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?


Feeding With Freedom; a Series. Part 3: Avoiding Pressure

So you’ve put the family meal on the table; several components, and at least something every family member can eat.  Now comes the hard part. Sit back, relax, enjoy your meal, and let everyone serve and eat what they want from what is available.  Sounds like the easy part, right?

You would think. But after years of feeling our own pressures to get our kids to eat a certain amount of vegetables each day, or protein, or even just to eat, pressuring can be the hardest thing to let go. A little encouragement to eat one more bite, a little more this, a little more that, with the good intention of making sure kids get a balanced meal and enough food to fill their bellies.  What’s the harm?


Studies on the subject show a variety of findings.  First off, children who are pressured to eat are more likely to be picky eaters.  This could be more or less evident depending on the temperament of the child.  Those who are more stubborn may refuse simply because they are being pressured.

Another thing to keep in mind is that healthy children are born with the ability to regulate their hunger and fullness.  Pressuring children to eat one more bite when they say they are full encourages children to override these signals.  This could cause them to lose touch with these cues for life, leading to unhealthy eating behaviors and weight gain over time.

Lastly, children’s eating behaviors are very sporadic; they may be very hungry one day or one meal, and eat next to nothing the next.  Parents should understand that this is very normal and trust their child’s body to tell them when to eat, stop eating, or not eat at all.

Pressure at mealtimes also leads to tension and stress at the dinner table, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.  We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food, enjoy a variety of foods for a lifetime, and learn to try new foods. Family meals should be seen by all as a pleasant time to enjoy each others company and good food, even though ‘good food’ might mean something different to each of us.  Tension and pressure at the dinner table may lead to unpleasant feelings about eating, and unnecessary stress for the child.  Most typical children want to learn to eat and enjoy a variety of foods, but it takes time and repeated exposure for this to happen.  Pressure, or even ‘gentle suggestions’ (depending on the child), may lead to the result we want in the short term, but usually will not help children to truly enjoy variety in the long run.

Another form of pressure is bribing.  This technique works like a charm in the short term, so that children can get the reward they seek.  A recent study  showed that indeed children ate more fruits and vegetables when offered an incentive, but that when the incentive was taken away, the level of fruit and vegetable consumption went back down to where it began.

Bribing with dessert, such as promising ice cream if a child finishes their broccoli, also sends a poor message.  By withholding dessert in this way we are telling our children that vegetables must be so bad that we need a reward in order to eat them.  What we want to teach them is that vegetables can be just as delicious as any other foods and are no less valuable or desirable than sweets or any other foods.

Beware of pressure in it’s many forms. We tend to think of pressure as negative, such as restricting food or criticizing.  But pressure can also come in a positive form, such as praising and encouragement.  Both positive and negative pressure can cause undue stress in the feeding relationship.

I’d love to hear your views on this subject!

For more on family dinner see Part 1 of this series, for more on making family dinner work for everyone, see part 2 of this series.

Feeding with Freedom; A Series. Part 2: Making Family Dinner Work

In Part 1 of my Feeding with Freedom series, I talked about the importance of family dinner.  But how do you make family dinner work for all involved, including the picky eaters?  Can one meal really be made for everyone?  And if one meal is made, will everyone really eat it?

The answer is a resounding YES!  Though it may take some planning and preparation, especially in the beginning, one meal can be made that everyone will (eventually!) learn to enjoy.  It is important to be prepared with ingredients on hand, and to have an idea of what will be made at least one day ahead.  I usually plan my main dish the day before (or sometimes earlier–I am trying to get into that habit) so I can defrost meat, soak beans, or have any prep done in enough time.  I have just started using a great service called Plan to Eat that provides you with an online recipe book, a drag and drop weekly menu, and shopping lists that you can access from your phone.  The more organized you are for the week or days ahead, the better chance you have of pulling off the meal with relative ease.

At each meal, offer several components.  For instance, offer a meat or meat alternative, 1 or 2 starches like rice, pasta, or potatoes, and 1 or 2 vegetables and/or fruits.  Serve each component in it’s own dish in the center of the table, and allow family members to serve themselves if appropriate.  Allow children to eat their fill of each food available without suggestion as to what else or how much of anything should be eaten.


When planning the meal, think about the main dish first.  This is usually a protein such as meat, poultry, chicken, fish, beans, or tofu.  It does not always have to be a dish that you know your children will enjoy, and oftentimes meat dishes (especially when they are mixed with a lot of other ingredients, like casseroles) can be the most difficult for a picky eater to handle.  This is OK. If it isn’t too much trouble I will sometimes leave some of the ingredients separate for my picky eater, and other times not. In fact my son surprised me a few weeks ago when I made a chicken, pasta and pesto dish and left plain chicken and pasta for him on the side.  He went right for the mixed dish like he had been eating it all his life.  MInd you he had been refusing pesto for probably the past 2 years. I served it up with nary a smile, though I was cheering on the inside!  And I am happy to report he ate pesto again tonight, despite my low (but secretive) expectations!

If you are planning a main dish that you are fairly certain your child will not accept, plan side dishes that you know they will like such as pasta or rice.  If you have a couple of picky eaters and one will eat this or the other won’t eat that, tack on an extra starch (like bread and butter) or fruit that you know your child will eat.  If the main dish is something you know your child will most likely eat, this is the time to introduce new starches, new vegetables, or vegetables your child has previously refused.

Once the meal is on the table, it is time for you to be firm that there is nothing else being offered for dinner.  It is also the time to relax about what does or does not get eaten.  It is hard at first, but you have to be OK with your child eating only bread and butter for dinner.  If they are hungry enough (or bored enough with eating bread and butter) they will begin to push themselves to explore the other foods on the table, as long as there is no pressure being put on them.

That said, some children are amenable to tasting new foods when prompted as long as they know they are not required to eat them if they don’t like it.  And this is, of course, a great and easy way to get kids to taste foods they would not otherwise.  However, other children will refuse trying a new food simply because someone asked them to.  Only you know your child, and only you know what will work best for them. So it is up to you to decide the best way for your family.

Lastly, try serving foods in different ways, and don’t be afraid to dress up your vegetables or make them fun to eat in some way.  I love vegetables, but even I don’t get excited about eating plain steamed broccoli.  Add flavor with a little butter and salt, cheese, or a dip on the side.  Besides, a little fat helps the body absorb all the nutrients from the vegetables much more efficiently!


I’d love to hear whether any of you have started serving family dinner, and what the results have been!

Feeding with Freedom; a series. Part 1: Family Dinner

Happy New Year to you all!  Wishing everyone lots of happiness and health in the new year.  As for me, I am focusing in more this year on my work of helping parents feed their kids well, which prompted me to start this series.  I hope it is helpful to some of you.


Feeding children is a huge part of being a parent.  It happens day in and day out, several times a day, and those kids just keep getting hungry!

Sometimes feeding kids can seem like a thankless job, especially with kids who are less than willing to eat what you put on the table.  Most people know what they SHOULD be feeding their kids, but the problem is how to actually get fruits, vegetables, grains, and other whole foods into them. There just isn’t a lot of advice out there on the how part of feeding.  Things can get especially difficult around the age of 3, when children begin to assert their independence, and say NO to many of the foods they ate with gusto just a few months previous.  Many parents throw up their hands and just feed them what they know they will eat.  We figure they will get through this ‘phase’, and many kids will, some quicker than others. But there are several things we can do along the way to help ease our children into eating (and liking!) a variety of whole foods without having to bribe, battle or beg.

This series will hopefully offer a few key suggestions to help turn the job of feeding your kids into something more enjoyable for everyone involved.  Food is so much more than nourishment, and battling, bribing and coercing children to eat certain foods creates an air of tension and can set kids up with a negative attitude toward food and eating for life.  I think one of the most important things we can do for our children is to provide them with a love of and appreciation for delicious, whole food. Like any other skill that we teach our children, learning to eat in a balanced way takes time and patience.


Today we start with a bit about the benefits of family dinner.

I know some of you are saying, “We could not have family dinner in my house, ” for various reasons.  The reality is that our modern world is such that many parents do not arrive home until it is much too late for little ones to eat, or that kids have evening activities to attend, or that parents get home without enough time to prepare a meal for the family.  Whatever the reason, that is OK.  Accept the reality of where your family is, and begin to think about a different type of “family dinner”. Perhaps yours is “family breakfast”, or “family lunch” on the weekends, or even just having dinner together 1 or 2 nights a week.  Any and all of these things “count” and will provide many of the benefits that families reap from eating together.  Recent studies show that kids who share family dinners 3 or more times per week:

  • Are more likely to eat healthy foods
  • Do better in school
  • Are more emotionally stable
  • Have better relationships with their parents
  • Are at lower risk for obesity, substance abuse, and disordered eating.

Besides these quite amazing benefits, family dinners provide no-pressure opportunities to introduce kids to new foods.  And when I say “family dinner” I mean one dinner cooked for everyone, served family style, with the whole family (or even just those who are available) sitting down together to eat. By serving new food in a family style way (placing it on the table in a central dish) but not on a child’s plate, kids are exposed to new foods and will progress to exploring, tasting, and possibly even liking the new food without pressure to try it.  This will likely not happen the first time a new food is served, or maybe even the 5th or the 15th, but this is a great way to introduce the food without creating tension at mealtime.

It is important for successful family meals to keep a positive environment at the table. Go around the table and talk about your day, or just about anything except what everyone is or isn’t eating.  Of course it’s great to talk about the foods offered and help your kids learn about them if they are interested, and it is also important for them to see you enjoying the food. But that is where the influence should stop, allowing kids natural curiosity to take over when they are ready.  Watching you also teaches kids about how to behave at mealtime as well as learning good table manners by example.

You may be wondering how it is possible that your picky kid will eat anything you have put out on the table for everyone to eat unless mac and cheese or chicken nuggets are there nightly.  It is perfectly OK to serve these foods occasionally as a component of the meal, but they should not be there every night.  It is important to make sure there is SOMETHING that each family member will eat (for example bread and butter or fruit), but this is the best way to push children along to try new things without pressure, as it is likely they will get bored eating the bread and butter every night and decide to try some new things.

Of course this new style of feeding is likely to cause some meltdowns and strong demands for the usual but it is important to stick to your guns.  When children realize that this is what there is for dinner tonight and no amount of whining will get them another meal, most will give in after a few days and at least begin to eat some parts of the meal.  It is also important to let go of the thinking that kids need to eat a “balanced” meal every night.  This style of eating, especially at first, will allow for your child to eat only bread and butter, or noodles, or fruit for dinner.  It is important not to worry about this and to look at a child’s whole day or their eating over a few days.  Chances are that if you are offering several components at each meal (for example bread, cheese, meat, and vegetables, more on this in a later post), your child’s eating will balance out over the day or few days and they will get all the nutrients they need.

That said, there is a difference between a picky eater and a problem feeder.  If your child seems to be on the extreme picky side, for example rejecting whole groups of foods, or having extreme physical aversions to certain foods even being near them, there may be other issues involved.  If the changes you’ve made and stuck to over time don’t seem to be making any difference (and remember this type of change takes lots of time, more than you would think), then I encourage you to seek the help of a feeding therapist or registered dietitian.  Most children can learn to like at least some new foods, but some just need a little extra help.

I hope that this information will be helpful to you, and I would love to hear your questions and experiences you have with your family around feeding.  Stay tuned for part 2 of this series next week!