. If your fish dislike a particular concoction, you can put it in your compost bin and try something else. Feel free to mix in a little bit of whatever fresh fruit or vegetable you have available. Grate some "cuke and zuke" into a mixture of peas and green beans, or add crumbles of broccoli. Mash in a piece of banana or peach to a fruity mixture. Kids will especially enjoy feeding the fish a bit of "people food" - as long as it is fish appropriate, of course! Here's a couple of recipes to get your creative juices flowing:

Color Enhancing Blends:
Dissolve 1 packet of gelatin in 4 oz (1/2 cup) of water.
Blend in a 2.5 oz jar of Tender Sweet Carrots and a 2.5 oz jar of Tender Young Green Beans.
Add a pinch of paprika (about 1/16th of a teaspoon).

Alternately, try replacing the two flavors with Butternut Squash and Tender Golden Sweet Potatoes. You can also mix in a heaping tablespoon of unsalted canned pumpkin (such as Libby's).

Fruity Formulations:
Dissolve 1 packet of gelatin in 4 oz (1/2 cup) of water.
Blend in a 4 oz jar of any fruit flavored baby food such as Apples, Mango & Kiwi or Peaches & Bananas.
Add a heaping tablespoon of wheat germ or rolled oats.

This recipe is particularly relished by goldfish and their relatives, whether indoors in an aquarium or outdoors in a pond.

FAQs on Foods/Feeding/Nutrition on WWM

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