Are mealtimes in your household starting to feel like an episode of a reality TV show, complete with food-throwing tantrums and kitchen chaos? Do mealtimes play out like a grand culinary circus where picky eaters steal the spotlight and vegetables are the disappearing act?
If so, you’re not alone! But, fear not. There are science-backed ways to turn your dining room drama into peaceful, happy mealtimes. Grab your popcorn (or maybe some broccoli trees?), sit back, and get ready to uncover the secrets to creating happier family mealtimes through the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. With some time and practice, everyone will be asking for an encore!
The Division of Responsibility in Feeding Explained
The Division of Responsibility in Feeding concept was crafted by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and family therapist specializing in child feeding. This concept aligns with decades of research on child feeding. Adhering to the Division of Responsibility in Feeding is a helpful way to understand how to craft your family’s mealtimes to reduce stress and promote healthy outcomes for your children.
The overarching goal of this approach is to create a balance of responsibilities between you and your child during mealtimes.
During mealtimes, you should be responsible for:
- What foods are offered
- Where your child eats
- When meals happen
During mealtimes, your child should be responsible for:
- Whether to eat
- How much is eaten
Adhering to this division of responsibility ensures both you and your child contribute to the success of each meal in positive ways.
The Benefits of Shared Responsibility during Family Mealtimes
Research shows children have the healthiest outcomes when:
- They can self-regulate their intake. This means they eat when hungry, stop when full, and do not overeat just because food is available.
- They are adventurous and enjoy trying new foods.
- They develop preferences for healthy foods.
- They have lower food responsiveness. This means they are not preoccupied with food and eating. They enjoy food but also find pleasure in non-food-related activities.
Having a division of responsibility during mealtimes supports these healthy outcomes for your child.
Children have natural abilities to self-regulate their eating. Research shows they are relatively good at eating the right amount of calories to meet their needs if allowed to be in charge of how much they eat. Children’s feelings of hunger and fullness should guide whether and how much they eat, not external cues such as the time of day or pressure from someone at the table.
Children also have a natural desire to explore and learn about new things. They also need time and space to explore and learn, especially when it comes to new foods. Refraining from pressuring your child to eat certain foods or amounts gives them the time and space they need to develop preferences for healthy foods.
The Role of Trust in Achieving a Division of Responsibility
This approach might feel a little scary if you are concerned that your child is not eating enough healthy foods. If you don’t dictate that your child must eat two bites of every food on their plate or finish their vegetables before leaving the table, how can you ensure they eat well? Let’s work through these concerns together to understand the big picture.
One of the most challenging parts of being a parent is that we can’t control everything. In fact, when parents try to control everything, it often leads to stress, disappointment, and frustration. In addition, over-controlling parents rob their children of the opportunity to develop essential life skills.
So, to create happy, healthy mealtimes, you have to trust that your child has the ability to eat when hungry and stop when full. You have to trust that your child’s feelings of hunger and fullness are effective guides for how many calories your child needs. You also have to trust that your child will learn to like healthy foods if repeatedly exposed to them during warm and positive mealtimes.
Research shows that giving children developmentally appropriate autonomy (i.e., the ability to make choices within safe and supportive contexts) is a really good thing and leads to a whole host of positive outcomes. You may need time, patience, and practice to adhere to the division of responsibility during feeding. But, when you do, you’ll likely discover that everyone benefits!
Want to learn more about fostering children’s preferences for healthy foods? Read more here!
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