I lucked out with a good eater from the start with Hailey. While I followed the advice to eat a lot of varied flavors while pregnant, I know a lot of it was luck and genetics. Her eating habits are identical to mine, all the way down to both of us enjoying leftover curry for breakfast. So I am not speaking to you now as the mom that had a great eater and wants to tell you how to do it; I’m speaking to you as the mom of Kaitlyn, who has been picky from the start (though I won’t call her that). Yes, sweet Kaitlyn, the child that was sent to a specialist for because of her low weight and finicky eating. I know the fear that comes with worrying that your child isn’t getting the nutrition they need. I understand the longing for them to just eat something, anything. I’ve felt that intensely at moments over the past four years, but I’ve trusted the system and it’s paid off. If you struggle with feeding your kids and worry about their intake, I want to encourage you to trust the division of responsibility model too because now that we’re four years into this, I’m reaping the rewards and it makes life with young kids so much easier.
Before I even knew about the division of responsibility model, both David and I believed that our children would not starve themselves and committed to feeding our kids meals that always had something they liked on their plate, while consistently exposing them to new flavors, as they ate whatever we ate. We patted on ourselves on the back with Hailey, but then had to eat a big ol piece of humble pie with Kaitlyn because even though we followed the same routine and habits with both girls, but still ended up with two very different eaters. Still, we stuck it out.
Down the line, I learned about the division of responsibility which is an approach to feeding children proposed by The Satter Feeding Dynamics Model. It may seem unconventional to some, but it has worked wonderfully in our house, and I love how simply it outlines the parent and child’s individual roles when it comes to meal time.
What does it look like? It differs based on your child’s age. As shared on the Ellyn Satter Institute’s website:
The Division of Responsibility for Infants
You are responsible for what (ie. breastmilk or formula). Parents are to creative a calm and organized feeding environment, and yet adjust the environment to accommodate the infant’s cues for timing, tempo, frequency, and amounts of feeds. The infant is responsible for how much they choose to eat.
The Division of Responsibility for Toddlers
You are responsible for what the child is fed and increasingly assumes responsibility for when and where the child is fed (based on child’s feeding abilities). With traditional spoon-feeding approach, parents guide the child’s transition from nipple feeding through varying textures of solids to finger food and family meals based on what the child can do, not on how old they are. The transitional child is responsible for how much and whether or not to eat what is offered by the parent.
The Division of Responsibility for Children
You are responsible for what, when, and where a child is fed. From toddlerhood through adolescence, parents are to facilitate more structured meal times as part of the daily routine. During these stages, parents need to trust their child to determine if and how much they eat. The child is responsible for how much and whether or not to eat what is offered by the parent.
So how do you implement The Division of Responsibility Effectively?
Based on my own personal experience with two girls that are very different in their eating habits and preferences, here is what I’ve learned has made the system work for us:
Starting early doesn’t guarantee things will always run smoothly, but it does establish the precedent that meals will not be a stressful event. As a parent, you are relieved of the stress that comes with worrying about how much is enough and are instead free to experiment with the offerings and enjoy the watching your children experience the joy of eating. Since we started with this from the start with both girls using baby-led weaning/feeding, we avoided the need to do a hard restart to reverse bad habits.
Communicate the guidelines to your child so they know what to expect.
Obviously if you are starting this at 6 months old, no explanation is necessary, but as they get older and crave more control, it’s nice to give them a heads up as to what to expect with meals. I’ve explained the division of responsibility flat out to my kids several times and they now that they know the breakdown, there isn’t any confusion and there is minimal backlash.
Remain consistent. Without consistency, this will not work.
As with anything with parenting, or in life in general for that matter, consistency pays off. There will be challenging times when your child will only eat the fruit, or only eat the bread (I’m looking at you, Kaitlyn), but hold strong to your principles. Keep offering. Keep the stress out of meal time. Resist the urge to plead for them to eat two more bites. Have I done the pleading? Absolutely. But it never pays off in the long run.
Ease your worry by evaluating overall intake, not a per meal intake.
We’ve all been there. You know, when my child eats only grapes for lunch, leaving the carrots, the sandwich, and the cheese stick untouched. My gut instinct would have a jerk reaction and think A CHILD CAN NOT SURVIVE ONLY ON GRAPES! But that is just one meal. Maybe it was just yogurt at breakfast, just grapes at lunch, and just rice and beans for dinner. Overall, that’s a pretty balanced day. And even the days that don’t work out that well, over the course of a week, eating tends to even itself out. Look at weekly periods of time rather than individual meals or days.
Remember, you are setting the example for a child’s eating habits for life. It’s OK to have a systems and some structure. Children are not adults and they need guidance in navigating healthy eating habits early on, just as they do with other life skills.
I don’t believe feeding your child has to be as hard as popular culture will make you think. I’ve chuckled at #mykidcanteatthis (<- a truly funny Instagram tag that any parent will be able to relate to!) and I’ve experienced it myself when I cut a sandwich in half vertically rather than diagonally (the horror!), but on a whole, those moments don’t really define a child’s eating style. It’s just them trying to assert some control at a time in their lives that they have very little control. By outlining their responsibilities to them, they feel empowered to be part of their eating choices, which will take a lot of the stress and strife out of meal time.
If you have more than one child, are their eating habits similar or different?
Do you have keys to success you’ve found for feeding your children? What are they?