The Division of Responsibility in Eating
The joint effort in developing competent and healthy eaters
With childhood obesity on the rise, so too is parental concern and awareness about what their kids are eating.
Getting kids to be good eaters and to both eat – and like – nutritious foods doesn’t fall strictly on the parent or the child. It’s a joint effort with shared responsibilities according to Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and family therapist, who has developed a theory known as the ‘Division of Responsibility in Feeding’. Her theory suggests parents are responsible for the what, when, and where related to feeding a child, while the child is responsible for how much and whether they eat.
We’ve all heard of different tactics used to make kids good eaters, such as not allowing them to leave the table until they’ve finished their meal, rewarding a child for eating a certain food, requiring at least one bite of everything on their plate, putting a limit on how much children can eat and so on. But are they ever actually effective?
Parents are responsible for what the child eats. They choose, prepare and provide the food, and it is their responsibility to ensure the food is both nutritious and healthy. A few options can be provided for kids that allows them to make a choice from those options. For example, providing a shelf in the pantry dedicated to healthy snacks and allowing the child to choose one at snack time. However, parents wouldn’t be doing their job if they gave their child free reign to choose exactly what they would like to eat.
Many parents have become short order cooks to get their kids to eat a wide variety of nutritious food – or any food at all – but parents shouldn’t limit the menu to what kids will readily eat. At meals, a variety of food should be provided and include a component the child will eat, such as bread or another starch.
The WHEN and WHERE
Parents are also responsible for the when and where of feeding. Providing regularly scheduled meals and snacks allows kids to avoid becoming overly hungry at meals or go into meals too full. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to snack on other food or beverages, other than water, between scheduled snacks and meals.
At mealtime, a pleasant and encouraging eating environment should be provided, ideally with the family meal at a table without distractions from televisions or phones. Parents should set the example at mealtime on what behaviour is expected and also by eating a variety of foods. It should include good conversation, a stress-free environment and no pressure. Positive pressure, though it may seem helpful, such as praising, rewarding and talking about how good a food is or nutritious it is, should be avoided. The same with negative pressure, including punishing, bribing and talking about foods that are unhealthy or foods that individuals don’t like. Pressure is anything done by the parents, knowingly or not, to get their kids to eat more or less of a food or differently than he or she normally would without the parent’s interference.
HOW MUCH and WHETHER
The child’s job is eating and they are responsible for the how much and whether they eat. Parents provide the food and the children determine if they want to eat, and will eat the amount they need. Kids may eat very little to none at one meal or go back for seconds or thirds during another meal. This is perfectly fine, as long as the structure of regular meal and snack times is maintained. Kids are less prone to overeating and tend to be more in tune to their hunger, appetite and satiety, and therefore are the only ones that can know if they need to eat.
Parents need to maintain the responsibility of only feeding and not restrict how much a child may eat or be forced to eat, because it usually backfires. Restricting food, for example for larger children, may cause them to become preoccupied with food and overeat. While forcing food on a child, for example with smaller kids, may create a negative relationship with eating.
If the ‘Division of Responsibility’ is maintained and parents focus on the what, when and where of feeding, and kids are trusted with the how much and whether of eating, they’ll learn to become competent eaters and grow into their bodies in a healthy way.
For more information, head to the Ellyn Satter Institute.
Written by Shannon Jones, a valued intern at Healthy Kids and a dietetics student at Purdue University.