In my professional life, I often teach Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, methods on how to feed your child and encourage development of lifelong healthy relationships with food. Satter is a registered dietitian and family therapist. Her work on division of responsibility in feeding is evidenced-based and considered the gold standard on how to feed children.
Satter’s Division of Responsibility (sDOR) can be complex but boils down to some simple concepts. In sDOR, for toddlers through adolescents, the caregiver is responsible for what, when, and where; the child is responsible for how much and whether. The fundamental belief is that when caregivers do their job with feeding, children will do their job with eating. The most important responsibility for parents (and in my opinion, the most difficult to meet) is to trust their children at meal times. Children can select what foods from the provided meal they will eat, and which foods they will not eat; this is their responsibility. sDOR does not allow for meals to be a battleground.
Division of Responsibility aims for long-term successful, healthful eating. It is a change from simply getting food down to teaching self-regulation and explorative eating. The ultimate end goal is to build a healthy, lifelong relationship with food and to focus on the joy of eating.
I try to practice Satter’s Division of Responsibility in my personal life but have often caught myself saying some of the phrases that a parent is never supposed to say when practicing sDOR, “a few more bites” or “eat some of this, and then you can have more of that.” Fortunately, I have a pretty good eater so my suggestions remain just that, a suggestion, not an order. If I tell my 3½-year-old, "a few more bites" and he refuses, I try to stay calm and trust his decision to not eat more of that particular item.
This really came to light one weekend when my family went out for burgers and ice cream. My child’s meal included not a fruit or vegetable in sight. He got a cheeseburger, fries and a token to come back and get an ice cream cone when finished. I caught both my husband and myself telling our son he needed to eat more of his burger before getting his ice cream cone. Then I paused and laughed after I took a professional dietitian assessment of the situation. Not only were we not trusting his decision about what to eat, but I had to wonder: Is the cheeseburger really any healthier than the ice cream? After comparing some nutritionals, ice cream tends to be slightly higher in calories, they both contain high amounts of fat, ice cream is higher in carbohydrate, and the cheeseburger is slightly higher in protein and significantly higher in sodium. I don’t know if I could pick which is the more healthful item.
With the upcoming holiday season, there will be many opportunities for kids (and adults) to over-indulge in those not-so-healthful foods. Remember, it is the adult’s responsibility to provide the food. Do not take "meal orders" from your child, but be considerate of their preferences. Provide fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins that your child is accepting of. Then it is our job to allow children to make their own decisions.
Children might make a poor decision, such as over-indulging on Halloween candy. Take that as an opportunity to talk to them about how that choice made their body feel, and how they could act differently in the future. A healthy diet and overall health is defined over time. We want to instill in our children — and ourselves — lifelong, healthy habits regarding selecting healthy foods and having a positive emotional relationship with food.
Brenda Schwerdt, RDN, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s hospital. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.