Feeding a family can be one of the bigger stressors we as parents face. There is an overabundance of information available to us, all with varying approaches on what the best way to feed our children is. As a mom of three, I want nothing more than for my kids to have a healthy relationship with food. How we approach the parent/child feeding relationship from birth through adolescence has an insurmountable impact on how our children interact with food and how they feel about their bodies throughout their lifetime.
Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and family feeding expert, developed the Satter Division of Responsibility in feeding (sDOR), which has become the gold standard for feeding a family. Satter’s approach helps support parents in maintaining joy at meal times without using pressure to force kids to eat, or restricting certain types of foods, including dessert.
Satter stands behind the belief that children know how much they need to eat. This begins in infancy. Following the sDOR protects our child’s innate ability to sense hunger, appetite and satiety, regardless of our child’s body size.
So what exactly is the Division of Responsibility?
Under the sDOR, parents are responsible for when, what and where our child eats. The child’s responsibility is how much, and whether, they decide to eat. Satter ensures parents that when we do our job as parents with feeding, our children will do their job as kids with eating. The focus here is on maintaining a healthy feeding relationship between parent and child, rather than focusing on what exactly or how much our child eats at any given meal or snack.
As a parent, our job with feeding is to:
- Choose and prepare the food our family eats. Offer a variety of foods, while always making sure there is at least one food item at meals and snacks that your child has confidently eaten in the past.
- Provide regular meals and snacks, while avoiding grazing on food and beverages between meals and snacks.
- Make meal times pleasant, while modeling polite table manners.
- Be considerate of our child’s lack of food experience while not catering to likes and dislikes. It is not your job as a parent to be a short-order cook. Avoid making separate meals for different family members based on preference.
- Let our child grow into the body that is right for them. This includes trusting that both small and large children can competently regulate their food intake without outside pressure from parents. It is imperative that we allow our children to grow at their own pace. Children’s bodies are all made differently. Talking to your child about how their body will change during prepubescence and during puberty can help them to trust their bodies as well. Interference in feeding from a concerned parent around their child’s weight will damage the child’s innate ability to self-regulate, setting them up for a lifetime of chronic dieting or possibly even the development of an eating disorder.
Many well-intended parents use pressure in the feeding relationship. Sometimes pressure can be hard to notice as a parent. Checking in on our intentions around feeding a family can help. If you are doing or saying something to get your child to eat more, less or a different food, than your child would naturally do on their own, it is considered pressure.
Pressure can appear positive, such as celebrating, praising, bribing, or using rewards to “motivate” your child to eat. It can also appear negative, such as coaxing, withholding desserts or second helpings of certain foods, shaming, criticizing or threatening. Pressure can also come under the guise of positive parenting, such as, making our child take a “no thank you bite”, making them finish their vegetables, or reminding them they need to eat so they aren’t hungry later. Pressure around feeding can vary drastically, and may even appear to be “working” in the short term . However, it does not foster a healthy relationship with food and typically backfires.
Here are some common concerns parents voice to me in my office regularly, which can all be addressed with the sDOR:
How do I foster a healthy relationship with food with my child?
The best way to ensure that your child has a solid, lifelong healthy relationship with food is to follow the Satter Division of Responsibility. Serve balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals. Let your child take it from here. They get to decide how much, of each food served, that they eat at any given meal. Model to your child at meals eating a variety of foods. It is important as a parent that you are not avoiding certain food groups or dieting yourself.
What do I do if my child doesn’t finish their vegetables at dinner?
You don’t do anything. Pressuring your child to eat their vegetables will not help them like vegetables more.
Do I have to make my child finish dinner before they can have dessert?
No. With the sDOR, dessert is served alongside dinner. Children can decide in what order they eat their meal. Often times for parents just starting to follow sDOR, kids will eat their dessert first, as it has often been more of a novel food that has been limited. The more regular dessert is served without restriction, it will become less exciting and more neutral. You may begin to notice kids leaving some dessert behind and not finishing it, as they trust that it will be served again, and again, without restriction.
What if my child isn’t hungry when it is meal time?
Respect and honor their natural hunger and satiety. Even if they barely eat at a meal, they will be ok! It is very normal for kid’s appetites to fluctuate from day to day, and even from week to week. The best assurance you can give your child is that there will be another meal or snack in a few hours.
For many parents, the sDOR is a new way of feeding their family. Understandably so, it can be a scary journey to start. If you are looking for more help in guiding your family’s approach, Courage to Nourish is here to help!
Bobbi Boteler, RD, LD, CEDRD is an eating disorder dietitian in private practice in Columbia, MD. Bobbi specializes in treating individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). She practices from an intuitive eating model. Bobbi is passionate about family nutrition and especially enjoys working with kids. She is a Health at Every Size © advocate and anti-diet dietitian. Bobbi provides eating disorder nutrition counseling in Columbia, MD, as well as virtually.