Feeding young children can be a chaotic, stressful endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. Trevor likes pasta but Bianca won’t touch it, and as a parent, you don’t want to be preparing individual meals for every family member. How much should you serve? How do you get your picky eaters to eat vegetables? If you’re worried about your child’s weight, what should you do about his/her diet? Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility addresses all of these questions, providing a road map for family meals and for helping your children develop healthy relationships with food and their bodies.
According to Satter, it is the parents’ job to decide when their children eat. This means that parents schedule mealtimes and snacks (making sure there’s never too long of a gap). Children decide if they want to eat at any particular meal/snack, and parents need not force feed. If the children choose not to eat, parents respect that decision. Soon enough, there will be another opportunity to eat.
Parents also decide what their children will eat, particularly with the younger set. Parents don’t play “short order cook,” preparing a different meal for different kids or moods. They serve a single meal, composed of several food items at meals, with at least one food item they know will be palatable to their kids. They might add additional items that serve as experimental or trial foods, which their kids may or may not try at their discretion. Parents don’t force their children to eat specific foods (even a taste) but allow children to come around to preferences on their own timetables. Parents might observe their children refusing to eat new foods, and then with time, smelling or tasting the items and eventually coming to eat them regularly, but it is important that this process be self-directed, and that parents not be invested in any particular outcome. Children will generally come around to trying new foods (it might take time); it is important to respect their autonomy in doing so.
Children decide if they want to eat, as stated above, and there need not be any power struggle around this. Children also decide how much they will eat at any given meal. Gone are the days of the “clean plate club” as well as efforts to restrict dietary intake. Parents might struggle with letting go of control around this variable, particularly if they have concerns about their children’s weight, but when they try to control their kids’ intake, children lose their innate ability to self-regulate, to respond to internal hunger and fullness cues. If this happens, they might become prone to emotional eating, overeating, and dietary restriction down the road, potential precursors for eating disorders. Therefore, parents should allow young children to eat until they are satisfied and should not serve different portion sizes to their children based on hopes and expectations for their children’s growth and weight. Children can trust their bodies to self-regulate, and parents should, too. They can also learn to trust, as Satter says, that their children “will grow predictably in the way that is right for [them].”
By following the Division of Responsibility, mealtimes become more pleasant and less of a power struggle. Each individual understands his/her roles and responsibilities, and the expectations are clear. Parents help children learn to eat intuitively, honoring their hunger and fullness cues, find pleasure and satisfaction in food, and use food for nourishment, rather than emotional soothing. For help with implementing the Division of Responsibility, contact the Gatewell team, all of whom specialize in eating and body image concerns.