The Division of Responsibility: How to Raise a Happy and Competent Eater
This post was developed in partnership with Pure Flavor, however, as always, all opinions are genuine.
As a dietitian and a mom, I often get asked “how do I get my kids to eat more vegetables?” Or parents tell me that their children are very “picky.” Some parents become exhausted acting as a short order cook, preparing different meals for each child in order to get everyone to eat. Dinner or any meal time becomes an unpleasant battle ground for pickiness and negotiating in order for to get kids to eat.
Many of us were raised to “clean our plate.” We were told to finish our meal before we were allowed to have dessert. Or perhaps there were negotiations - “eat at least two bites of cauliflower and three bites of meat before leaving the table.” These comments and behaviours lead children to become out of tune with their natural hunger and fullness cues in order to get something they want (dessert, tv. etc.) or to please a parent or caregiver.
How can parents navigate these situations to make meal times more pleasant for everyone?
The Division of Responsibly is a feeding theory developed by Registered Dietitian Ellyn Satter1. This theory acknowledges children’s’ natural hunger and food regulating capabilities and gives parents the responsibility to create a supportive eating environment. There is no force feeding, negotiating, or coercion tactics. It can be used for children of all ages – from infants to teenagers. The goal is to create eating competence which means “being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable food.”2
Children have great appetites; they want to eat and have a natural ability to do so. However, even with a great appetite, children may refuse foods or be particular about textures and flavours. Due to their age, their palates are not as developed as adults and it can take many exposures for a child to accept a new food. If parents create a supportive eating environment, children will eat as much as they need, will gradually accept new foods, and grow in their own unique way.
How does the Division of Responsibility work?
Our job as parents is to decide what food is served, when and where. We choose and prepare the food, provide regular meals and sit-down snacks, and do our best to eat meals as a family.
The job of the child is to decide whether to eat and how much. Yes, this requires trust on the parent’s part to allow their children to eat what their body needs.
How do snacks work?
Snacks should be thought of as small meals for young children and not just “treats.” Children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, have small stomachs and need to eat every 3-4 hours. At snack time, include two to three foods which consist of some protein, carbohydrates, and fat. For example: Pure Flavor® Poco Bites® Cocktail Cucumbers, cubed cheese, and whole grain crackers; Pure Flavor® Aurora Bites Mini Sweet Peppers, hummus, and whole wheat pita; Pure Flavor® Sangria® Medley Tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and blueberries; or mini homemade muffins with plain yogurt or a glass of milk. Offering vegetables at snacks as well as mealtimes provides more opportunities for exposure and vegetables provide antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and fibre; for example, mini sweet peppers are high in Vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps protect our cells against damage and tomatoes contain potassium, a mineral important for heart health.
Time snacks so that there is a long enough period of time before the next meal (1-2 hours) to allow the child to get hungry again. In between snacks, only offer water. If you child comes to you 10 minutes after a meal and says “I’m hungry,” simply reply saying “it isn’t snack time right now, but we have a snack at…” If your child is used to nibbling or grazing throughout the day, this can be a big change but in time they will get used to it and learn to eat what they need at feeding times.
Other components of the Division of Responsibility:
Be considerate to your child’s lack of food experience but do not cater. This means the entire family eats the same meal however the child version may look a little different than the adult version– for example, if you make spicy chicken and your children are not used spices, keep some chicken aside and prepare it simply. At dinner, offer them both types to try. It can take many exposures to foods before acceptance. Exposure doesn’t mean tasting (remember there is no force feeding or negotiating). It can just mean putting it on the table or plate. For example, my daughter never eats sweet peppers or zucchini but every time I prepare it, I put a small portion on her plate. When she says “I don’t like this,” I simply respond saying “you don’t have to eat it.”
Always include some familiar foods that you know your child will eat so that at a meal or snack, they will have an option they like. This is especially important when you are introducing new foods. For example, if you are serving salmon, rice, and salad, make sure your child is familiar with and enjoys at least one of those foods. In my house, I know my daughter will usually eat some plain rice and salad but salmon is a hit-or-miss.
What about junk food? Remember, all foods fit within a healthy diet. When foods are “forbidden,” children just want them more. All foods should be equal. Call foods their name (chocolate, chips, etc.) as opposed to using the word “treat.” These foods are a part of life and are meant to be enjoyed. When kids are young, we can control their eating but as they get older and eat independently, we want them to be able to enjoy all foods and learn to eat less nutritious ones in sensible quantities. I typically provide a less nutritious food at lunch; it could be a few Smarties, a cookie or a handful of chips. It can be eaten at any point in the meal.
Raising a competent eater can take time but the Division of Responsibility feeding method benefits both kids and parents. It takes the pressure of meals for everyone and allows children to listen to their bodies and be in tune with their hunger and fullness signals. Do your best to eat meals together as a family and prepare food you enjoy. In-time, your children will enjoy all the same foods you do.
Purple lunch box: Pure Flavor® Sangria® Medley Tomatoes, blueberries, Pure Flavor® Poco Bites® Cocktail cucumbers, mini whole wheat banana muffin, whole wheat cheddar cheese sandwich. Blue lunch box: Pure Flavor® Aurora Bites Mini Sweet Peppers, Pure Flavor® Poco Bites® Cocktail cucumber’s, apple, whole wheat turkey and cheddar cheese sandwich.
1)The Ellyn Satter Institute. 2019. Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed (ellynsatterinstitute.org) Accessed May 21 ,2021.
2) The Ellyn Satter Institute. 2019. Learn to eat normally (ellynsatterinstitute.org) Accessed May 21, 2021.