Eggs are a great nutrition source for kids. Parents may wonder if they’re safe for kids if the yolks are runny and undercooked.
In most cases, children under age 5 should avoid runny eggs, but can enjoy them many other ways. They’re a great source of choline, iron, zinc, and protein.
Even though eggs have benefits, there are some risks for young children. Eggs may be contaminated with bacteria that can make kids sick. One of these bacteria is called salmonella. Due to the risk of salmonella infections, children under age 5 should not eat undercooked eggs. Runny yolks (meaning the yolk is not solid) may not be safe enough. This is because toddlers and babies are at greater risk for salmonella-caused illness. I’ll go into more detail about salmonella later. For what it’s worth, people over age 65 and those with weakened immune systems are also at increased risk. Even some medications can put someone at a higher risk of getting sick from salmonella bacteria. The point? In addition to young kids, many other people could lower their salmonella risk by eating their eggs cooked well.
How hot and solid does an egg need to be in order to avoid salmonella infection?
According to the CDC, eggs should be cooked to at least an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C). This hotter temperature kills many bacteria, including salmonella. So, for a fried egg, this may mean a solid yolk. It’s not all or nothing, though. 158°F is much safer than 128°F, for example.
Parents also can consider the other ways they prepare eggs. Soft-boiled eggs are riskier than hard-boiled. Etc!
The best way to know if a runny yolk is safe serve to kids is to measure the temperature with a food thermometer.
I did this and found some inconsistent results. Allow me to share.
First, you should know that I am not a chef. I’m learning that a lot of internet information about egg temperatures is for chefs and not necessarily for parents trying to lower risks of salmonella.
Second, I have a digital food thermometer. I checked it in some boiling water to see how accurate it is. Water boils at 212°F. In my pot of boiling water, it measured 210°F, so I feel it was accurate enough for my purposes.
When I prepared a fried egg for myself with a runny yolk, I checked the temperature. It was only 140°F, and yet it was exactly how I often enjoy my egg. Hmmmm. Risky?
The next day, I cooked an egg for a longer time and the yolk was still slightly runny. This time, the temperature reached 162°F. This tells me it may be possible to have a runny egg that meets the CDC recommendations. In both cases, the egg white was completely cooked and not even a little loose or runny.
I repeated measuring the temperature of runny yolks over the next several times I prepared fried eggs. The temperature ranged from 138°F to 163°F. In this range, I couldn’t consistently predict what the temperature would be just by looking at the egg. (I’m sure some chefs accurately predict an egg’s temperature. However, that’s not one of my skills today).
In other words, I would not have known if a runny egg was safe for a child under age 5 had I not checked with a thermometer. So, if no thermometer is available, I suggest cooking until the yolk is fully cooked or “hard” for young kids or other vulnerable people.
Why does this matter? What does salmonella do to children?
The bacteria salmonella is common among chickens. It, along with other bacteria (like campylobacter) hangs out in the intestines. Some of the bacteria transfers to the eggs. And, it’s often in chicken droppings, the poop. So, anywhere there is chicken poop, there’s likely bacteria. Egg shells are not impermeable and some gets into the eggs themselves. Although this certainly isn’t an article about chickens, I should note that many farmers report their chickens appear healthy and can still carry germs like salmonella.
In many people infected, salmonella causes severe diarrhea. I’ve seen young kids hospitalized due to how dehydrated they were from salmonella-caused diarrhea. (Some were also in the hospital as part of the evaluation for blood in their stool). The kids also have pretty bad belly pain. It’s miserable! And, even if older kids and adults don’t end up in the hospital, they’re still pretty sick and uncomfortable.
In some kids, it can be even more serious. Especially in infants, other parts of their body can be infected, including the brain. In these cases, the illness is devastating.
I must note that eggs are not the only (or even the most common) way kids catch salmonella. It’s just one way. Other animals also carry these germs, especially reptiles. However, we’re talking about eggs today and we can probably control how thoroughly we cook eggs for our children. It makes sense to prevent illness by avoiding runny yolks for kids.
Other bacteria found in undercooked eggs (or chicken meat) include campylobacter which also causes severe diarrhea.
Quick note on kids and pet chickens
Because these bacteria are anywhere chickens are, families should also be extra cautious with young children and backyard chickens. The CDC recommends children under age 5 not have direct contact with backyard chickens. This is again due to the risk of severe illness or death from salmonella. If it’s unavoidable, there are precautions families can take.
Even if the yolk is not runny, should kids still eat eggs?
We pediatricians now recommend eggs be among the first solid foods babies eat! It may help lower allergy risk. (Please discuss this first with your baby’s pediatrician, as the recommendation depends on each family and whether others in the family already have food allergies).
Eggs have many benefits for kids.
Some of the benefits of eggs include the contents of the egg itself. There’s a lot of good stuff in a chicken egg.
Eggs are an excellent source of protein for children. Many young kids end up being “picky eaters” for phases here and there through childhood. If they refuse typical sources of protein like meat or legumes, eggs are a great alternative.
This is an important part of children’s nutrition. While it can be found in other foods like grains, there’s a lot in eggs too! Choline is especially important for the muscles and brain.
Toddlers especially are at risk for not getting enough iron in their diet. If a child does not have enough iron, they may also have anemia (low blood counts). This can affect a child’s energy levels and development. This is why all kids in the United States around age 1 year have a screening blood test, checking for anemia. Many kids need iron supplements. However, supplements aren’t needed if kids get enough iron from their diet. Eggs (especially the yolks) are a wonderful source.
Like many other animal products, eggs have zinc as well. This is important for a kid’s immune system and growth.
Other nutritional benefits of eggs
Eggs also have fat and several other vitamins and minerals. Fat is important for kids’ brain development. And, the other vitamins and minerals play an important role in balancing out diets overall.
What about cholesterol in eggs?
Families often ask about cholesterol in eggs. Can a child eat too many eggs and put their heart at risk? The research isn’t crystal clear how much of a role eggs play in cardiovascular risk. The more recent studies and reviews are much more favorable towards moderate egg consumption. Some say eating eggs lowers the risks of coronary artery disease.
In the past, some adults may have been advised to limit how many eggs they ate due to cholesterol levels. So, families still might think about those recommendations. What’s a parent to do? As with most of my thoughts on nutrition and children, I’ll repeat: most foods are best in moderation. Personally, unless there is a specific intolerance or allergy, I don’t recommended strictly limiting eggs in kids. It also should not be the only thing they eat, of course.
From what we are learning, there may be more risks from added sugar than eggs. I continue to recommend eggs as part of a complete diet (and I continue to feed eggs to my own family).
Eggs are a great vehicle for other foods.
Omelets, scrambled eggs, chaffles, and egg salad all lend themselves to other added ingredients. Like vegetables! If a child is willing to eat eggs, maybe the eggs can be prepared or served with another food they’re not fans of . . . yet.
Summary: Eggs benefit children if cooked properly. Avoid those runny yolks.
If a child wants to eat eggs, let’s encourage them. However, to lower their risks of getting really sick from bacterial infections, the eggs should be cooked well. If no thermometer is available, eggs should be cooked until the yolks are firm. Runny yolks are not for young children or infants. Otherwise, cooking until the internal temperature is 160°F will help lower these risks. If there is any concern of egg allergy or intolerance, it needs to be discussed with a child’s doctor.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.