The Division of Responsibility in Feeding: Taking Mealtimes from Chaos to Calm

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The Division of Responsibility in Feeding

I remember when my older daughter was learning to eat solid foods, she would devour some foods and completely neglect others, play with her food, eat platefuls one day and not care to eat at all the next. I thought I knew how to feed our child, but it was confusing, and then I remembered learning about this little gold nugget called the Division of Responsibility in Feeding from my graduate coursework in nutrition.

What is the division of responsibility?

Dietitian and feeding expert Ellyn Satter defined The Division of Responsibility in Feeding in her book Child of Mine which was published in 2000. The research that went into the development of this book became the gold standard that dietitians learn from and teach to their clients and community regarding feeding children. Even though this method was released about 20 years ago, the parents just like you are beginning to hear about it. Today, it remains extremely relevant.

The basic notion of the Division of Responsibility in Feeding is simple:

  • The parent or caregiver is responsible for presenting the food, when to eat it and where.
  • The child is responsible for whether they eat and how much.

It is your job to choose and provide regular meals and snacks for your family. You and your spouse or partner should demonstrate proper mealtime behavior and make mealtimes pleasant. Make sure that you do not cater to each child’s preferences. These behaviors will encourage a healthy mealtime environment and will let the children grow into a body that is right for them.

It is your child’s job to eat, figure out how much they will eat, and have good mealtime manners. Children learn to eat food during family mealtimes and will grow according to their own body. I know that this can seem far fetched, but with practice, it is true! 

It is important to note that the Division of Responsibility in Feeding is intended for children who do not have a diagnosed feeding disorder.

How does the Division of Responsibility apply to different ages?

The division of responsibility in action looks different as your child grows up. Here is how to implement this strategy at each age. 

Division of Responsibility for Infants

Parents and caregivers are responsible for what your child eats, whether that is breastmilk or formula. The child is responsible for how much they eat and how often. Make sure to pay attention to feeding cues along with sleep and wake cycles of your infant. This helps you understand your baby’s need for how much and how often they normally eat.

Babies Making the Transition to Food

Though physicians may offer general guidelines for when your baby should begin to eat solids based on their age, it is most important to check for signs of developmental readiness. These signs include: sitting and holding their head up consistently, becoming increasingly interested in watching family members eat, and showing eagerness when food is headed toward their mouth.

At this point, you as the parent or caregiver are still responsible for what food you serve your child. Timing and location are still in process depending on your child and family schedule during this transition phase.

Your child is ultimately responsible for how much they eat and whether they eat at all.

Toddlers

Now that your child has developed into an eater, you will continue to grow based on the solid foundation already started. If you are just getting started with this process, I invite you to implement the Division of Responsibility with your family to create your foundation.

At this point, you as the parent or caregiver are responsible for what is served on the child’s plate, where it is served and when.

Your child is responsible for eating: whether they eat and how much.

Childhood through Adolescence

This is the foundation you will continue to use with your child through adolescence!

It is so important to continue to encourage this foundation to successfully establish a healthy relationship with food.

Scheduled Family Meals and Snacks

With your responsibilities in mind of what, where, and when, the best way to plan this is to provide meals and snacks on a regular schedule. A typical child needs to eat every few hours, so it is a good idea to provide breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. 

Consider snacks as mini meals, intentionally planned with multiple food groups, instead of a treat between meals. Your child will likely eat better at both the meal and the snack, learn to have their hunger feel satisfied, and feel hungry again at the next meal. I go into more detail in this blog article about preparing quick and easy healthy snacks.

Let Go of Control

For this system to work, you must trust your child and trust yourself! Trust your child’s instincts and let them learn to eat in a way that suits their body. Sometimes your child will eat a bunch and sometimes they will eat very little, and this is normal. Eating this way may reflect different growth spurts happening that we as parents cannot see. Allow them to explore and enjoy food, rather than focus on how much they are eating.

As parents, we tend to get hyper focused on each individual meal, but kids don’t always have the same exact hunger at each meal. It can be helpful (and far more realistic) to zoom out and reflect on the total foods that your child has eaten throughout the week vs. trying to have “good” habits at every single meal. 

Remove Mealtime Pressure

How many times per meal would you estimate that you’re saying things like, “take a bite!” or “if you have three more bites you can be done”? Are you saying these things so routinely that you don’t even notice how often they happen?

Bad news parents: this counts as pressure and I recommend stopping. 

While it may take a little practice, it is important to remove the pressure to eat during meals and snacks. If you try to get your child to eat more or less of what they desire, your plan will usually backfire. For example, if you try to get your child to eat a certain food on their plate, they will most likely avoid eating that food.

Pressure regarding eating can be sneaky and hard to detect, even when all intentions are good. Think big picture: are you doing anything to manage the foods or the way your child is eating? Then it is pressure.

Plan and think through how you can avoid adding pressure during mealtimes. For instance, it is not a good idea to bribe, reward, restrict or withhold dessert, or give if/then rules about the meal. Instead use mealtime as family time. Chat about your day, exchange funny stories, smile and laugh with each other, and enjoy your meal together. 

Set Yourself Up for Success

By establishing the Division of Responsibility from birth or early in life, you are establishing a strong foundation for your child and your family. Even if your child is a toddler and you begin building these healthy habits now, your child will learn to eat for fulfillment and joy and can have a healthy relationship with food.

And the benefit to you? You actually get to focus on something more fun than managing every bite your child takes, like your own meal, conversations about the day or listening to some good music while you all eat dinner. 

While this process may not be easy every single meal, every single day, it will become easier with time when it is the normal routine in your house. This method will prevent and solve common issues like picky eating, overeating or undereating.

How Do I Start?

If you are ready to give this a try, sit down with everyone to discuss the new plan. Make sure you and your spouse or partner are on the same page about how mealtimes will go. When you talk with your kids, emphasize each person’s role is so that it is clear your children are in charge of their eating. 

While it is not a good idea to cater to individual interests at each meal, I certainly do suggest serving meals that everyone enjoys! As your children grow, your family will develop family favorite meals that everyone can look forward to.

Another way to think about this is to consider meals that have components that members of your family like and are familiar with. For example, if everyone in your family enjoys chicken, try preparing meals with chicken in a few different ways with some favorite sides and see which combination was most enjoyable. These tactics can work well to introduce a new dish or an unfamiliar food.

How Do I Introduce New Foods?

One of my favorite ways to introduce new foods is to offer the meal in deconstructed form so that some of the components are familiar to my kids, even if the combined dish is new or unfamiliar. For example, if you know your child likes rice and you are making a mixed dish, set aside some of the rice and let them have it on the side of the main mixed dish with rice in it. 

As another example, if the family meal includes burritos, and you know your child likes beans and avocados, serve the beans and avocados on the side along with some bites of the burritos. Maybe your child would like to build their own burrito at the table too!

For every new or unfamiliar meal, consider how you can incorporate a food you know that your child likes to eat. They will feel comfort in knowing they like that food and are more likely to try the new foods served alongside it. 

Easier Said Than Done

You read that right. Even though the Division of Responsibility seems straightforward, the added layers of parenting young children can make the cyclical nature of mealtime daunting. 

However, the evidence demonstrates that this method works to solve and prevent issues with feeding. Try it – your kids might surprise you!

Feeding kids takes practice, patience and persistence! You’ve got this!

I Am Here for You!

If you are interested in learning more about child nutrition and how to incorporate strategies in your home to build more confidence with feeding, you are invited to schedule a free call with me. I would love to connect and learn more about your family!

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