In my last article I shared information and tips on raising competent eaters — kids who grow up to be adults who have the ability, knowledge, and skills to feed themselves and have a stress-free relationship with food and their body.
A framework that can help in raising competent eaters is one we will touch on here, Division of Responsibility.
As parents and caregivers, we feel a lot of pressure to give our kids all the nutrients they need to be healthy. That is where the Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR) comes in.
What is Division of Responsibility?
Division of Responsibility is a child feeding framework developed by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, therapist and family feeding specialist. It acknowledges children’s natural abilities to feed themselves and make decisions around food that best suit their needs and gives parents and caregivers specific roles in providing eating opportunities and environments that are supportive and positive.
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The sDOR delineates between what our roles as parents/caregivers in feeding are and what our kid’s roles are. Simply put, parents/caregivers are responsible for what food is presented, where it is eaten and when, and the child is responsible for whether they eat and how much.
How does it work?
By us having our roles, and kids having their roles, and by allowing them autonomy and choice, we take the pressure off of ourselves and them and ultimately create a more peaceful eating and feeding environment.
Parents’/caregiver’s job is to take leadership with:
- What foods are served at meals and snacks
- Where eating happens
- When the snack or meal happens
Our kids’ job is then to decide:
- How much they will eat
- Whether they will eat it
This can be a big departure from how many of us grew up or are used to approaching feeding our kids, but I assure you it can bring much needed peace to the table. When we provide some structure and several choices of both foods our child already enjoys and some that are new, we can provide peaceful opportunities for them to make choices around what they will eat and how much.
In doing this we skip the begging and bribing that can often happen. Instead of “just one more bite!” or “eat your veggies and you can have dessert!” we offer a variety of foods (some of which they will eat and some they won’t) and allow them to decide and trust that they will ultimately get enough of what they need.
What if kids don’t choose ‘healthy’?
There is a lot of perfectionistic thinking and unrealistic expectations when it comes to what is “healthy” in our world of food today. A category of food that is a common source of stress is fruits and veggies. Of course, fruits and vegetables are beneficial, but I can promise the more we pressure them to eat them the less they will want to.
When we can both model eating and enjoying fruits and vegetables and a wide variety of other foods as parents/caregivers and offer them as an option at meals and snacks with no pressure this allows kids to choose rather than being forced.
Division of Responsibility at all ages
This framework is useful at all ages and stages, but as a mom of teens I will tell you it gets tougher the older they get. Starting as early as possible is your best bet. But don’t fret if you are beyond the toddler/elementary school age. There is still plenty you can do to raise competent eaters.
How to start with your family?
If all of this seems difficult or foreign, but intriguing and you’d like to give this Division of Responsibility thing a try, here are some ways to start.
- Take stock of your own beliefs around food. It only makes sense that if we are approaching food lacking confidence and feeling a lot of anxiety ourselves that our kids would pick up on that. If you grew up in a “clean your plate!” household or have been on and off diets most of your life, your approach can impact how you approach feeding your kids. Begin by considering your own attitude and beliefs with food as a helpful first step.
- Provide regular meals and snacks with a variety of foods and as a family. Kids thrive on structure, in general and around eating. By providing regular and consistent sit-down meals and snacks you set the stage for kids to learn the importance of nourishing themselves based on their body’s needs. As kids get older and extracurricular activities and social events keep them busy it can be challenging to come together as a family for meals. Studies show that children and teens who have family meals eat better, feel better about themselves, and do better in school.
- Let go of control and trust that they will get what they need. The beauty of sDOR is that we have our jobs and responsibilities in feeding and our kids have their responsibilities in eating. Taking on the planning and providing and setting gentle structure around when and where mealtimes are offered are plenty to think about without passing the boundaries into whether they eat it or how much. Kids won’t eat perfectly. Over time they will get what they need and the less we put pressure the more likely they are to be curious and interested eaters.
Bring peace back to meal
By putting Division of Responsibility into practice we can work towards taking away much of the pressure and stress involved with feeding our families and can get back to finding pleasure and enjoyment in eating.
It won’t ever be perfect (hint: there is no such thing) and even with implementing this framework there will be difficult days. The problem is more in the expectation of perfect than what, how much or whether our kids eat. Eating and feeding our kids doesn’t have to be perfect to be enough.
So, remember, your job is the what, when, and where, and their job is the how much and whether. A great visual is to envision an imaginary line is set as soon as you put the food on the table or your child’s plate. That imaginary line represents the end of your job.
Nice right? Now you can just enjoy your own meal.
By staying in our lane with feeding and letting our kids stay in theirs, we can create mealtimes and eating experiences that are less stressful and combative. In the long run, this approach can help us to raise our kids to learn to honor their preferences and body’s signals for hunger, fullness, satisfaction and pleasure and confidently and competently feed themselves in a way that meets their needs.
Want to learn more?
Here are a couple of resources to check out.
“How to Raise an Intuitive Eater,” by Sumner Brooks and Aimee Severson
“Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating” by Kayak Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin
Podcasts on feeding kids and families:
Sunny Side Up Nutrition Podcast
Comfort Food Podcast
Anna Jones is a registered dietitian. Visit her website at annajonesrd.com.
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