Rylan’s ribs stuck from his stomach. Three days would pass before he’d eat anything, and even then he’d only touch rice or milk. Teachers panicked. Doctors were concerned. Mother Adele Kirkby-Clark scattered food around the house in case the then-one-year-old boy changed his mind. ‘We ended up having to put him on Pediasure [nutritional drinks] to make sure that he wasn’t losing any more weight,’ she says. ‘He was really, really thin.’
These days, however, the chubby three-year-old is cutting back on food, and for his parents that feels like success. But Kirkby-Clark, who boasts a masters degree in education, ten years of teaching and one year as principal at Huijia International Kindergarten, says it took a year of hard work to change her son’s life. Here’s her advice.
The other day Rylan told Kirkby-Clark, ‘Mommy I had a vegetable I loved today, the one you told me daddy loved.’ Children begin copying their parents from birth, and stop at what Kirkby-Clark calls the defiant age– for most, that means teenage years. ‘A child looks at and idolises their parents more than anything else,’ she says. ‘So if you have a parent who picks at their vegetables and doesn’t eat, then the child will be directly influenced.’
‘They appreciate the process,’ she says. ‘It’s a good chance to spend time with mum, and if they have made something themselves they’re proud of it and more enticed to try it.’ Children can start cooking at two years old if you give them soft ingredients like bananas, mango or dragon fruit to turn into a delicious fruit salad. At about four-years-old, children should be able to use knives and can even make sushi, if supervised.
It takes a child eight-to-ten presentations of a new food before they will openly accept it, and getting to that point is tough.‘It’s a mental thing,’ Kirkby-Clark says. ‘A lot children look at certain colours, textures and foods and say, “I’m not eating that.” Sometimes I’ll ask why and they’ll say, “It looks yucky, I don’t like it.”’ She recommends making kids try one bite of a new food, and if they don’t like it, then they don’t have to finish the item. Spread the food tasting over a period of six months, and if ten tries pass and they still don’t like the dish, admit defeat. ‘Start doing it as soon as the child’s able to understand language, so like, one or two [years old]. Before, it would be classed as force feeding,’ she adds. ‘But it actually works better with older children because their reasoning skills are more advanced.’
‘Trust your child,’ Kirkby-Clark says.‘They’ll say when they’re hungry or full. Always try for three more spoonfuls. If children say they’re full after that, then they’re done eating. No child has ever voluntarily starved to death.'
Reward good eating habits! Try a sticker chart, tons of positive reinforcement and, for particularly picky eaters, picking out a new toy after one month of good eating. ‘The goal has to be made clear to the child,’ Kirkby-Clark says. ‘So perhaps if your child isn’t eating vegetables, at the start of month let them choose their reward and make them understand what they need to do it achieve it.’ Rewards can be negative if children start expecting them for everything, so don’t do it too often. ‘The biggest reward they can have is time with their parents,’ she says. ‘Especially because parents are so busy these days.’ Rylan’s reward of choice is deciding how many books his mum will read him before bed that evening. Their house record is 15.
‘Children need to know cause and effect,’ Kirkby-Clark says. ‘They’re very curious, and like to see what happens and how things work.’ Let them know that spinach makes you strong and carrots help you see in the dark. Once Rylan learned chocolate provided no nutritional benefit, he stopped wanting it. For extra incentive, choose foods that provide a desired effect for the child.‘ I often ask Rylan, “How tall is daddy, and when are you going to be that tall?” He says, “If I drink milk, if I eat fish and seafood and eggs, I’ll growthat tall.”’
Kids like seeing different dishes on their plate, so offer diverse food colours and don’t hide vegetables in casseroles. ‘Some kids have aversions to certain coloured foods,’ Kirkby-Clark says. ‘With different colours it’s just another chance they’ll try the food.’ If you want to change the colour of food, beware of additives in food colouring, and use natural colourings like beetroot instead. Also, beware of bland food like boiled vegetables – kids like tasting different flavours.
After the ten-try limit you can abandon a food, but if your child’s still being picky, work hard to get them out of that rut. ‘Children need a nutritionally balanced diet for their growth,’ Kirkby-Clark says. ‘In China, especially, children need stronger immune systems to keep them healthy.’