How to raise a happy healthy eater using the division of responsibility

The Division of Responsibility in feeding is a technique developed by a US based Registered Dietitian by the name of Ellyn Satter.

How you feed your child is just as important as what you feed your child.

When you feed your child using the techniques described in the Division of Responsibility, research has shown that your child will develop a balanced, healthy relationship with food. 

Whether they are a picky eater, carrying a bit of extra weight or you are simply looking for ways to enjoy meals as a family, the division of responsibility is the ideal way for all healthy children to learn at meal times.

The following excerpt is published with permission from the Ellyn Satter Institute and the original link can be found here.

The Division of Responsibility in feeding

When you follow the division of responsibility in feeding (sDOR), your child will become and remain capable with eating. 

The division of responsibility in feeding (sDOR) encourages you to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat what you provide. 

The division of responsibility in feeding applies at every stage in your child’s growing-up years, from infancy through the early years through adolescence.

sDOR says to feed your baby on demand, letting him determine the timing and tempo of feeding. 

As he develops and becomes more regular in his eating patterns, you gradually take on responsibility for when and where to feed. 

Most children are ready to join in with the meals-plus-snacks routine of family meals by the end of the first year or the beginning of the second year. 

After that, parents need to maintain the structure of family meals and sit-down snacks throughout the growing-up years. 

When you do your jobs with feeding, your child will do his with eating.  

© Copyright 2018 by Ellyn Satter published at EllynSatterInstitute.org. 

How exactly do you do the Division of Responsibility?

There are two roles within the Division of responsibility, your role as the parent and your child’s role.

The jobs that sit within your role when it comes to feeding are 

•   to choose what’s on the menu and prepare the food.

•   to provide regular meals and snacks that are timed in accordance with your child’s developmental needs.

•   to ensure eating times are pleasant and happy so they want to come to the table.

•   to role model how you want them to behave at family mealtimes.

•   to remember your child’s lack of food experience and that they’ll have preferences for certain foods and take these into account without catering to just their likes.

•    to not allow your child to have extra food or drinks (except for water) in between the set meal and snack times.

•   to allow your child’s body to grow according to what is right for them, this means not changing their food to encourage weight gain or weight loss.

It’s a relationship based on trust and part of your job is to trust your child to do their role, which is . . .  

•   to eat the amount their body tells them they need to eat. 

•   to learn to like the food your family eats.

•   to grow without interference and in accordance with what’s right for them. 

•   To learn how to act and behave well at mealtimes, which includes learning your families rules, boundaries and table manners. 

Do we need to eat together as a family?

Yes. 

Ok, ok I appreciate parents are out at work, children need to go to bed early and maybe the only time you and your partner get to have together is a meal after the kids go to bed.

But the division of responsibility in feeding strongly advocates eating together as a family as frequently as you can manage.  

And there is a reason for that. Research shows that children who eat together with their parents grow up to feel better about themselves, get along better with other people, and do better in school. They are less likely to gain too much weight, or grow into teenagers who abuse drugs, smoke, and have sex.

How can I trust my child to eat enough?

Believe it or not, children are born with an innate ability to regulate their own food intake based on what they need at that time for growth and development.

All children want to feel part of a family and enjoy the closeness this brings, part of which is growing up to eat the food you eat. 

And actually you don’t have to do anything special to get it to happen. Just stick to your role outlined above and it will all fall into place.

The most important thing you can do for your child during a mealtime is show enjoyment of the food you are eating.

Do bear in mind that children have to learn to like foods. They don’t just sit down and eat.

Just like a baby who goes from lying flat to rolling, to sitting, to crawling, to pulling themselves up and eventually walking, children have to learn the skills that are required to eat.

There are actually 32 sequential steps to learning to eat and eating is the only thing humans do that uses all of our senses at the same time. It’s complicated!

It’s not unusual that for some days they will eat loads of food and other days they seem to eat nothing at all. They may love sweet potato on Tuesday but look at it with disgust on Thursday. This is all normal.

The best thing to do is nothing at all, go with the flow, don’t pressure them to try to finish anything on their plate. And if they are having a hungry day don’t comment on how much or even take food away.

Instead, just sit back and enjoy your own meal, role modelling the behaviour you would like to see at the table and sooner (or later) your child will pretty much eat everything you and your family do. 

We’ll be diving deeper into this topic in our Happy Healthy Eaters members club, click here to join.

Can the Division of Responsibility prevent fussy eating?

To answer this question you have to understand that sometimes fussy eating is a misinterpretation of the child’s needs for food and nutrition by concerned parents. If this is the case, then yes. Implementing the division of responsibility roles can really help.

However all children go through a developmental phase called food neophobia where food is rejected on sight. This can not be solved by the division of responsibility. In fact it can’t be solved by anything. It’s a brain development and you just have to wait it out.

Having said that, practising the division of responsibility during this neophobic phase is a really good idea because when fussy eating goes on for longer than it should it’s often because parents have crossed over into the child’s responsibilities, using pressure tactics to try and get them to eat.

unhappy young girl pushing bowl of food away

Can the Division of Responsibility prevent extreme fussy eating or problem feeding?

No, it can’t. You will need to get feeding therapy first. This will vary depending on the cause of your child’s extreme fussy eating. You can book a feeding assessment with me here if you are not sure. The division of responsibility is what we’re aiming to achieve after successful intervention.

Can the Division of Responsibility prevent children from becoming overweight? 

Yes, it absolutely can. 

Children who start to gain weight have often slipped from the practices within the division of responsibility. For example if parents are concerned about their children’s weight, they may begin to restrict high calorie foods like chocolate, cakes, biscuits, crisps etc.

Unfortunately this just makes the situation worse as children learn that they are ‘bad’ or forbidden.

And when they do have access to these foods, like at a children’s birthday party, they tend to overindulge. They just can’t help themselves.

And the scary thing is, after indulging they’re crippled with feelings of guilt and shame for eating forbidden foods which can lead to self esteem issues and disordered eating.

Children who are parented in this way also tend to carry extra weight as they grow up.

Remember, children can self regulate their own food intake based on what their bodies need. We just need to let them.

Frequently asked questions about how to use the division of responsibility

 I get lots of questions around this so here are some of the common queries that I get asked and how you can tackle them.

Division Of Responsibility And Desserts

Remember where the division of responsibility tells you that your little one is in charge of how much they eat? But what about desserts I hear you say!

Young children are still learning all about their bodies; what makes them feel good and what makes them feel bad. Because of this, young children will need your guidance on how much of certain foods they should eat.

At the same time you don’t want your children to wonder why they’re allowed unlimited broccoli but only a small portion of cake as what we’re trying to do is to make all foods equal.

There are two parts to how I would tackle this. Offer desserts alongside a main meal in an appropriate sized portion. If your little one finishes this and asks for more, it is okay to say “that’s all we have for this meal, but we can have it again soon”. And make sure that you follow up on that promise. Offer it again fairly soon so that they trust that it will be coming back to their lives!

The second part is to occasionally let your child have these highly desirable foods without restriction. You heard me! Let them eat until their heart’s content!  They may feel a little sick but this is part of them learning about how food makes you feel inside.

This will let them see that no foods are ‘off-limits’ and it reduces that special edge that desserts have over carrots and celery.

What If Your Little One Doesn’t Want To Sit In Their Highchair

One of your roles as the parent is to decide the ‘where’ part of the division of responsibility. 

If you decide that the meal takes place in the highchair at the table, then that’s where the meal takes place.  Your little one can absolutely refuse to sit there and if they do, the meal is over.

If your little one doesn’t like the high chair at all for any meal, you do still have a few options.  

You could have a floor picnic on a colourful rug if they can sit stable enough. Or try removing the tray from the highchair so they join you at the table. A booster seat fixed on top of an adult dining chair may help also. Whatever you choose, be consistent and stick with it.

You could work with your little one to help them accept the high chair by spending time in the highchair away from meal and snack times having lots of new positive experiences.  

You could use it for arts and crafts, messy play or songs and stories. Letting your little one have fun experiences in their high chair will help to increase how much time they are willing to spend there at mealtimes.

What If They Only Want To Eat Beige/Crunchy/Sweet/Saucy Foods

The division of responsibility isn’t a way to get your child to eat ‘healthily’. It is a way of letting them grow up to become confident and competent eaters.  

two young boys slurping spaghetti

You can not force a child to eat a food that they don’t want to eat, but you can serve it regularly in a gentle and calm environment. This is important so that they learn all about foods which is the step before liking them. But this does take time and patience. 

Always make sure that you serve at least one food that you know they like so they come to the mealtime confident and not worried that there won’t be anything for them. 

The aim is not to make them go hungry.

If My Child Refuses Dinner Should I Let Them Go To Bed Hungry?

Little ones refuse dinner. It can be a real worry. I get this.  

You might be thinking about giving them an easy alternative that you know that they’ll eat. I call this a ‘rescue meal’ and it’s something that I don’t recommend.  

Children who regularly eat ‘rescue meals’ never shift out of the fussy eating stage. They have no need to because they are rest assured that when they refuse dinner, something nice will be along shortly.

Unfortunately, children who are regularly given rescue meals, end up with a very narrow range of accepted foods which often results in nutritional deficiencies from eating the same foods over and over. 

Your child needs to understand what happens if they don’t eat at dinnertime and as a result they’ll learn when it’s the right time to eat.

You’re not being cruel. You’re teaching them about appetite regulation and keeping them healthy.

Some children need a bedtime snack every evening after dinner, sometimes it’s just milk. If this is your child make sure you always offer this snack as a matter of routine so it’s perceived as ‘normal’ and not something to fill them up after a refused dinner. 

We’re Out At Work All Day And My Child Eats Early. We Can’t Eat Together, Do We Really Need To?  

I know that in some families it can be hard to sit together every evening to enjoy a meal. But remember I said that children learn from watching you enjoying a meal?

My suggestion is to sit with your child, even if your partner isn’t yet home and have a very small bowl of the same food as your little one so that they can see you eating.

You can have your proper dinner later.

Weekends are often easier for families to eat together and some families manage weekday breakfasts.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or IPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/HHEC

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Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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