There’s a feeding method known as the Division of Responsibility that can drastically improve mealtime battles and picky eating in kids. It can be confusing to put into action without the right context and information though, so we’re going to explain it all step-by-step to help you improve your own family meals with less work than you might expect. Really!
The Division of Responsibility
The Division of Responsibility in Feeding is an evidence-based approach to feeding kids that aims to allow parents to set boundaries through setting mealtimes and what is in each meal, but gives kids the chance to learn to trust their own hunger and fullness cues. This is not a diet or a set of rules, but a guiding principal that clearly sets out what parents and kids are each responsible for come mealtimes.
Where did this method come from?
This method was pioneered by the feeding therapist and psychotherapist Ellyn Satter. She’s since trained many other feeding therapists to use this approach and for those of us who spend time thinking and talking about picky eating, it is such a gigantic help when it comes to lessening the potential burdens of both of those topics. The approach can also be used to help kids learn how to eat, to help reset not great food habits, and to recalibrate the balance of power during mealtimes.
Why should I try it?
If you feel any of these statements is true, even sometimes, and you’re looking for a way to change things, the approach is definitely worth a try.
- My child refuses to eat the dinner I make for the rest of the family and holds out for food he prefers.
- My child likes to graze all day and is never hungry for meals.
- I’m concerned that my child is eating enough.
- I’m concerned that my child is eating too much.
- I’m worried that my child is sneaking food or lying about what they’re actually eating.
- I’m stressed out about mealtimes.
- I don’t know how to serve meals that everyone in the family will eat.
- My child is super picky and only wants to eat his favorite foods.
It’s a very broad approach that can help with almost any feeding issue (apart from serious medical ones—those require the help of a pediatrician or individual feeding therapist!).
How the Division of Responsibility Works Step-by-Step
Here’s a look at how the DOR works step-by-step so you know exactly how to do it.
- PARENT’S JOB: You are encouraged to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding.
- KID’S JOB: To decide which of the foods on offer and how much to eat.
This means that parents:
- Choose which foods to serve and prepare it.
- Stick to regular meals and snacks at predictable and appropriate times.
- Help to make eating times pleasant.
- Show kids how to behave at family meals by your own example.
- Understand that children don’t have a deep well of food memories and may be wary of trying new foods.
- Understand that children will have natural likes and dislikes.
- Aim to stick with mostly water between meals to allow hunger to be present at meal and snack times.
- Understand that each body is different and that your child has the right to grow into theirs.
- Talking about what the food is but aim to avoid pressuring the kids to take a certain amount of bites.
- Avoid using food as a reward for good or preferred behavior.
And the kids:
- Are free to choose the foods they want to eat.
- Are free to eat the amount of food that they need
- Learn to share the food on offer before getting seconds.
- See parents and older siblings modeling good mealtime behavior and learn to follow suit.
- Are free to be done eating when they say they’re full.
- Learn to accept that we sometimes have to wait until the next meal or snack time to eat.
- Learn to accept that not every mealtime will be a favorite.
How Family-Style Meals Play into the Division of Responsibility
An approach that can greatly improve the success of using this feeding method is to serve meals family style. This way, everyone has an equal chance to serve themselves exactly what they want on their plates. Put the food on the table—or on the counter if you don’t have room at the table—and let the kids decide what to put on their plates. The kids can even actually put the food on their plates, even toddlers. (My two year old routinely does this and while sometimes she missed her plate, it’s so empowering!)
Use the principal of sharing to ensure that everyone gets some of what they want—so a child can’t take the entire bowl of corn if no one else has had any yet—and talk about what foods taste like and are similar to if something is new.
Potential Pitfalls to Watch Out For
Here are some questions that many parents have about using the Division of Responsibility in Feeding with their kids:
What if my child doesn’t want the foods I’ve served?
A phrase I like to use is “not every meal will be your favorite but you can still eat it”. This isn’t forcing food, but is reminding kids that we all have favorite foods. Allow the kids to serve themselves from the foods they want and don’t insist that they take a certain amount of anything. That should help a lot.
What if my child only wants one of the foods I’ve served?
You can change the subject to get them to talk about something from their day and focus less on the food, let them have more after everyone has shared and been able to take some, remind them that there can be more of that food at another meal if it’s all gone.
What if my child says they are hungry between mealtimes?
This can be hard since often when kids say they are hungry, they’re really bored, tired, or wanting attention. I use the phrase “I hear that you’re hungry and dinner is almost ready. Can you go do XX until I have it on the table?”. You can also decide to institute a regular appetizer if something like this happens routinely (kids are often super hungry for dinner!) but I recommend that you still decide what the food is—and go for produce since it won’t fill the kids up before they get to the actual meal.
How do I cook a meal that everyone will like?
Aim to include 1-2 foods that your child usually likes and be okay with serving other foods that they sometimes do, that are new, or that you just have no idea if they’ll eat. The beauty of this system is that without pressure, kids very often try things you don’t expect them to since there aren’t any power dynamics at play.
If you’re trying to do Division of Responsibility and you’re feeling stressed or you feel like something isn’t working right, be sure to check in with the additional info on the Ellyn Satter website. There are so many good resources there!
How You Know You’re Doing it Right
I will start by saying that as someone who’s been using this method for over 5 years, there will be good days and less-good days because…kids! And food is often highly charged and emotional for everyone, no matter how hard you try to stay neutral. BUT, by allowing the kids to trust their hunger and eat the foods they want to eat without pressure, you can drastically improve the experience of mealtimes. Keep these things in mind:
- Kids won’t always eat every food group at every meal.
- Kids will naturally be hungrier some days and meals and less so at others.
- There is no “right” portion for everyone, no matter what labels and packages say.
- Little kids are naturally able to regulate their own hunger (but they can lose that ability if we push and prod them to eat or not eat too much).
- This method is incredibly freeing for parents because rather than assuming that your kid is picky, this is your new normal: If my child isn’t eating, they must not be hungry for food.
- Know that if a child doesn’t eat much at one meal, they have another opportunity that’s not too far away at the next scheduled eating time.
This post is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. Please reach out to a care provider in the case of serious health or feeding issues.