Katherine Ryan: ‘Feeding my fussy son has taught me a lot about life, men and myself’

Katherine Ryan chats to Prudence Wade about the desperate lengths she’s gone to to get her kids to try new foods, how we’ve lost sight of the importance of family dinners and why the most important thing is to not stress about it

Prudence Wade
Wednesday 03 April 2024 06:00 BST
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Ryan’s advice for fellow parents is to stay as calm as possible
Ryan’s advice for fellow parents is to stay as calm as possible (Gousto/PA)

Katherine Ryan knows all too well how savage kids can be, particularly after her toddler said her food tastes like “dirt”.

“He said, ‘mummy’s cooking is disgusting’. ‘Her cooking tastes like dirt’ was a real blow,” the Canadian comedian recounts of her toddler, Fred.

Ryan has three children – Violet, 14, from a previous relationship, Fred, two, and Fenna, 15 months, with her childhood sweetheart and partner Bobby Kootstra.

Fred is her most difficult child to wrangle at dinnertime, and she’s gone to desperate lengths just to get him to try her food.

“I’ve made a deal with him – I’ve said you can taste it and if you want to spit it out, you’re allowed and you won’t be in trouble. Just put it in your mouth and taste it and see if you like it. Then he’ll be like, OK, and he’ll allow himself to take a bite. And even if he spits it out, everyone in the kitchen goes, ‘Really well done, Fred. Wow! Great. Did you see how Fred tried that? That was really cool.’

“So basically, I’m raising a toxic male and rewarding him for absolutely nothing,” Ryan jokes.

She adds: “Fred’s taught me a lot about life, about men, about myself.” London-based Ryan had her first child when she was 25, and says having two more over a decade later was a completely different experience.

Now she’s 40, she admits to having “less energy” than before, but adds: “I’ve learned this time that every child is so different and you have to reserve your judgement. Violet just happened to be this wonderful, amenable, happy all the time and do whatever I said and eat whatever I fed her type of child.

“And then my son came along and Fred is a tricky customer – he is such a fussy eater and such a high-maintenance guy in general, that I have had to pivot a bit as a parent, especially at mealtimes.”

Feeding her husband, 15-year-old, two-year-old and 15-month-old is a full-time job
Feeding her husband, 15-year-old, two-year-old and 15-month-old is a full-time job (©UKTV/Sarah Brick/PA)

And that’s not the only thing that changed for Ryan.

“I have a husband now, so it’s not just all up to me. My husband is such a softy and he will feed Fred pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because that’s what Fred wants, but I really have to dig my heels in and be like, no, that’s not appropriate. At some point, we need to offer him other sources of nutrition and branch him out.”

When it was just Ryan and Violet, she says: “We were eating out a lot, or I was getting takeaway a lot, and I wasn’t proud of that. It didn’t make me feel confident that my daughter wasn’t getting the right kind of nutrition, that I wasn’t getting the right kind of nutrition. Our choices were really limited.

“Especially around 2019, when my husband came into our lives and my daughter started to get bigger and be able to cook herself, I really wanted to prioritise family mealtimes.”

Initially, the two younger kids were eating around five, Violet would eat on her own when she got back from school and social commitments, and Ryan and Kootstra would finally have dinner around 9:30pm, “which is a really unacceptable time to eat unless you are European”.

Ryan worried that Violet was missing out on “really useful, essential conversation that accidentally comes out around the dinner table”, so now the schedule has changed a bit, particularly as the family uses Gousto recipe boxes.

They’re now “making dinner just the once – when Violet is home, she sits down with her brother and sister and eats at five. When she’s not home, we have dinner already ready, so we’ll sit with her for a bit before we do bedtime, bathtime, and then we’ve eaten ourselves.

“I think in the modern world, we lose sight of how important it is to have a traditional family dinnertime.”

Ryan says Gousto’s new Bluey-inspired range of meal boxes helps cut through the chaos of dinnertime, engaging the little ones in what they’re eating – particularly as they’re superfans of the CBeebies show.

“Involving [Fred] in the preparation of meals is what helps him feel safer about trying a variety of food,” Ryan explains – and some of the meals she’ll dress up for adults later, for example adding pine nuts to a cheesy asparagus and tomato orzo dish: “It means we don’t have to make dinner three separate times and dirty every pot in the kitchen.”

Ultimately, her advice for parents is simple: keep as calm as possible.

“We’re all doing our best, especially when you’re juggling children and your relationship and your time for self-care and work. I am not under any delusions that my job is a job – I know people have it a lot harder than I do.”

Particularly around feeding kids, all you can do is your best.

“But if it doesn’t go your way, don’t stress – because I have put my kids to bed without dinner. Not by choice, but just because they wouldn’t eat something. I’ve offered them a few snacks and they still drink milk and they still keep growing.

“So worst-case scenario, toddlers seem to be able to exist on a pack of raisins a day – don’t stress if they’re not eating, because that will make them more stressed. I think it’s great to offer a variety of healthful, delicious options. Then if they don’t want it, if you have a meltdown – they’re definitely not going to want it the next time.

“My only advice to parents is to stay as calm as you can, as often as you can.”

Gousto ambassador, comedian and Bluey-superfan Katherine Ryan is celebrating the launch of Gousto’s Bluey’s Family Dinner range in partnership with BBC Studios.

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