Has your little one ever gone through a phase where they seem to eat less…
The biggest question by far that I get asked is how to get kids to try new foods. Let me tell you that the answer is a page long, but it starts with first setting up the right environment for your kids to come and stay at the table … willingly 😉
There is no better way to take on this task on a day to day basis than using the division of responsibility. We have a to do list a mile long, and I promise that once parents switch to using this model as their “new default” way of doing mealtimes, improvements in kid’s behaviors at mealtimes improve dramatically.
What is the Division of Responsibility in Feeding
Ellyn Satter is a Registered Dietician and an international authority on child eating and feeding who to this day continues her work in researching applying the feeding models she’s created. She helps parents and professionals alike apply the principles she’s discovered through her work and research. She developed the division of responsibility in feeding model, which is the gold standard in child feeding and in this section you will find out why. If you want to learn more about her work, you can do so here www.ellynsatterinstitute.org
The division of responsibility is not a set of rules, rather a framework that allows families to create a mealtime structure where kids can learn and become competent eaters by keeping the mealtime battles at minimum.
How does the Division of Responsibility in Feeding Works
In the division of responsibility, you will have your responsibilities to carry out and your child will have theirs.
The best way I found to explain the division of responsibility is to have you picture a two-lane highway with a double yellow line in the center. We all know that a solid yellow line means “do not cross” into the other late. A double yellow line, means neither car in each lane can cross into the other. If you stay in your lane, you won’t risk veering off-road, or a head-on collision with your child. And vice versa.
Parents are responsible for when, where, who and what to feed kids.
Kids are responsible for how much and whether or not to eat.
Why You Should Start Using the Division of Responsibility
The power struggle that we generally experience at mealtimes makes the child’s decision to eat or not to eat be based on external factors of power and control. Instead, we should at all costs foster an environment at mealtime where their decision to eat is based on internal and physiological factors such as hunger and appetite cues.
It’s important to create a mealtime dynamic that has enough structure in place so that your children know what’s expected of them, yet they have enough wiggle room to make decisions of their own.
The division of responsibility gives exactly that framework that works very well from toddlerhood into the teen years.
Parent’s Responsibility: WHEN – Avoid the dinnertime grumpiness by nailing your mealtime spacing
One of the most important things that you must decide in your home is when to offer foods.
Nailing your mealtime spacing makes the entire difference in the world for a pleasant mealtime for several different reasons.
First, it helps to keep your child’s blood sugar balanced. You know as adults we get slightly cranky, on edge or even sleepy when our blood sugar dips too low, and the same things happen with our kids. Often times we mistake our kid’s tantrums for them being difficult, but really they are “hangry”.
Secondly, we want them to be hungry when they come to the table, but not to the point where they are just angry and ready to pick fights. This also means that in-between meals, the kitchen is closed.
No grazing, nibbling, or snacking until the next meal. There’s nothing more powerful that will get your child to eat their meal, than being hungry. And there’s nothing the kills appetite than being “somewhat full”. When we allow our kids to graze throughout the day and take a bite here and there of food in-between playing, they never focus enough on eating that their body never gets a signal they are full.
Most times, they eat enough to stop being hungry, before being distracted again by whatever game they were playing. The end result is that this way of eating messes up their hunger cues and appetite making them prone to overeat or undereat.
Thirdly, from a physiological “need” perspective, kids need to be reassured that appropriate foods (unspoiled, age-appropriate foods, etc) will be available to them when they are hungry. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, or rest are at the very bottom. While you might know there’s plenty of food in the house, if you don’t have a predictable mealtime schedule, you child might not put two and two together and worry unnecessarily when their next meal will be.
Parent’s Responsibility: WHAT – How to Stop Being a Short Order Cook
Deciding what to offer at each mealtime is within your control and responsibility. This means that you make one meal for the whole family and everyone eats the same foods.
I know what you’re thinking, “my kids will never eat what I eat”, etc.
Obviously, you’ll have to choose foods, you know your child is able to eat from a development perspective and foods that they can tolerate. Have at least 2 to 3 foods from your child’s safe list and another 2 to 3 new foods, or foods you are working on exposing your child to.
Generally, aim to have between 3 to 6 “foods” available. This can be a main protein, a side salad, some steamed peas, some raw carrots with hummus, and a basket of bread and some sauerkraut in a bowl. It’s definitely doesn’t mean you have to cook from scratch 5 different dishes, but having a selection of foods everyone can choose from will reduce that mealtime drama.
As you are implementing these changes, depending on where your child is on the picky eating spectrum, you might have to leave the food alone. That is, serve the exact same menu as you normally would as you work on implementing the principles in the division of responsibility.
Parent’s Responsibility: WHERE – Eat Distraction Free
Another decision point you have is to determine where every eats. At home, in the car, in the mall, in front of the TV, etc
Sometimes it’s unavoidable to eat in a space where our kids will get distracted like at a friend’s house or at the mall. But while at home, I want you to practice “mindful eating” as much as possible … well at least the busy mom’s version.
If you’ve ever eaten a ginormous bag of popcorn while watching a movie and have no idea how you did it, you’ll appreciate that there’s something to be said about being “present” and focused on our meal when eating. It takes our bodies 20 minutes to register that we are full, so it’s best to eat in a space where the meal is the focus and there are no other distractions like cell phones at the table or the TV on in the background.
Kids and screens are like white on rice! Whenever possible turn off the screens and have everyone sit at the table together for their meal or snack. Aim for at least one meal a day where the entire family can sit together. This doesn’t have to be dinner. Maybe breakfast works better for your family.
Parent’s Responsibility: WHO – Be a role model for your child
Since you are the one to control who the child will eat with, it’s part of your responsibility to make this decision.
Let me take a moment and define what a meal actually is. A meal is when you sit down and eat, by yourself or with others. It’s not cooking fancy meals. It’s not making everything from scratch. It’s taking a moment to stop and eat whatever you are eating.
As often as possible, have a meal together. For many families, it means, sitting down together at dinner time, and for others, it might mean eating breakfast together. Work your way up to having everyone in the house sitting down together for as many meals as reasonably possible.
Child’s Responsibility: HOW MUCH
The division of responsibilities is based on trust. At its most basic level, your child will trust that you will provide appropriate foods for them at regular and predictable times and in turn, you have to trust that your child will eat how much he needs to.
Children are very good regulators. While their appetite may seem to be all over the place, you have to get yourself to a place where you trust that they know instinctively how much to eat to feel full and to grow the way they were meant to grow. Their internal hunger and satiety cues work much better than ours and that’s one reason why you’ll often hear me say that we have to do things to support those systems and avoid doing things that will interfere with them.
One way to support your child’s internal regulation is to allow them to choose how much to eat at every meal. It’s their responsibility and their choice to decide how much to eat.
Child’s Responsibility: HOW MUCH
Making the decision to eat, should be guided by internal factors such as appetite, hunger and satiety cues. Not by external factors. For adults, an external reason to eat, can be to make ourselves feel better when we are sad, or push ourselves to fit in one more piece of cake.
For children, external reasons to eat, most often than not, are to exercise their independence and control.
In practice it means:
- avoid saying things like “Take one more bite”, “Just try one bite, you’ll like it”, etc
- Not putting food on your child’s plate, let them serve themselves
- Let them choose the foods they want to eat
- Let them go back for as much as they want to
In other words, parents, stay in your lane. I promise there are so many other “scripts” you can tell your child that will actually get them to eat.
I don’t have enough space to go over all of them in this post, but if you are interested I go in depth into this in my feeding kids course From Picky To Eating. (Use coupon code MUNCHKIN25 for an extra 25% off.)
How to Implement the Division of Responsibility at Home
I hope that you can begin to see how intertwined this new mealtime structure is and how each responsibility supports another. By removing any pressure you can place on your child to eat, you eliminate the need for any power struggles and fuel their need for control in a healthy and productive way.
In my feeding kids membership the I ❤️ Mealtime Club, we go into great lengths to make sure you create this mealtime structure that allows you and your child a predictable routine with predetermined expectations.
You gain freedom and so does your child.
This leaves room to turn your attention to helping your child learn about food.
It gives you space to change the way to talk to your child at dinnertime in a way that gets them to want to try new food.
It gives your child an opportunity to calm down and explore food at their own pace.
Now that you have worked on how to get your child to come and stay at the table, the next step is to work on changing what you do and what you say at the dinner table.
If you need help implementing the Division of Responsibility, join the I ❤️ Mealtime Club