The Division of Responsibilities for Feeding your child, created by Ellyn Satter, can help reduce stress during mealtimes and teach your child how to eat better and be less picky. Read about how we use these rules in our house and how we turned picky eating around for our toddler.
I wanted to take a few minutes and write about the Division of Responsibilities when it comes to feeding your kids. This concept is not new, and I definitely didn’t think of this. All credit goes to Ellyn Satter, who is a Registered Dietitian, family therapist, author, trainer, publisher, and consultant, and is an internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding. Basically, she devoted her life to this and knows her stuff.
I wanted to share this concept on my blog to give it more visibility because this is so important, and many parents might not come across Ellyn Satter’s work if they don’t know to search for her website.
It might also be helpful to see these Division of Responsibilities in practice, to see how we approach them as a family, where we struggle, and what advice we have for others. So here we go!
Division of responsibilities
Ellyn came up with the following Division of Responsibilities when it comes to feeding your children. There are two rules:
- You decide what, when, and where to feed your kids.
- Your kids decide how much they want to eat, or whether they want to eat at all.
Basically, the parent’s job is to feed their child, the children’s job is to eat.
Even though it’s a pretty simple concept, it can be hard to stick to because of our inner desires to feed our kids. We fear that our kids are not eating enough or are not getting enough nutrition. We are afraid that our kids will not eat at AT ALL so we force them to eat.
I am guilty of this too. I have a two year old son who is pretty underweight because of his eating issues (pickiness, sensory/texture issues, etc).
I wrote many times on this blog about how we use all kinds of sensory tricks to get my son to eat, or how we used to put on the iPad just so my son would eat something (read about how we finally quit screen time during meals!).
But having this Division of Responsibilities in the back of my mind gives me a goal to strive for, even if I don’t follow these perfectly every day. So let’s break these down.
You decide on your child’s meal and snack schedule (WHEN)
This is pretty much what you’ve done since your baby stopped nursing or getting a bottle on demand, so this is easy. Just make sure the meals and snacks are spaced far enough apart that your child has a chance to get hungry, but not so hungry that they have a meltdown and are too hungry or tired to eat. (Read about our ideal two year old schedule).
You create a healthy consistent eating environment (WHERE)
Ideally, your kids would eat in the same place at home, in a relaxed, screen-free environment with the rest of the family. This way they know what to expect when they come to the table. Obviously, this is not always possible, but do your best to have some consistency to your child’s eating environment.
You prepare whatever food you want them to eat (WHAT)
This does NOT necessarily mean “eat what I cook or starve.” Make sure there is at least one or two foods available that your child likes to eat. Preferably, eat the same meals together as a family, and serve all the foods in the center of the table family-style. Again, this is not always possible, but having your kid see that you are eating the same foods you are offering them might make them feel more inclined to eventually try the food.
Your kid decides if they want to eat at all (WHETHER)
Your kid might refuse to eat altogether. This can be sooo frustrating. Instead of pressuring them, there are a few ways to deal with this. If your kid is older, explain to them that they are not eating again until dinner 3 hours later. Or until breakfast 12 hours later. They might choose to go hungry a few times, but should (hopefully?) realize that you’re serious and they better eat when food is on the table.
If your kid is a toddler or younger, this might mean you have to take a break, let them play or run around, and try to sit them down again in a few minutes (remember, YOU decide when they eat). At least that’s what we do with my son and it seems to work. Because if he is in a not-eating mood, nothing we try will make him eat. He’ll need a little break to reset, and we try again in a few minutes.
Your kid decides if they want seconds, or if they are done after 3 bites (HOW MUCH)
Again, it can be frustrating or scary to allow this to happen.
What if your kid only eats a few bites and then says “all done!”? In our case I often let our son play and try again with either the same food or another food later. Sometimes I give him a bottle of milk instead of a meal. This might not be sticking to the rules 100% (although I am deciding WHAT he eats, sooo maybe?), but my son is pretty underweight. He’s gotta eat somehow. I’m not perfect.
Or what if your kid ONLY eats bread for dinner 3 days in a row?? Are you supposed to let it happen?
I don’t have a perfect answer for this, I am not a professional feeding therapist or consultant. I try to mitigate this by using rule #1: offering my son at least 2 foods that he will eat. Sometimes I put out just enough chicken that we finish it all and then say that we are all out, so that my son might switch to another food. This often works! I don’t know if this is 100% sticking to the division of responsibilities, but I also know I want to nudge my son towards eating a variety of foods for every meal, and this is one way to do it.
The Division of Responsibilities in feeding is not necessarily the “be-all end-all” approach to feeding and picky eating, but it is definitely worthwhile to think about this concept and see if it can be applied to your approach to feeding your kids… especially if you are struggling with picky eating and feel like whatever you are currently doing is not working.
I am a big believer in trying to learn as much as I can and hearing different viewpoints and approaches, and then deciding which methods and techniques would work best for our family, even if that means picking and choosing, mixing and matching from different philosophies. But that is all very personality-driven, right? My husband prefers to go all-in with one philosophy and try something 100%. I like to break the rules once in a while. 🙂
In addition to these Division of Responsibilities, we also have a few other rules we follow at home to try to reduce stress about my son’s eating. Definitely check them out, you might be doing something unintentionally that is harming your child’s relationship with food.
Overall we’ve had a complete transformation in my son’s eating in just about a year.
A year ago our son would freak out and cry when being put in the high chair, gag and throw up at the sight of food, only eat while distracted and watching cartoons, and was losing weight because he was not eating enough. Now we actually enjoy our time at the dinner table and are able to eat together as a family without any stress (most days!).
This is all thanks to a few different things:
- lots of sensory play. Sensory play is SO important for picky eaters. I even made a list of sensory activities to do with my son for a whole year. Learn more about my 52 Weeks of Sensory!
- following this Division of Responsibility as best as we can
- following a few of our own picky eating rules
- reading more about how to feed your child on the Ellyn Satter Institute website
- reading a few books by Ellyn Satter
- this Mealtime Works class, which was the start of our picky eating transformation journey that made us realize we can get help!
- weekly in-person feeding therapy
- using the Nuk brush to stop gagging and throwing up from food (it helped desensitize my son’s gag reflex)
- feeding my son food he likes but using his “preferred foods” to expose him to new foods (read about how we use French fries as a “gateway” food)
Definitely check out these other resources and blog posts if you are worried about your child’s eating or are stressed just thinking about trying to feed your child. You can absolutely get help and turn things around, no matter what age your child is.
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