Feeding with Freedom; A Series. Part 4: The Division of Responsibility

Sounds serious and perhaps a bit intimidating, doesn’t it? Well, The Division of Responsibility in feeding is actually a wonderful tool that is easily put to use in the feeding relationships we have with our children. It was created by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, family therapist, and pioneer in feeding and creating healthy relationships with food and eating.

The Division of Responsibility in feeding is simple, but powerful:

  • The parent is responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding
  • The child is responsible for whether and how much to eat

I have touched on all of these subjects in the past three parts of my series, but wanted to introduce the concepts of the Division of Responsibility (also known as DOR) because I feel they are easy to remember, especially in the heat of the moment when everything is going a little not how you planned at the dinner table.

Macy Badger2

When the DOR is adhered to, many of the questions that arise about feeding well are resolved.  The DOR can be applied to pretty much all types of children, from typical children to those with sensory disorders or physical feeding problems.  Of course each situation is unique, but the DOR is an incredibly versatile and effective set of rules to follow.

When following the DOR, it is the parent’s responsibility to decide:

  • What is to be served at each meal or snack.  This eliminates the problems that arise when children are allowed to choose what they want to eat at every meal, since it is often the same foods.  Once the parent decides what is going to be served, the food is layed out family style, and the child is given the opportunity to choose from what is available.  It is up to the parent to determine whether there will be many or few choices at each meal, and may depend on the individuality of each child. It gives the parent the chance to serve a child’s favorites at times, and introduce new foods at others.  For more on making family meals work, see Part 2 of this series.
  • When each meal or snack will be served.  It is the parent’s job to make sure that meals and snacks are being served at regular intervals throughout the day.  Young children need 3 meals plus 2 snacks during the day, and some young children will need a third snack before bed.  Older children need 3 meals plus 1 snack, usually in the afternoon.  You decide what is best for your child, and whatever it is needs to take the same form each day. Nothing else should be served between meals and snacks besides water.  Children should come to know that if they choose not to eat at a given meal or snack that is OK, but that there will not be any other food until the next scheduled meal or snack.  This also assures that children are hungry when they come to the table to eat, which helps them to eat more balanced meals, and ultimately to be more open to trying new foods.
  • Where each meal or snack will be served.   Meals and snacks should be served in a place that is calm, clean, and reserved for eating, without distraction of TV or other electronic devices, ideally a kitchen or dining room table. Children should sit in a seat that is supportive and high enough for them to reach the table, and ideally have a place to rest their feet.  There has been some research that shows that children eat better when their feet are supported under the table instead of just dangling down.

When following the DOR, it is the children’s responsibility to decide:

  • Whether they will eat. As I have said in previous posts, all healthy children are born with the innate ability to regulate hunger and fullness.  Therefore, we must trust children when they tell us they do not want to eat or are not hungry.  By telling them they HAVE to eat, we are asking them to ignore their own body’s signals, which can lead weight problems later in life.  This one is hard for me because at dinnertime I often I know that my 4 year old IS hungry, but that he is overtired or saying he is not hungry for other reasons.  I tell him OK, but that there won’t be any other food for the rest of the night. Usually if I leave him be he will come around and end up eating once he gets over his crank fest.  As he is getting older, we are trying to encourage him to come to the dinner table just to sit with us even if he is not planning on eating.  This is hard for younger children, but should be encouraged when a child is able to at least sit, be social, and observe the food being served.  And they often realize that, miraculously, they are hungry!
  • How much they will eat of what is being offered.  Once the food is on the table, it is up to the child to decide how much he or she will eat.  Allowing a child to serve themselves from the family style bowl helps them to get in touch with portions, but they should not be made to eat what they put on their plate.  In order to avoid food waste and since my son can get caught up in the fun of scooping food onto his plate, I help him take a small portion and tell him he can always have more if he chooses.  It is also important to allow a child to eat only what they choose from what is available, even if it might not be our idea of a ‘balanced’ meal. We need to look at our child’s intake over a day or several days to determine if their intake is balanced.  Once we become involved in which foods children are selecting, we are applying pressure at mealtime. Similarly, by encouraging a child to eat one more bite of this or that, we are not only applying pressure, but again asking the child to ignore their own hunger and satiety cue. For more on pressure, see part 3 of this series.

Of course there are times when I don’t follow the DOR to the T.  This is real life.  To be perfectly honest, most of the time at lunch I give my 4 year old a couple of choices of what he would like to eat for his main dish, which is usually between leftovers, something else I have that needs to be eaten, or something he hasn’t already had the past 2 days. Then I lay out some fruits and vegetables and occasionally some sweets. This is it, nothing fancy or special, since it is just he and I for lunch.  And often I will eat something different, because, well, the leftovers need to be eaten.

But we sit together, at the table, and enjoy our meal.  There is no fighting, or bribing, or coercing. There is still the occasional whining and complaining, but usually not about the food. Sometimes he tells me he doesn’t like what there is to eat, and whines that he wants something else.  Most of the time I stand firm and tell him thats all we have to eat right now. And most of the time he will eat what is there.  Other times he has a true hankering for something else, and I give it to him.  Because this is real life.  And sometimes you just have a craving for something.

Some days he eats a ton and asks for more, and others he eats next to nothing. Oftentimes I know he is just excited to go back to playing, and I have to remind him to listen to his belly and decide whether it is full enough.  Sometimes he listens, and other times he doesn’t.  But that is life with a 4 year old.

I have to remind myself constantly that I am working on helping my son to truly enjoy a variety of food, and to have a healthy relationship with it. This is not about today’s lunch, or tomorrow’s dinner, but about a lifetime of taking true pleasure in the gift of nourishment.  Today I am doing the very best that I can in the situation, just as every other parent is too.  And that is all we can do.  Remember to be gentle with yourself, take time to implement changes, and expect change to come even slower than you thought.

Have you started using the Division of Responsibility?  How has it worked for your family?

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: Feeding with Freedom; a series. Part 5: Dealing with Treats | Brilliant Bites

  2. Pingback: Hostage Files: When Parents Can’t Unite |

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