One of the common concerns mothers voice on my Instagram page is do to with toddler eating, “How much should a toddler eat?” and “How do I get my picky eater to eat?”. This got me thinking, what is the one thing a parent can do to encourage healthy eating habits in kids, especially toddlers? My answer was in front of me as I watched my son enjoy his plate of food, happily chomping away at all types of foods, Division of responsibility.
I have spoken about Division of responsibility in feeding many times before, but I think its time I write a dedicated blog post explaining what really is a division of responsibility and how this one concept can make mealtimes stress free for many families with toddlers.
WHAT IS DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY?
Division of responsibility is a term coined by childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter
According to ELLYN SATTER’S DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY IN FEEDING
Children have a natural ability with eating. They eat as much as they need, they grow in a way that is right for them, and they learn to eat the food their parents eat. Step-by-step, throughout their growing-up years, they build on their natural ability and become competent eaters.
When talking about the toddler to adolescent years, division of responsibility dictates;
The parent is responsible for what, when, and where.
The child is responsible for how much and whether.
Trust is the foundation for future success with healthy eating. Parents trust in the child’s ability to determine how much and whether to eat from what parents provide.
When parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating.
Parents’ feeding jobs:
- Choose and prepare the food.
- Provide regular meals and snacks.
- Make eating times pleasant.
- Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
Children’s eating jobs:
- Children will eat.
- They will eat the amount they need.
- They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
- They will grow predictably.
- They will learn to behave well at mealtime.
Source: The Ellyn Satter Institute
HOW DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY CAN HELP WITH PICKY EATING
- The essence of the division of responsibility is based on “Trust”. Since the parent and the child have a defined role to play in feeding, the parent learns to trust in the child’s learning process. Once the pressure by the parent is off the table the child can freely explore what he likes and how much he will eat.
- Challenging boundaries is part of the toddler years and many toddlers love to say “No” in order to see what reaction they can get. If they get a reaction when they say “No”, the more they will say “No”. Feeding time becomes a game and the focus is shifted from the food to playing the game of testing boundaries. With Division of responsibility, since the parent is not involved in decision making once the food is on the plate, the child won’t get a reaction to the “No”. The Focus is now on the plate and not on playing games. Once the pressure is off, the child can now decide if he truly wants to eat the food on the plate or not.
HOW TO HELP PICKY EATERS WITHOUT THE POWER STRUGGLES?
1. If you make special meals for your picky eating toddler, different from what the family eats, stop this practice. Get them used to the same food as the family. Change the terms you use to describe his food. There is no “special food”, “your food”, or “my food” in the home. All food in the home is “our food.”
2. Family-style meals help picky eaters, pick and choose what he likes and build his own plate of food. It involves him in the process, putting the power back into his hands. Family-style meals also get him used to the concept that food eaten by everyone in the family is the same. Example of family-style meals; Taco night, build your own burrito, make pizza with your own choice of toppings, or build a sandwich.
3. At every meal have one or two foods that you know your picky eater will eat. If its potatoes, for example, have a side of potatoes at each meal. This encourages the picky eater to eat along with family at meals instead of whining about the food. Serve his favorite food alongside all the other options at that meal.
Initially, he will just eat the food he knows and loves, but over a period of time as you continue practicing division of responsibility he will try other foods on the plate and before you know it, you all will be enjoying the same meals.
4. Encourage and give the child positive reinforcement when he does try new foods.
5. Create a positive environment around food. Talk about different types of fruits and vegetables, go out and try gardening, talk about how food is grown, cook together, engage in activities that talk about food groups and nutrition, read books on healthy eating together.
All these activities set a positive conversation around food that is centered around learning about food and creates an excitement rather than pressure to eat.
Here are some of the games and books we use to talk about food and nutrition education
6. Consistently practicing Division of responsibility is the key to long term success. Shift all your focus on providing nutrient-rich foods to your family, instead of how much is being eaten. This book by Ellyn Satter is a great guide on how to make healthy family meals and raise good eaters. A book every parent should have in their library.
7. Observe weekly consumption in order to understand nutrient intake instead of the quantity of food consumed daily. Is the child growing on track as per his growth charts?
If picky eating has been going on for a while and you are concerned about nutrients like iron and calcium, get a blood test done. Sometimes it is important to find some answers instead of passing on anxiety about food to our children. And if there are some nutritional deficiencies talk with your healthcare provider and get expert help, instead of force-feeding or labeling the child a picky eater.
Recognize that your child is learning about food from his environment and that includes you. The less negativity there is around food the better eater he will be. Learning about food is a process, engage in the process and the outcomes will happen automatically.
Do leave me a comment below if you are troubled with any specific feeding issues and challenges, I will try my best to help you with some tips and tricks.