Division of Responsibility: The What, Where, Whether, and When versus How Much—Guidelines for Family Nutrition
By Elyse Falk, MS, RD
Ponder the “division of responsibility” between a parent and a child when it comes to meal time. I love it. I live it. I recommend it. Taking the power struggle away from the food sounds like a fabulous idea, doesn’t it? No more fighting at the dinner table when trying to get your kids to eat or even stop your kids from eating too much. Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian nutritionist, family therapist, and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding, pioneered the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model and the Satter Eating Competence Model. She is the author of the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, the gold standard for feeding children. She educates parents on the line between what their job is and what the child’s job is when it comes to the food. The parent is in charge of WHAT food is brought into the house and served, as well as WHEN the food is given (meal and snack times; hopefully three meals and three snacks) and WHERE. The child is in charge of the HOW MUCH he/she will eat and WHETHER he/she eats what is served. When this line is crossed, usually by the parent, or the “feeder,” there begins the fighting and frustration.
I have stuck with the division of responsibility rule ever since I went to hear Ellyn Satter speak many years ago. Looking back, I feel lucky that I had the privilege of hearing her speak to professionals when my kids were learning the art of eating. I started to implement her model and still use it to this day with my seven-, eleven-, and thirteen-year-old. I can honestly say that by following the division of responsibility, there has never been any real issue around food at the table, other than the “I don’t like what you made” or the recipe I made tasted awful. Following this model, we can all enjoy a somewhat calm environment (hopefully not getting up from their seats to play with our new dog) and talk about our days or what the day might hold.Photo Credit: rick via Compfight cc
As a parent who does the shopping, I know WHAT I want my kids to have more of and WHAT I want them to have some of the time (Laura’s foods lower in nutrient density known as “sometimes” foods, such as their ice cream, cookies, brownies, and other foods that fall into this category in her book, Healthy Habits) throughout the week, so that helps my food shopping experience. I am also constantly figuring out the different parts of a complete meal. Think “MyPlate” sources of protein, grain, healthy fat, vegetable and/or fruit, and possibly a milk/yogurt for snacks or with the meal. I also think about what they can eat that is more or less a complete meal yet is easy to make by themselves (especially for my eleven- and thirteen-year-old).
The WHEN aspect of the division of responsibility, for me and my family, is making sure they get their meals and snacks throughout the day to ensure energy during school and after school activities.. For example, I know that my boys have activities starting at 6:00 p.m. on some nights, so I will have a dinner for them WHEN they get home from school (they are always hungry when then get home from school) before their activity and usually WHEN they get home afterwards because they are usually hungry again,. This second feeding time is typically something on the lighter side. The WHEN aspect for me is not a strict routine but arises when they are hungry; I would never make them eat if they weren’t hungry at the WHEN time, but I find that usually they are ready to eat at pretty consistent times of the day. The WHERE is usually at home, not so much in the car; however, I know that on some nights the car will be WHERE a snack needs to be given.
The HOW MUCH and WHETHER are the hardest parts of the division. Sometimes my boys have voracious appetites and eat huge quantities, and other times they consume smaller amounts. I never comment on HOW MUCH they are eating because I never want to mess up their hunger and fullness cues and force them to stop/continue eating just because I would say “That is enough” or “You need to eat more.” I would rather use that language on homework. I have learned that even then I am overstepping my boundaries and it causes a power play.
The WHETHER is another difficult aspect to manage, but if you make something that you know your children will always eat, along with something new for them to try, at least you know they will be eating something. But there are those nights when nothing appeals to your child; when that happens, I settle on what’s easiest to warm up or prepare in a pinch.
When helping a parent out with issues surrounding food, I most often recommend Ellyn Satter’s books and methods. Sometimes parents look at me like I’m crazy for even suggesting that they keep quiet about HOW MUCH their child/children eat. I always recommend trying Ellyn’s way for one week just to experiment with it! I truly believe that it will make a happier child and a happier home when it comes to the food at the table!