Division of Responsibility in Feeding

In my early days as a WIC clinic nutritionist, I stumbled upon a book in a reference section for one of the classes I was teaching. This book revolutionized the way I thought about feeding children. It focused more on the psychological aspect of feeding children than the physical. Everyone pretty much knows kids should eat vegetables, but how do we get that to happen without turning every dinner into a coercive, sometimes explosive, battle arena.

Not only are we trying to get kids to eat their broccoli, but we want them to WANT to eat their broccoli. As a parent, I believe in the long game. We are trying to build eaters that will one day buy the broccoli from the store, not out of guilt or obligation, but because they enjoy having it as part of their diet.

The book I’m referencing is “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming” by Ellyn Satter. She is a trailblazer in the realm of child nutrition and feeding. The concept she developed over decades of working as a Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist is called the Division of Responsibility.

The Division of Responsibility is a concept that breaks down the process of feeding children into two realms of responsibilities: parent responsibilities and children responsibilities. From the Ellyn Satter Institute website: “the division of responsibility in feeding encourages you to take leadership with the whatwhen, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide”.

So what does this look like practically? In our home, Eloise is in charge of how much she wants to eat and whether or not she wants to eat at all. As long as everyone has gotten a serving and does not want anymore, she is allowed to eat as much of a dish as she wants. This is incredibly freeing. No battles of “one more bite and you can get down”. No coercion or trickery. We get to have nice, relaxing meal together. Just like I always imagined. Now, it can be stressful to watch her eat 5 slices of bread and butter and nothing else at dinner, but it provided her two things that night. First and most important: security that there will always be something at dinner that feels safe and she can enjoy eating. Second: feedback on what it feels like to eat only bread for dinner and experience on how to handle unlimited bread one day when she is an adult, or next week. Above all else, we want dinner time in our house to be calm and pleasant. New foods are much scarier when dinner time itself is not soothing.

This is easier said than done, and I find myself still trying to subtly limit certain foods that I have carried baggage about into adulthood. Last night, for example, we were having some leftover mini muffins with dinner, and Eloise had more than I felt like she “should” eat. I had to resist telling her she’d had enough. You know what happened later in that meal? She willingly ate kale salad for the first time. Do you think that would have happened if we had broken down into a battle about the chocolate chip topped muffins? I don’t.

Now, another crucial element is that as the adult, I am in charge of providing nourishing foods. That means we don’t have chocolate topped muffins at every meal. We do, however, have something that I know she enjoys eating at every meal, or at least a food that is neutral. Sometimes that’s simply bread and butter. Sometimes we have to pop open a can of peaches, just to be sure there is something that isn’t intimidating. This is important on nights I know are tough, like with a new soup she hasn’t seen before.

This may be a new concept in your house. I encourage you to try it out and go slow. Give yourself grace, especially if you are moving away from battle habits. It may take time, but it is worth it. It has been the best thing for meal times in our house.

Here is a link for the book I mentioned above. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend it. It’s also available on my library’s Libby app, so you can check and see if yours has a copy too.


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