Atlantic cod Gadus morhua larvae reached four-fold (at low larval density) to 11 fold higher body mass (high larval density) at 50 days post hatch (dph) when fed zooplankton rather than enriched rotifers. A short period (22–36 dph) of dietary change affected larval growth positively if changed from enriched rotifers to natural zooplankton and negatively if prey type changed vice versa. Overall survival did not differ between the two larval groups at low larval density, but at high density the rotifer group had a higher overall survival (10·8% v. 8·9%). Long-term growth was affected significantly by larval diet in favour of the zooplankton diet; juveniles reached a 23% higher mass in a 12 week growth period. No difference in growth performance was found between juveniles fed natural zooplankton during the larval period for 36, 22 or 14 days, but all these juveniles performed significantly better compared with the rotifer-fed group. These findings suggest that optimal diet during a short period in the larval period can result in improved growth in both the larval and juvenile period. Improved rotifer quality may, therefore, hold a large potential for growth improvement in this species.