Fish Keeper 101: Feeding Aquatic Livestock

Discussion of types of fish food and the correct way to feed aquatic livestock.

  1. ashenwelt
    So you are now a fish keeper and want to take the next step in your aquaria hobby! Congratulations for making the step to research feeding your aquatic livestock. Feeding the fish correctly is one of the keys to any successful keeping fish, it doesn’t matter if your aquatic livestock are in a jar, an aquarium or a pond. Without an adequate food supply your fish will neither grow nor maintain a healthy vigor, and their long term viability will be in jeopardy.

    So before getting into a discussion on food, you need to get a question answered. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life. Say you get a hamburger. Delicious, you love it. Now you get that same type of burger for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No fries. No other food. For the rest of your life. Would you be happy? Would you be healthy? Now fish don’t have the brains humans do, and neither do shrimp or most other aquatic animals. However, once you realize you are watching shrimp or snails actually play… you realize they have more cognitive ability than many think. So, as a rule the one food for the rest of their lives… think about it and make your own decisions.

    How often to feed
    The most argued topic you will often see is how often you should feed fish. The key is that it should be fairly regular if you want interaction with your aquatic livestock. Additionally, never feed more than is eaten in 5 minutes per feeding. Does this mean you can only feed 5 minutes of food? No. Its not uncommon to feed fish in five minute burts, four or five times in a day… sometimes with only minutes between them. The key is to let them finish and not damage the water quality.

    How to feed
    Under the areas with more specialized foods, there is a discussion on how that food should be fed. Live food feeding is not considered a 101 topic and therefore is not included in this article.

    How to transition foods
    Often you will want to change out a food. Perhaps it is nearing that six month mark when it should be disposed of. Perhaps the fish keeper decided it doesn't have the quality of ingredients that they want. The key is then to feed the new food at the same time as the older food, as part of the daily menu. Slowly remove the old food over a few weeks and then the old food is no longer on the daily menu and due to the tapering off you are less likely to be impacted by a fish refusing to eat the new foods.

    Types of Food
    Manufactured and home prepared foods are an important part of the hobby as we work towards a balanced nutrition for our aquatic livestock. There are several types of commercially available foods, sometimes called fish food or even fish feed. These include prepared foods (including self-prepared), dry foods, liquid foods, freeze dried foods, frozen foods, vacation foods, medicated foods, vegetables and finally live foods. Yep, you need to work your way through ten categories of fish food (and all their sub-categories). Wow, time to read too much…

    Prepared Foods
    Prepared foods are those foods that are not currently living moist foods that are either made by the fish keeper or bought prepared to be made and are made by the aquarist or bought already prepared for consumption for fish. Sometimes you can search online for fish food recipes like this: Cichlid Food Recipes

    Traditionally prepared foods refers to food completely prepared by recipes done by the fish keeper, although today there are commercial foods that will also fit into this area as they need preparation. The current popular ones are Repashy brand fish food gel or the Dr. Tim’s BeneFISHal with his ice trays and all the food additives. While this is a newer direction for fish foods, it is really neat to see the fusion of old and new that is starting to occur in aquaria as people are bridging the gaps between commercial and self-made prepared foods.

    Dry Foods
    Dry foods are defined as manufactured foods where the components are milled and combined with multiple ingredients and then formed for feeding. These include a vast number of products including powder, flakes, pellets, sticks, tablets, granules, and wafers. These are the vast majority of fish foods. When you shop for them you will find that they are made for darn near everything: from general use to very specific species-specific foods. Generally, they include a combination of fish meal, vegetables and filler ingredients that have been baked to remove the vast majority of moisture. The amount of fillers and artificial

    For all dry foods, please make sure you do the following. Mark the date the food is opened. Sniff the food and identify the normal smell. Daily, when you feed the food, check the smell and if the smell if off, discard the food. When that date is 6 months in the past, please discard the food. The idea is that all foods slowly determinate. Just the moisture in the air will slowly start the breakdown of your dry food. Therefore it is better to buy smaller containers than one big container of fish food.

    Dry Foods - Powdered Foods
    Powdered fish food is a product that was developed and based on micro pellets. These are separated out as they are simply not general use. A good example of this is New Life International Spectrum Small Fry Starter Formula. Once again this is an attempt to replace live foods like infusoria, paramecium or microworms.

    Dry Foods - Flake Food
    Flake food is the food you probably left your local fish store with the very first time you went to buy a fish. This is the standard staple food for the hobby consumed by a wide variety of tropical and saltwater fish and invertebrates. While it can feed a whole tank, this is usually done by over feeding. It is ideally suited to top and mid-water dwellers or adventurous fish that climb to the top of the tank for feedings. In the end, food that drops to the bottom will be eaten by bottom dwellers, however this is not ideal and often leads to a buildup of food waste and a visual buildup of mulm.

    Dry Foods - Food Pellets
    Food pellets have been on the upswing in recent years. They are very interesting because when feeding different types can be mixed together that are aimed at different fish in your tank. Examples are feeding floating pellets for larger cichlids who tend to jump towards the food, while including some sinking pellets for cichlids that hug the bottom of the tank. Next you can mix in some bottom dweller algae pellets for your bottom feeders who munch on algea. And lastly maybe you have some neon tetras as well in the tank and you chose some very small sinking pellets and you feed them with a more forceful addition to the water so the fall rapidly to the lower parts of the tank where the neons may be shoaling. This ability to mix size, food type and floating versus sinking has been a major advance in fish keeping.

    Dry Foods - Food Sticks
    Food sticks are oddly most often found as specific foods for shrimp or cichlids, among others. They are in reality fed like and should be treated as pellets.

    Dry Foods - Food Tablets
    Food tablets are a neat addition to a fish keeper’s toolkit. They tend to be very specific use food. Often they are fed by reaching into the water of a tank and stuck to the side of the tank. They then slowly deteriorate and fish come to the area to feed. A good example of this is Sera O-Nip ( sera O-Nip ). It can be a joy to watch these draw out fish who normally hide during feeding.

    Dry Foods - Food Granules
    Food granules are generally a way of differentiating from pellets. These appear to however be, a different name for pellets.
    Food wafers are an interesting form of food. Normally they are larger than a pellet, and disc shaped. They sink rapidly and then break down slowly in the water and provide a food supply ideally suited to grazing and nocturnally-active fish and invertebrates. They are meant for the animals to go to them and slowly eat. These may take as much as 24 hours to break down and be eaten completely.

    Liquid Foods
    Liquid Fish Food is a newer rage in aquaria. Typically this is a food for very small aquatic animals or even fry. Obviously, this is really moving up in popularity with fish breeders and reef keepers. Other common uses are as filter feeder food (like reefs or some shrimp) or even for nutrient supplements. The main idea is that having food for fish available in a liquid form can remove some needs for live foods or odd foods like infusoria.

    Interestingly, some nutrients from this category are making it into soaks for some dry foods as well to counter some issues for gastral issues in your aquatic livestock.

    Freeze Dried Foods
    This is by far the most expensive foods in the fish keepers toolkit. These are whole foods that have been dried and all moisture released while leaving them large. Sometimes a non-caking or preservative are added (these should normally be avoided). The neat thing about these foods is that they have been decontaminated and there is near zero chance of any of the disease concerns that poorly controlled live foods can carry. The common foods include the following:
    • Algae (good for algae feeding animals)
    • Anchovies (protein and fat rich, mainly treats for larger fish)
    • Bloodworms (protein rich, can cause weight gain in some fish, general treat)
    • Brine Shrimp (staple for small fish with baby brine, and staple for nearly any other carnivorous fish)
    • Daphnia (staple for small to large fish, and staple for nearly any other carnivorous fish)
    • Krill (supplemental food, unless your aquatic pets primarily eat small crustaceans)
    • Mealworms (treat food for larger carnivores like large cichlids or larger marine animals)
    • Mysis Shrimp (a small shrimp for medium to large fish)
    • Plankton (supplemental food, unless your aquatic pets primarily eat small crustaceans)
    • Red Shrimp (a fairly large shrimp for larger fish)
    • Tubifex Worms (a general treat food, do not feed exclusively)
    The issue with freeze dried foods is that the feeding of this type of food is a little more complicated. In general, these should not be simply placed into the tank. Why? When the fish eat it, this can cause gastral issues as the foods absorb all the moisture in the gastral system due to their being significantly more complex than normal dried foods. This has been linked to issues such as swim bladder issues in Bettas and other fish.

    So if you don’t drop it in the tank, what do you do with it? Normally the food is added to a cup, and tank water from the tank being fed is then added to the point where the water completely submerges the food and then any additives are added (medicine if you are adding it, liquid vitamins if you are adding or garlic if you need its benefits). You let it soak for ten minutes and then preferably food only the food and not the water (tweezers are helpful). In some cases this separation is not possible so the food is added by pouring into the tank.

    So lastly, why is this the most expensive food? Because it is whole food with the vast majority of their weight removed as moisture. End all result is an extremely light food that maintains bulk. Once hydrated much of that bulk and weight will return.

    Frozen Foods
    Frozen foods are another alternative to live or perishable foods. These are normally preserved whole in liquid with a quick freeze. Most are packaged in small cubes, with the idea that these can be dropped into the tank whole (more on how to feed frozen food later). These often contain a variety of ingredients such as bloodworms, Daphnia, brine shrimp, beef heart (a food that causes immense debate and massive mess), insects, algae or vegetation. Most often these are single ingredient blisters though sometimes they are mixtures.

    The big reason for frozen food is actually not the nutrition. It can easily be argues that live food is not the most healthy for many fish as you are not even feeding the normal food from its habitat. What you do however see is that most frozen foods trigger an instinctive feeding response; most finicky fish will even eat and many “live food only” fish will also often eat. Many times this is a nice add in to a staple diet as a supplement or even regular edition to initiate that eating.

    There are some concerns when feeding frozen foods. They tend to be in fixed quantities so they often lead to under or overfed tank. Finding the right size food can sometimes be a problem. And of course sometimes defining what food should be fed to specific fish requires noticeable research.

    Now on the feeding there are some additional thoughts. The idea of just throwing the food in the tank to thaw sounds like a great idea. There are many problems with it. The first is that normally that means little preparation so entire blocks are thrown in. This means that there will be over or under feeding in most cases. Next some blocks do not float. The drop to the bottom. So now the top and mid swimmers do not get to eat all the large brine shrimp that were bought for them and instead the sit at the bottom with the neons absolutely ignoring them… but the cherry shrimp and snails instead getting the costly food. In the end it is better that the food is added to a cup, and tank water from the tank being fed is then added to the point where the water completely submerges the food and then any additives are added (medicine if you are adding it, liquid vitamins if you are adding or garlic if you need its benefits). You let it defrost for ten minutes and then pour the food into the tank. Commonly if you are adding dehydrated food it can be soaked at the same time in the same cup. This form of feeding also commonly creates an excited frenzy in the aquarium.

    Vacation Food
    Vacation foods sometimes call "weekend blocks", are blocks of food (often shaped as a pyramid, but not always, that are designed to be placed inside the aquarium to forgo feeding while the owner is absent. These blocks are said to release small amounts of food as they dissolve. These have however received an incredibly bad reputation over the last forty years for heavily polluting aquariums. In general these should be avoided when possible.

    Medicated Food
    Medicated food is an effective method to deliver medication to aquatic animals. There are two basic ideas behind medicated foods. One is that it targets the inside of an aquatic animal and not the environment (making them often safer for things like antibiotics or anti-parasite medications). The second is that medication does no directly contaminate the aquatic environment and therefore it is less likely to hurt the filtration or cause an algae growth in the aquarium.

    Vegetables as Fish Food
    Fresh vegetables have been a staple food for fish keepers since fish keeping began. Blanched vegtables are the normal choice, often lettuce or zucchini. These are often feed by using a clip on the side of the aquarium or even on the bottom of the tank, and leaving it in the tank for a few hours or at absolute most of 24 hours or even less if it changes the water. Some invertebrates are best served by placing small pieces of vegetables, blanched, into the bottom of the aquarium. Here is a common list of vegetables for aquarium animals (please always research your livestock):
    • Broccoli (fresh or frozen, server stalk only, blanch and peel, serve sliced or cubed)
    • Cabbage (fresh; blanch for safety, slice and serve)
    • Corn (frozen, not sweet; blanch and peel, then smash and server, garlic or medication can be added)
    • Cucumber (please seed and then blanch, serve sliced or in small cubes)
    • Lettuce (fresh; blanch for safety, slice and serve)
    • Lima beans (blanch and peel, then smash and server, garlic or medication can be added)
    • Peas (frozen, not sweet; blanch and peel, then smash and server, garlic or medication can be added)
    • Spinach (fresh or frozen not canned; blanch for safety, slice and serve)
    • Yellow squash (please seed and then blanch, serve sliced or in small cubes)
    • Zucchini (please seed and then blanch, serve sliced or in small cubes)
    Note: do not server hot and do not used canned foods.

    Many times fish will get constipated on commercial foods. They simply do not have the moisture the gastral system of an aquatic animal expects. Due to this, fresh vegetables can have a very positive impact on the gastral issues that have even been known to impact aquatic animals even going so far as to damage a fish’s swim bladder. One vegetable has however stood above the others and earned the name “pea-lax”, and that is the common pea. It loosens the bowels on most fish and can be a great health boost for fish. Additionally, when mixed with a water change and some garlic, it can be a first treatment for an early parasite infection.

    Live Food
    Live foods are great for bringing out the will to eat, as well as getting lazy fish to get some exercise. Additionally some fish are simply hard to feed non-live foods such as Dario, Badis, seahorses, pipefish, wrasse, gobies, lionfish, grunts, and newly fish. These can also be helpful with refugiums and non-photosynthetic (NPS) coral and filter feeders.

    Raising and discussing the different live foods are a but out of scope of this article, however here are the most common live foods a fish keeper uses:
    • Algae
    • Amphipods
    • Brine Shrimp
    • Copepods
    • Daphnia
    • Earthworms
    • Flies (preferably flightless or larva)
    • Green Water (free floating algae and infusoria)
    • Grindal worms
    • Infusoria (Paramicium and other protozoa and other microorganisms)
    • Maggots
    • Mealworms
    • Microworms
    • Mosquito larvae
    • Paramicium
    • Vinegar Eels
    • White worms
    • Wingless fruit flies
    Fasting Day / Foraging Day
    Many fish keepers believe that giving fish a fasting day allows their systems to purge some of the gastral issues that come about due to the manufactured foods that they are fed. While there is some factual arguments for this, there are others that would recommend a better blend of food could be used. In this case there is no wrong answer, and both options can be valid. Not balancing a diet, and not giving a fasting day are however not recommended.

    Now many are going to ask, "what does foraging day mean?" Well while the fish keeper does not feed their fish during a fasting day, in reality the fish is constantly on the prowl for food and an established aquarium has significant microorganisms that will be hunted during a fasting day. Therefore some fish keepers actually refer to the day as a "foraging day."

    Feeding Variety

    At the beginning of this article, the fish keeper was asked: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life. Say you get a hamburger. Delicious, you love it. Now you get that same type of burger for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No fries. No other food. For the rest of your life. Would you be happy? Would you be healthy?

    Fish Keepers over the years have found that in general, no they would not be happy and the fish they keep rarely are as well. So the recommendation is to add some variety. Sometimes it makes it easier as well to buy smaller food containers as in reality, most fish keepers rarely finish their food in 6 months and most should be discarded at that point. So a smooth rotation can help this. So what is an example of a rotation? Slowly adding a new food. For example, I am switching from Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes to Omega One Cichlid Flakes. Over serveral weeks I will move from a very little Omega One Cichlid Flakes and a majority of Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes to Omega One Cichlid Flakes completly replacing it, and then tossing the old jar of Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes as it has hit 6 months.

    Now when it comes to feeding variety, there are many options. For this discussion we are saying that the fish keeper has the following food options for their community tank as follows:
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • Top Fin Goldfish Flakes
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freezdried, rehydrated)
    • San Francisco Bay Brand Spirulina Brine Shrimp (frozen)
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    • Live Microworms
    • Live Daphnia
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    Here is a simple menu for someone starting off.

    Monday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    Tuesday’s Menu
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    Wednesday’s Menu
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    Thursday’s Menu
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    Friday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    Saturday’s Menu
    • San Francisco Bay Brand Spirulina Brine Shrimp (frozen)
    Sunday’s Menu
    • Fasting Day
    Note: this also includes an option some fish keepers have for a fasting day.

    Here is another more complicated menu:

    Monday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    Tuesday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    Wednesday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    Thursday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    Friday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freezdried, rehydrated)
    Saturday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    Sunday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freezdried, rehydrated)
    Note: there are a large variety of foods in this menu, as such this should be fed in multiple smaller feedings which takes more time than the first menu.

    Here is a very complicated menu based on feeding a variety of fish in a complex community tank with finicky eaters. This menu takes a significantly longer time to feed but is as follows:

    Monday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freezdried, rehydrated)
    • Top Fin Goldfish Flakes
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Tuesday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • San Francisco Bay Brand Spirulina Brine Shrimp (frozen)
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Wednesday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freezdried, rehydrated)
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Thursday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • San Francisco Bay Brand Spirulina Brine Shrimp (frozen)
    • Top Fin Goldfish Flakes
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Friday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freezdried, rehydrated)
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Saturday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Hikari Daphnia (frozen)
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • San Francisco Bay Brand Spirulina Brine Shrimp (frozen)
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Sunday’s Menu
    • Aqueon Color Enhancing Tropical Flakes
    • Fluval Bug Bites Tropical Formula
    • Live Daphnia
    • Live Microworms
    • New Life Spectrum Algeamax Wafers
    • New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula 1mm Sinking Pellets
    • Omega One Cichlid Flakes
    • Peas, Blanched and Shelled
    • Tetra Bloodworms (freeze dried, rehydrated)
    • Unknown Betta pellets (breeder special, no brand, very high protein)
    Time was then taken to define what foods to serve for each days menu. For variety, all foods are used. Please note that this is an extreme example, and requires carefully watching the feeding habits of all fish in the aquarium to balance the diet.

    The variety is up to the fish keeper. The idea is to consider making a variety. Some people feed two foods regularly. Some feed many. The complicated community feeding plan is actually used by the article writer as an example. Also, note that there were goldfish flakes in the menu. Why? A community is no place for a goldfish? A few flakes are included periodically simply to increase the options for the fish and shrimp in the aquarium to raise their level of enjoyment. Primarily Amano shrimp in that tank will eat the flakes, but sometimes a Congo Tetra will dive into them. A mixed menu is all about enriching the lives of the aquatic animals in your care as a fish keeper.

    Conclusion
    Hopefully this article helped refresh some of your knowledge on feeding your aquatic livestock. Please consider making comments and ratings as this article is meant to be a living document and be regularly updated.

Recent Reviews

  1. Dandelion-Dream
    Dandelion-Dream
    5/5,
    Neat! I'll totally use this!
    1. ashenwelt
  2. stella1979
    stella1979
    5/5,
    Thanks for such a wealth of information contained in one place. Great reference.
    1. ashenwelt
  3. Discusluv
    Discusluv
    5/5,
    Amazing amount of valuable information for feeding! Thank you for taking the time to put this together for us. I will refer to it often.
    1. ashenwelt
      Author's Response
      Awesome! Glad to be of help!