Stefanie Tsabar

Division of Responsibility: A Trust Model of Feeding Children

The Division of Responsibility (DOR), developed by feeding expert Ellyn Satter, is a proven model of feeding children that provides structure, clarity and most importantly of all, a supportive and gentle approach to teaching children how to eat well.

It is the model that I teach to my private clients, write about on this website and follow in my own family.

Studies show that children who are raised with DOR feel good about how they eat, naturally eat the right amount of food that their bodies need, and over time learn to eat the meals that their parents eat.

In addition, power struggles over food are replaced with connection, conversation and confidence in knowing how to prepare meals that your whole family shares and enjoys together.

How DOR Works

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The Division of Responsibility teaches that all children can be trusted to self-regulate their eating

Specifically, they will learn to enjoy the food that their family eats and to eat how much their bodies need in order to grow up healthy and with the bodies that are right for them.

However, it doesn’t happen overnight.

It takes patience, conviction and a bit of blind faith.

Here are 3 important aspects of DOR:

1. Learn the power of divided responsibilities.   

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When following DOR, parents choose what food is going to be served, where it is going to be eaten, and when. So, their jobs are: what, where and when.

And, children get to decide how much and whether or not they will eat anything at all from what has been served. So, they are responsible for choosing how much and whether.

The beauty of this model is that parents no longer have to play food cop. Our job is essentially done once we sit down for the meal.

And, children feel calmer knowing that they don’t have to think about what’s for dinner.

Most of us have assumed that it’s exciting to our kids to choose what to have for dinner.

But the reality is that it can be stressful for them, as it can feel like they are responsible for feeding themselves.

Another approach is to invite our kids to offer their suggestions at the beginning of the week when we are meal planning, or to create a running list of their favorite meals, so that we can include them periodically.

This way, we can support our kids – without catering to them – at mealtimes.

2. Create a daily structure for meals and snacks.

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Creating a structure by serving meals and snacks predictably every few hours is the basis for providing our children with the safety, comfort and security that they need.

Preschoolers should be given a meal or a snack every 2 to 3 hours and school-aged children every 3 to 4 hours.

This predictable schedule allows children (and parents) to relax in between meals and snacks, knowing that another opportunity to eat (and to serve food) is coming soon.

There is no more need to feel anxious that our kids didn’t eat enough. And, with this understanding, we will naturally stop pressuring our children to take just one more bite.

3. Stop pressuring and start supporting our kids when eating.

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When parents trust and support their children to listen to their internal cues of hunger and fullness, children will naturally eat the right amount of food that their bodies need.

And, over time, they will begin to try new food if they are offered a variety at mealtimes, while not being pressured, and allowed to move at their own pace.

DOR teaches that one important way to support children at meals is to serve the food “family style,” with all the dishes in separate bowls in the center of the table.

This allows children the autonomy to decide what and how much they want to eat.

And, serving both familiar and favorite foods with unfamiliar or not-so-favorite foods shows consideration for children’s tastes so they can relax knowing that they can fill up on food they like, while still having the chance to try new food when they are ready.

And while it can be very nerve wracking for parents to relinquish control over what our children are eating, learning to trust them with food is the greatest gift we can give them.

They will grow up feeling self-reliant, confident and relaxed around food.

And, they will never dread a gorgeous buffet because they can’t trust themselves. Or, dread eating altogether, like those of us who were forced to clean our plates as children often feel even as adults.

Forcing and Restricting Food: The Research

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Most of us parents were taught that it is our job to control what and how much our children eat. We believe that, if given the chance, our kids would devour cookies endlessly and never eat a vegetable for the rest of their lives.

However, research shows that when children are given a variety of food on a predictable schedule, and in a calm and enjoyable environment, they will naturally eat the right amount of food their bodies need to grow up healthy.

Desserts and sweets get dethroned and children grow up making food choices based on their internal needs rather than in reaction to their parents’ restrictive rules at the dinner table. In other words, they might take 2 or 3 cookies and leave the rest, rather than anxiously eating them all.

But, when they are forced or restricted with food, then kids stop listening to their internal cues and begin to rely on external sources for how much and what to eat. And since external cues are limitless (e.g., what mom and dad instruct them to eat, what friends eat at a party, and every new diet fad), this sets them up for a lifetime of confusion around food.

And, the research is clear: forcing and restricting food backfires. Children who are forced to eat more, will ultimately eat less and children who are restricted, will eventually eat a lot more when given the chance.

Although it goes against everything most parents were taught, learning to trust our kids with eating will teach them to feel self-reliant, confident and relaxed around food for their whole lives.

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