Family mealtimes can be so overwhelming. Many things can contribute to that: picky eaters, lack of time, sporadic or conflicting schedules among family members, to say nothing about concern over preparing nutritionally adequate meals for a large variety of people. It is easy for meal times to become times of conflict or coercion rather than a nourishing and pleasurable meal. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. I am not promising a meal without hiccups or speed bumps or effort, but understanding The Division of Responsibility can take a lot of pressure off of parents and help nurture competent and confident eaters all around.
The Division of Responsibility (DOR) is a feeding guide developed by Registered Dietitian, Ellyn Satter. I highly recommend her book “Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family” in which she outlines this division. I’ll summarize it here, referencing her work. You can also learn more at her website.
Essentially, there are different responsibilities for a parent/caretaker and a child at mealtimes. Too often parents overstep their boundaries, which can lead to a power struggle that leads to unpleasant experiences. In return, children aren’t able to develop a healthy relationship with food - one where they are offered healthy foods and then able to listen to their own innate hunger and fullness signals; an essential part of being a competent eater through adulthood. Below I will quote from the Ellyn Satter Institute to give you an idea of what the DOR looks like:
Parents’ feeding jobs:
- Choose and prepare the food.
- Provide regular meals and snacks.
- Make eating times pleasant.
- Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
- Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
- Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.
Children’s eating jobs:
- Children will eat.
- They will eat the amount they need.
- They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
- They will grow predictably.
- They will learn to behave well at mealtime.
If your child has developmental concerns that you feel warrants a different DOR, I would encourage you to visit the website listed above as well as follow their Facebook page where a lot of those concerns are addressed.
I've followed Ellyn Satter's work for most of parenting life but I haven't always implemented it. I had a pretty big wake up call one day with my now almost 10 year old, which was THE turning point for me in making peace with food. I can personally vouch for this DOR; the changes I have seen in myself and my children was well worth the effort. I feel so fortunate that I was able to recognize and take steps to improve the food relationship in my home before it may have been too late.
Speaking of which, while you may assume the opposite, it’s best not to label foods as “good” or “bad”. It’s possible that children will learn to pass moral judgment on themselves when they eat so-called “good” or “bad” foods. Parents would be wise to stay neutral about the type of food and amount eaten, for yourself and your children. It’s very possible that the food you may be restricting with the best intentions for your child’s health may cause him or her to become overly focused about. They may feel the need to hide foods from you or to closet-eat. On the other hand, part of your responsibility is to expose your kids to foods you hope they will grow to like!
It is only by staying on your side of the line that your children learn to stay on their side. If parents do their job, children can be trusted to eat enough for the body they are meant to have. While this DOR may take effort to implement, it’s well worth it in the long run to ensure your children mature in their relationship with food. It will also decrease stress and increase pleasure around meal times. I hope you find that to be true!
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD