Sometimes You Need to Overfeed Your Fish

Overfeeding is sometimes necessary to entice a finicky fish to eat, especially if they have little nutritional reserve to begin with, such as butterflyfish

Overfeeding is sometimes necessary to entice a finicky fish to eat, especially if they have little nutritional reserve to begin with, such as butterflyfish

You’ve heard time and again, here at Saltwater Smarts and elsewhere, that overfeeding is one of the surest ways to cause ill health in fish and pollute your aquarium water. The usual recommendation is to offer foods in very small quantities that the fish can consume within just a few minutes. And when it comes to reef systems, we tend to be especially sparing with fish food in order to maintain the lowest possible level of dissolved nutrients.

While it’s generally good advice to feed fish sparingly and judiciously, there are certain times when it doesn’t pay to be stingy with the victuals. In fact, sometimes you really have to feed on the heavy side and then step up your water changes and other water-quality-management techniques to compensate for the increased dissolved pollutants. Here are just a few examples off the top of my head:

When feeding a finicky fish in quarantine

Of course we’re supposed to make sure fish are eating at the LFS before we acquire them, but over the years I’ve had various specimens simply turn off the “feeding switch” upon arriving in quarantine (and in a few cases after being moved from quarantine into my display tank), possibly due to the stress of transfer or because they simply didn’t recognize the stuff I was offering as edible.

When this situation arises, it can take a lot of coaxing with different types of food at various times throughout the day to entice the specimen. In other words, you may end up introducing a lot more food to the system than is typically considered acceptable before the fish finally resumes feeding. But in this circumstance, it’s better to keep experimenting with different foods and compensating with stepped-up water changes, especially if you’re dealing with a specimen that has very little nutritional reserve to begin with—as is often the case with butterflyfishes, for example.

When a specimen is outcompeted at mealtimes

Another circumstance in which it may be necessary to suspend the rules on proper feeding, if only temporarily, is when a specimen is willing to eat whatever it’s presented but is too slow or skittish to get to any food before its tankmates do. This sometimes occurs when a specimen is newly introduced and hasn’t quite settled in to its new surroundings or figured out its role in the hierarchy yet. In this situation, despite its apparent appetite, the specimen could end up starving to death anyway unless something is done to change the feeding dynamic.

Sometimes my solution to this problem is to target feed the shy specimen (e.g., with a turkey baster), but if that’s not effective for one reason or another, I’ll try what I like to call “flooding the zone” with food. That is, I’ll put an oversized portion of, say, mysid shrimp right in front of a powerhead so a whole bunch of the little crustaceans are quickly dispersed throughout the entire tank. Since the greedy tankmates can’t be everywhere at once, this technique usually ensures that the shy feeder gets something to eat at every meal.

The fact that food is getting scattered throughout the whole tank means some of it may get trapped in the rockwork and decompose, so, again, the other half of the overfeeding equation is always to increase nutrient export through water changes, vigorous protein skimming, chemical filtration, etc.

What have I missed?
As I mentioned, these are just a few examples off the top of my head. If you can think of another circumstance in which overfeeding might be warranted, please share it in the comment section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Leslie Melling says

    I feed quite a lot and 3 often 4 times a day. My fish are all healthy live long spawn and don’t catch white spot. I feed mostly my own foods and some frozen but little dry foods. I do add fish oil to my foods as a supplement. I have never quarantined a fish in my life but don’t suggest you do the same. Since I have been feeding as I do (around 20 years plus) no fish has ever shown signs of disease. Lucky right? I don’t tink so.

  2. Also when a fish is being picked on and need some TLC in another aquarium.

    And after a strong medication routine the fish will always need some extra feeding to regain strength so it can rejoin the rest of the fish.

  3. I agree 100% with Leslie so instead of me re posting it, just read Leslie’s post again and think I wrote the same thing. Feeding fish correctly equals healthy fish with no disease. It is simple.

  4. Leslie Melling says

    Trouble is Paul as you know we go against the grain and to us the poor advice for many years that’s been spouted. We have kept marines since Adam was a lad and you longer than that even before super models and you know how long ago that must be.
    When fish on the reef start eating dry foods and have been doing for millions of years and adapted to it I will feed it more often but that could take quite a few reincarnations and I can’t wait that long. I believe the food I make myself is not only far cheaper than flake etc it’s far healthier and I don’t have to kid them it’s a McDonalds burger to get them to eat it either. I only have long lived fish, spawning fish and healthy fish, so what is this white spot people go on about?

    • Leslie, I love having you and Paul on this site! The two of you represent what I think is a certain lost art and level of ingenuity that could serve many of us younger folks well, and you remind us that the latest-and-greatest hobby fad isn’t necessarily any better (and may even be worse when it’s all sorted out) than the tried-and-true. Thanks and keep commenting!

      • Leslie Melling says

        Back in the day there wasn’t anything like the amount and different array of equipment there is now so we made most of it from skimmers to calcium reactors mostly trial and error. Necessity being the mother of invention. Everything from reverse flow under gravel filters to our own lights. These days many people want to buy success and have lost the art of imagination and creativity. One of my own sons with an ology can hardly knock a nail in lol,. I currently have a DIT Algae Turf Scrubber, frag racks, LED support rig on bogies, my own supplements, dosing containers and all manner of modification to my Aqua One Aquareef 300 sump and tank. I have the time and the inclination and that’s all it really takes.

        • Jeff, remember when we started, fish food was sold as dried ants. No, really!. I am, even as we speak building a 6′ water cooled LED fixture. Does anyone need a water cooled LED fixture? Of course not, but it is a cool thing to have and I don’t want the same light that virtually everyone (except Leslie) has. Leslie and I have learned way before the internet how to do things through trial and mostly error. Now our fish don’t sit around worrying about diseases because they won’t get any. If we buy a fish, we think of things like, what are we going to do with it in 10 or 15 years when it gets to big and not that we hope we can get it to live for a week. Our fish spawn and people seem surprised. I would be surprised if fish didn’t spawn because healthy fish spawn constantly as “all” female fish in the sea are pregnant “all” the time. Why is that? Because those fish in the sea know what they need and Leslie and I can read fish minds. It’s not easy.

  5. As for thinking out of the box, some fish that I have had that were considered tough like Moorish Idols I would feed a mixture of Plaster of Paris, fish oil and sponge. I will keep that a secret so they don’t put me away but I will say, you know those silly vacation feeders you can put in a fish or turtle tank that has food stuck in it? That is Plaster of Paris and supplies fish with calcium like the bones in the prey they eat. But don’t do this as you will screw it up, make a mess and probably get your fish into a frenzy where they will stop talking to you.

  6. SantaMonica says

    I say do everything possible to feed as much as possible.

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