Have you heard of the Division of Responsibility? It’s an important tool that can help parents of all ages reduce stress and battles around meal times! Read on for more information about it!
End Goal: Healthy Relationships with Food
Our goal as parents is to help our kids have a healthy relationship with food. Another way to say that is that we want them to become competent eaters. But just what do those mean, really? To be a competent eater, there are a few things we are looking for. In the words of Ellyn Satter herself (creator of the Eating Competence model and the Division of Responsibility) eating competence has four components (ref):
- 1Context: Take time to eat, and provide yourself with rewarding meals and snacks at regular and reliable times.
- 2Attitude: Cultivate positive attitudes about eating and about food. Emphasize providing rather than depriving; seeking food rather than avoiding it.
- 3Food acceptance: Enjoy your eating, eat foods you like, and let yourself be comfortable with and relaxed about what you eat. Enjoying eating supports the natural inclination to seek variety, the keystone of healthful food selection.
- 4Internal regulation: Pay attention to your sensations of hunger and fullness to determine how much to eat. Go to meals and snacks hungry, eat until you feel satisfied, and then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon when you can do it again.
Want to see these tenants in practice and some real life ways to think of them? Head to this page to see the short 16 question quiz used to determine eating competence in adults. Are you yourself eating competent?
Being a competent eater is the end goal for our kids. Getting them there will do nothing but serve them well throughout life.
To get them there, one of the best things we can do is practice the Division of Responsibility. This can also prevent and address battles around picky eating, and the stress that it can bring!
Division of Responsibility
According to the Division of Responsibility (DoR), a parent has 3 jobs when it comes to feeding. (ref) You decide:
The child has 2 jobs. They decide:
So what does this mean, practically?
The best way to put DoR in to practice is to have set meal and snack times so that your children always know that there will reliably be food coming and they can start learning to trust their hunger and fullness cues.
Along with set times, put zero pressure on them at all to eat. This goes for both positive and negative pressure. Pressure can be encouraging more bites of food, rewarding for eating something, and not giving dessert until other food is eaten. Really, any type of encouragement or discouragement to eat something counts as pressure. Pressure can override your child’s own internal hunger and satiety cues and lead to concerns as they grow older.
DoR works amazingly well when parents learn to worry just about the part of feeding that they are responsible for. As soon as you cross the line and start doing your child’s job for them, as in pressuring them to eat something, feeding issues and control struggles can start to pop up.
How to Practice DoR for Different Ages
DoR for Babies
For young babies, DoR is still relevant! It’s also known generally as responsive feeding. Bottom line here, babies decide how much they want to eat. You aren’t going to be deciding when and where yet for them as responding to their cues still is the way to go. You do want to make sure you are letting them choose how much to eat, and never pressuring them to eat more or less food than what they want.
DoR for Older Babies and Young Toddlers
During this age, you still let your baby decide how much to eat. Follow the no pressure guidelines, and don’t encourage them to have more of something or stop them from eating something if they’re hungry. You are starting the transition during this time to you having the responsibility of deciding the when and where of eating, but are still highly responsive to their needs.
Many babies this age don’t respond well to strict meal structures, and you are likely still figuring out schedules that work for both you and your baby. No need to go overboard in trying to take on the when part of DoR. Have it as an end goal, and let it naturally evolve to that.
DoR for Toddlers and Older
As your baby gets fully into toddlerhood, it’s important to start establishing structured mealtimes. This is when you fully move into deciding the what, when and where aspects of DoR.
So how do you know when to transition to scheduled meals and snacks? There’s no hard and fast rule that says "at this time start meal schedules". It can take some trial and error on your part. The change will be developmental. When your child starts to show a preference for certain foods that aren’t on the table over ones that are. Or starts to not eat at meal times only to ask for a snack a few minutes later. These are both signs that it’s time to implement set meal times.
“When parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating." - Ellyn Satter
Beginning DoR When Your Kids Are Older
Are you already past the toddler point? It’s not too late to start! My recommendations would be to start now with the two things we’ve been talking about. Start implementing a meal schedule, and be sure you’re consistent about it! If your kid thinks that it’s a phase, or they can wait you out, then it won’t work.
Let your kid know that you’re starting something new, and the kitchen is closed in between designated meal and snack times. And then follow through! They won’t starve, and honestly, it's not a bad thing for them to feel and recognize what hunger is. That’s one of our long term goals for them. Keep in mind we’re not talking starvation here, just the feeling that your body needs fuel!
Next, practice putting no pressure on your kids at mealtimes. At all! Serve them food that you have chosen. You can be considerate of their skill level with eating and how comfortable they are with foods, without catering to exactly what they want. The best way to do this is to have something on the table you know they will eat. But that can be something as simple as bread. The rest of the food can be foods that they are learning to like.
There is no need to restrict what you are eating as a family because your child only likes a certain food. That caters to them excessively and can encourage selective eating to take hold and last for years!
Eating is a skill and a journey. If we give up on teaching our kids to learn the skills they need to accept different foods, we do them, and us, a disservice. It’s your job to choose the food. Whether one night that means takeout and the next its a perfectly balanced home cooked meal, that's not the important part.
You don’t need to cater to them and only serve what they will eat at that moment. Serve what you want to eat so that you can teach them what it looks like to enjoy your food. Still be considerate of their limitations, the goal isn't to throw them into the deep end! Stick to what you are responsible for in feeding. Let them decide how much of what you serve to eat.
But they’ll go to bed hungry!
If you aren’t practicing the Division of Responsibility already, it might take a few days of you sticking to your guns to get your child to accept the change. One of the biggest fears I hear from parents is that their kid will go to bed hungry. There are a couple of different ways to handle this.
My first recommendation is to always serve a bedtime snack after dinner. Make it something boring that isn’t something they look forward to, especially at the beginning of the transition. Offer it every day in a matter of fact way. Many people tend to offer new foods at dinner time, just when kids are exhausted after a long day. By offering a snack we can take the pressure off of eating the new food at dinner. It may seem like they’d always choose the snack over the dinner, and maybe they will at first. But after a short time they will likely just have the bedtime snack if they’re hungry. You’d be surprised what happens when you take all pressure off your kids to eat! Plus, by thinking of the snack as another mini meal, you can still offer nutritious foods to them that will help meet their nutritional needs.
The other strategy I’d recommend is riding out the night time hunger, and just plan for a bigger breakfast the next day when you know they will be extra hungry. This is a strategy that tends to work a little better for older kids that can understand things a little bit deeper. After 1 or 2 times of you not giving in, most kids will find something they can eat at the dinner table to fill them up. Don’t forget you’re offering at least one food at meal times that you know they’ll eat!
Real Life Examples
I’ll be going more into depth about practical applications of this in a future blog post, this was just a primer of what to head towards when feeding your kids. Bottom line, do your job with feeding and let your kid do theirs with eating. Trust that they will honor their hunger, and do your best to divorce yourself from the emotions that can come with worrying about whether they eat food or not. As hard as that may be!