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?
Great post Brittany. We struggle at meal time sometimes. What do you do about dessert? Do you only offer desert if they eat their whole dinner? Our dessert is usually fruit or yoghurt, and we use at a negotiating tool a lot! If she only eats bread one meal do you offer her unlimited bread until she is full or just the one serving?
Brittany Dixon says
We don’t do dessert regularly do that’s not an issue for us, but I’ve actually heard of friends that serve dessert as part of the meal (at the same time). This would work really well for fruit, but I even have a friend that will serve a scoop of ice cream with dinner. It’s a small amount and they can choose when to eat it, but I thought that was kind of a brilliant idea!
As for bread (or fruit, or whatever they want more of), I don’t let them have a second serving unless they finish the rest of their food first and still want more. I’m not a clean plate club person, but I use the logic that we don’t waste food, so she can’t absolutely have more bread if she wants it after she eats the other food on her plate. I do, however, keep realistic expectations and serve only small servings of things I know she isn’t wild about yet. For example, I might only put 3-4 bites of fish on her plate instead of a full filet. I find it’s less intimidating for her that way. I haven’t read whether this is the “right” way to do it, but it has worked well for us!
Rebecca Gilbert says
I’ve been following a lot of your feeding guidelines for my daughter (this is where I learned about baby led weaning!) and we’ve had good moments and bad moments. Right now (at almost 16 months) she really like tossing food off the tray/feeding the dog. Even food she likes. We recently had a bit of worry with her weight so I get more worried if she isn’t eating much. She wants to use silverware to feed herself, which is fine, but then often tosses food and fork to the floor. Then, conversely, she’ll let us feed her with the fork. So then I fret that I’m ‘force feeding’ her and not letting her choose (though she is fairly obvious about when she does/does not want a bite). Mealtimes are rather stressful right now but this too shall pass, right?!
Brittany Dixon says
You got it- this too shall pass! Keep up your good work. Both have mine (even Hailey) have gone through periods of time that they just aren’t as hungry, then it’s like a growth spurt kicks in and they amaze me with what they can put away. I don’t think helping with a fork is force feeding, especially like you said, that its clear when she does not want a bite 😉
16 months is one of the toughest ages because while they have opinions, they don’t quite have the communication skills to express them yet. Stay the course; you got this mama!
Abby S says
I read Ellyn Satter’s “Child of Mine” several years ago when I was nursing my first babe. We worked hard to practice DOR with him for the first couple years…. when we moved in with my parents while we built our house, we basically went into survival mode to accommodate everyone. Feels impossible at this point to get back to where we were! We have family meals as often as possible, but that’s about all we do…. the negotiating and catering is hard to cut out, and we’ve been relying so heavily on pb&j’s and processed foods for the kids. Love seeing that DOR can WORK if you stick with it.
Kacie Barnes says
Thanks for sharing your experience with this. As a dietitian, I advocate for this style of feeding! I would just add, growth is the most important thing for kids. So in addition to looking at their intake over time and not just in one meal or one day, I’d look at how well their pediatrician says they are growing. Staying on their curve is a good indicator that they are getting enough for their body.
Kacie Barnes says
I just noticed that check box to share your most recent blog post, I didn’t mean to check that! Not trying to be spammy and send people to my site haha sorry
I totally agree with this one! “Small” doesn’t always equate to “unhealthy” which took a little while to sink in for us about our little guy (my husband and I are both tall so having a “barely on the charts” kid made us nervous). Our pediatrician reminds us that the percentiles just show where the child is in relation to other children of the same age — if the child is in the 3rd percentile, then all it means is 3% of kids that age are smaller and 97% of kids are bigger. She said that as long as they are “trending” and not suddenly dropping or steadily declining along their general percentile curve, there’s usually nothing to worry about.
My twins are almost four and are absolutely horrible eaters. They were born prematurely and spent the first month of their life in the NICU fighting for every ounce of weight. I think it’s a lingering fear of mine that has allowed them to dictate what they will eat (because I just want them to eat something!). It doesn’t help that they just aren’t really in to food. I’ve been thinking for a while now that we need to do a hard reset. I’m just dreading it! Ha.
I am really intrigued by this concept for my 5 year old who used to eat any and everything and now no longer likes “anything”
Since everything is now disgusting (her words) to her it’s hard to get her to eat which is fine I guess. But, I don’t want to deal with the attitude she gets every day because she is hangry because she chose not to eat. How do you deal with that aspect??
I’ve been following your blog since my son was born 3.5 years ago so I follow a lot of your feeding tips and one that I’ve learned from reading your post is to not stress about it – kids will eat as much as their hungry for. This has worked wonderfully for me and has made meal time more enjoyable, thank you! And I love the idea of looking at their whole day, and even their whole week, when evaluating their nutritional intake – not just one meal .
I have no tips to offer since I use all your tips! haha
Curious how you handle food waste? Often times I will give my “picky” toddler food and he won’t eat it and I end up throwing away entire plates of food (with appropriate toddler portions but still it feels very wasteful). Do you have any experience with or thoughts on offering the same meal again at a later time if they chose to eat nothing?
This comes at such a great time for me as we wean off the bottle and to solid foods and whole milk. Since birth, N has not been a fan of eating. She never wanted to nurse or even take a bottle for that matter. It’s been a struggle to keep her on the 5th – 10th percentile weight curve. As we transition to a solid diet, she’s still a light and picky eater. I follow the DOR and I trust it, so we just keep on keeping on. I fully believe she won’t starve herself (she did a bottle strike for a couple days and her solid intake creeped up), but yes, it’s frustrating and even super scary to see your child not want to eat a varied diet. I pysch myself up for mealtimes by playing some fun or relaxing music in the background and hiding any frustration I have as she eats JUST fruit and the other food is smashed or goes to the floor. This too shall pass! (Hey, at least she sleeps a like a champ!)
Thank you for sharing this post Brittany. I remember the daily struggles on what to feed my daughter and wondering if I was a bad mom for the small amounts of food she consumed.
What was one favorite dish your kid enjoyed?
Brittany Dixon says
Pasta with marinara is always a hit! Like mama, like daughters 😉