Muscle membrane fatty acid (FA) composition is linked to insulin action. The aims of this study were to compare the FA composition of muscle and erythrocyte membrane phospholipid in young children; to investigate the effect of diet on these lipid compositions; and to investigate differential incorporation of FA into muscle, erythrocyte and adipose tissue membrane phospholipid, and adipose tissue triglyceride. Skeletal muscle biopsies and fasting blood samples were taken from 61 normally nourished children (45 males and 16 females), less than 2 yr old (means +/- SE, 0.80 +/- 0.06 yr), undergoing elective surgery. Adipose tissue samples were taken from 15 children. There were significant positive correlations between muscle and erythrocyte docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (r = 0.44, P < 0.0001), total n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) (r = 0.39, P = 0.002), and the n-6/n-3 PUFA ratio (r = 0.39, P = 0.002). Adipose tissue triglyceride had lower levels of long-chain PUFA, especially DHA, than muscle and erythrocytes (0.46 +/- 0.18% vs. 2.44 +/- 0.26% and 3.17 +/- 0.27%). Breast-fed infants had higher levels of DHA than an age-matched group of formula-fed infants in both muscle (3.91 +/- 0.21% vs. 1.94 +/- 0.18%) and erythrocytes (3.81 +/- 0.40% vs. 2.65 +/- 0.23%). The results of this study show that (i) erythrocyte FA composition is a reasonable index of muscle DHA, total n-3 PUFA, and the n-6/n-3 PUFA ratio; (ii) breast feeding has a potent effect on the FA composition of all these tissues; and (iii) there is a wide range in long-chain PUFA levels in muscle, erythrocytes, and adipose tissue.