If you've ever wondered about the logistics of introducing new foods to kids without it breaking down into a battle of wills or causing mealtimes to be stressful, then this is for you! And even if you haven't, grab some tips about how to keep the mealtime peace while still introducing your children to all sorts of new foods!
The Division of Responsibility can be a game changer for parents at mealtimes, especially when it comes to introducing new foods. It doesn’t matter if your child is 6 months or 6 years, this gold standard for feeding that was developed by Ellyn Satter (ref) can make all the difference in the world when it comes to reducing the stress involved with feeding.
So just what is the Division of Responsibility? In a nut shell it is when both the parents and the child have clear responsibilities to perform around feeding. Parents are responsible for deciding when meals and snacks will happen, and what will be served. Children are responsible for deciding how much of something they will eat, and whether they will eat it at all.
The premise behind this, and what has been shown to be accurate time and time again, is that when parents or children cross the lines and start performing the other person’s job, that is when feeding issues arise.
I’ve gone in depth into the Division of Responsibility (DoR) as a whole in another post, so I won’t do that again here. But when it comes to implementing it, there are a few nuances that are important to understand and incorporate in order to get the most out of it.
The number one thing that is important to remember when implementing the Division of Responsibility is that you get to decide WHAT is being served, but you need to keep a few things in mind.
First, the idea is never to be vindictive when it comes to meals. You don’t want to purposefully serve only things that you know your child isn’t a fan of, just because you feel like it. This also includes introducing new foods at a meal with no other options for them to eat. But that doesn’t mean that you should cater to them either.
So just how do you handle figuring out what to serve? First and foremost, plan and serve things that you yourself want to eat! You are the parent, and you get to choose. That means that there is no need to serve chicken nuggets or mac and cheese all the time just because you know your child will eat them!
Focus on serving balanced meals that help to satisfy your child’s nutritional needs but also that satisfy your own desire for food. This includes introducing new foods frequently to expose your child to a variety of foods. Get the Grow Baby Grow ebook for some ideas of foods to make sure you’re including! Having parents that enjoy what they are eating is key to helping your child learn to enjoy their own food!
All foods are fair game here, even if you don’t consider them incredibly healthy. But the key for you as a parent is to provide a general balance of foods. If you are serving something that isn’t the most nutritious meal for one dinner, maybe compensate by serving more nutritious foods with the next meal or two the following day. If your own diet primarily consists of foods that you might not consider particularly nourishing, now is a great time to branch out and focus on balanced meals for the whole family.
Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to eat, it’s now time to consider your child. Let’s use an example meal here. Say you decide that at dinner you will be serving chicken and vegetables. You know that your child isn’t a huge fan of chicken and it can be hit or miss whether they eat it. You'll be introducing a new food with the vegetable you've chosen, too, so you don't know if they'll eat it. But they love pasta! So to help round out the meal, you include pasta.
We’d consider this pasta your child’s “safe” food. It’s a food that you can reasonably expect them to eat at a meal. It doesn’t have to be fancy! By serving them something like this, you are taking into account their preferences, but you aren’t catering to them. You’re providing them a way to get in calories, and to satisfy their hunger, but the whole meal doesn’t revolve around what foods they may or may not eat. And you're able to introduce new foods to them without worrying about whether they will eat it or not, or whether they will be hungry afterwards.
The idea of the safe food is not to have it be the same every meal. And it’s definitely not to dwindle foods down to only one or two foods that they will reliably eat. The idea is to think of foods that would naturally go with the meal, or at least something that you can include on the table for everyone. Maybe you put out a bowl of cheese to top things with, or a plate of bread to round out the meal.
It’s something that you include for everyone- not just the child you are thinking of. We are not doing any kind of short order cooking here! By anticipating a food that your child usually likes, you are really giving them a way to get in calories if they are hungry. And by following the Division of Responsibility when you’re doing this, you can provide a no pressure environment at meal times that allows your child to be in control of what they eat even when you are introducing new foods to them or serving foods that they don't love.
That means that once you put the food on the table, it is up to them if they eat it. They can take 3 or more servings of their safe food, even if it’s just cheese. And they can take none, or not even touch, any of the other food. That’s okay!
Believe it or not, providing a safe food for them in a no pressure environment actually increases the chance that they will try some of the other food that they might not be used to. When we allow them to satisfy their hunger with a safe food, without having to eat food they aren’t yet comfortable with, it opens their minds to trying other foods, too!
Think about it. Imagine that you are dining someplace new with food that you aren’t familiar with. But you're starving. And your hosts are sitting across from you telling you how great it is, that you just really should take a bite. In other words, putting pressure on you to try it. Sure, some of you might, especially as adults. But you likely wouldn’t be comfortable while doing it! And it sure wouldn’t make you want to experiment and try things by yourself.
Now imagine if that new food was accompanied by something as simple as a bread basket. You’re familiar with bread. You know you can satisfy your hunger with it so you won’t be starving at the end of the meal. And the people you are eating with are just going about their own meals, not concerning themselves with what you do or don’t eat. Most of us are much more willing to sample things on our own time, without the pressure of needing to fill up on them! Kids are exactly the same way.
I can’t stress enough though that the idea of a safe food is not about serving them chicken nuggets or easy to like foods all the time. This is about making sure they can meet their hunger with whatever food is served. It’s about considering them when thinking of meals you will make and what they may or may not eat, while at the same time introducing them to new foods. But it’s not about just serving them easy foods that no one else in the family really wants to eat, or that do not stretch them and expose them to new things.
As a last note, I want to address the opposite side of safe foods. Sometimes, you will come across meals where your child doesn’t eat anything at all, not even their safe foods. This doesn’t mean you should get up and make them something else until you find something that they will eat.
This usually just means that they aren’t hungry! One of the main pluses of a safe food is that it helps you to see when your child is or isn’t hungry. If you’ve served a food that they normally eat, and they don’t touch it, you can reliably conclude that they just weren’t hungry. Children’s appetites change from day to day and meal to meal. Sometimes they just won’t be hungry! And that’s okay, they can eat at the next meal.
I hear all the time from parents that their kid won’t eat a food they normally do, but if they get them a favorite food then they’ll eat it. So that must mean they’re hungry, right?
Nope! Most of us will eat our favorite foods even when we’re not hungry, too!
I might not really want food, but if you put in front of me something that I love, I will ignore my hunger cues and eat it anyways. And while that’s not always a bad thing, we definitely don’t want our children getting into the habit of eating when their bodies are telling them they aren’t hungry.
One of our main goals in feeding is to help our children maintain their connection with their hunger and satiety cues. That is how we help them maintain a lifelong healthy relationship with food. And giving safe foods at meals is a great way to help foster this connection!
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