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Before we actually have kids, we tend to have all these high and mighty visions of how we’ll feed them when they do come along. “My kids will eat what I serve”, “I’ll never be a short-order cook”, “I’ll never allow them to have sugar”, and “My kids won’t be allowed to be picky eaters” are all phrases the pre-kid versions of us probably uttered at one time or another (I know I had some of those ideas rolling around in there before my son was born!)

But once that little bundle of crazy adorableness is out in the world, things change. Reality sets in. As they grow past the all-liquid-diet phase, we start to run into challenges when it comes to feeding them actual food.

They’ll seem like they love a food one day, and hate it the next.

They’ll eat like a horse one day, and barely eat anything the next.

And as a parent, it’s frustrating! We want them to grow up healthy and strong, and to eat a variety of foods. But it can seem like all they want is chicken nuggets for the rest of forever and we wonder if we’re doing something wrong.

Fear not, mama. You, like the rest of us, are only doing your best. And that’s all any of us can really do!

There are ways to lessen the frustration that comes along with this time though, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Let me introduce you to The Division of Responsibility.

It is a feeding strategy founded by Ellyn Satter, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It acknowledges that kids are human and have their own role to play in this feeding dance. While we’d probably love to control our kids’ eating so we could get them to eat all the healthy stuff, that’s unfortunately not how real life works. (You’d probably hate it if someone thought they could control YOUR eating, right?)

So here is how this Division of Responsibility (or DOR for short) plays out:

Parent’s Role:

You, as the parent, have certain responsibilities when it comes to feeding. You are in control of When and Where eating occurs, as well as What is served.

But that’s it. That is where your control ends. (Sorry to my fellow control freaks! I’m usually one too, and this is a tough pill for us to swallow!)

Kid’s Role:

Now comes the hard part… your CHILD has responsibilities too, and they are Whether and How Much to eat of what is served.

That’s right… Part of lessening the frustration that comes with feeding is to LET GO of some control, and be okay with your child choosing NOT to eat.

The reason that your child is in charge of whether or not to eat, and how much to eat, is because kids are very well tuned in to their innate hunger and fullness signals. Their little bodies are great at self-regulating their intake, as long as we allow them to do so. You may have noticed this when your kid was an infant and would stop nursing or sucking on the bottle when they were done. You didn’t need to coax them to have more, you trusted that their tummy was done (and would be ready for more again later). And even if you did try to coax them to have more, they would turn their head away. When they’re done, they’re done!

The same is still true even when they’re a bit older. They are very good at listening to their hunger and fullness cues!

But if they don’t eat, won’t they be hungry later??

Yup. Just like you would be if you weren’t hungry for lunch but got hungry later on. This is totally normal.

But I get it. You don’t want your kid to refuse his lunch only to ask for a snack 10 minutes later. So, depending on the age of your child, it’s helpful to get some expectations put in place.

Three Steps to Implementing the DOR in Your Home:

1 -Structure your meal/snack times.

Remember that you are in charge of when and where. This means that you decide when lunch is served, and when snack is served. You do have some flexibility here of course, as you can choose to shift lunch a little earlier or later depending on a particular day’s needs and if your child seems to be legitimately hungry or not hungry. But they don’t make the final call, you do.

So if it’s lunch time, and they don’t want to eat, let them know that it’s fine not to eat if they’re not hungry. But remind them when the next time they will have a meal or snack will be.

“You don’t have to eat it if you’re not hungry sweetie, but we’re not having snack until after your nap (or in two hours, or when daddy gets home, etc).”

If this seems a bit mean, and like you’re completely ignoring their actual hunger cues, I hear you. I felt that way at first too. But kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. And since you’re still in charge of when snack is served, you can choose to shift it slightly earlier if you think they’re super hungry. They will not starve, I promise. There will be at most 2-3 hours until they can eat again, and if they’re not hungry right now anyway, they will be fine to wait.

Having a structure to meal and snack times helps them to eventually regulate their appetite. They’ll be able to understand what hunger feels like, and that it’s not an emergency that must be fixed as soon as possible. There is always another food opportunity around the corner, and a short while of waiting is healthy and perfectly okay. (Obviously, keep their age in mind here. If they’re 18 months, their tummy is smaller than a 5 year old and they can’t go as long, so you can put your meals and snacks a little closer together.)

A key thing to help with this: Close the kitchen in between feedings. This helps you keep to your structure and prevents kids from grazing, so they can get hungry for meals.

2 – Prevent picky eating by serving family style.

You are in charge of what is served, but your child still decides whether or not to eat it. To prevent the dreaded “I don’t want that” from applying to the entire meal, try serving things in a deconstructed family style way. Think of things like a taco bar, where all the individual pieces are separate and people can take what they want. This idea applies to many more meals than you might first think. Pasta dishes can be served with the pasta, mix-ins, and sauce in separate containers, meat and veggies and potatoes can all be served as separate dishes, etc. The key is to include at least one thing that you know your child likes. This way, there is always something on the table they can eat.

3 – Be okay with them eating only one thing.

Yes, I fully realize this is the hardest part, and I’m still working on my okay-ness with this myself. If I serve tacos (tortillas, cheese, meat, peppers, and avocado, all separate), and my son only eats tortillas, it’s a bit annoying, but I allow him to make that choice.

Sometimes he will eat only the tortilla and cheese, other times he gobbles the peppers like they’re going out of style. And sometimes all he wants is avocado. It sounds strange, but it really does even itself out in the long run. My son usually dislikes chicken, but we still serve it alongside other things he likes. The other day he surprised me by NOT eating things he usually loves (potatoes and eggplant), and eating ONLY the chicken!

Trust them to choose what to eat, and work on letting go of the desire to control it completely. You’ll never be able to control it completely anyway, so this saves you (and them!) a huge load of frustration and keeps meal times much more pleasant because you’re not spending the entire time trying to force them to take one more bite of their broccoli!

Wrapping up:

I hope this introduction to the Division of Responsibility has been helpful for you! It is one of those things that can sound tricky or difficult at first, but is surprising in how well it works and how easily it can be implemented.

You may have a bit of push-back at first from older children if this is a totally new approach, but the adjustment period is usually short, and they often like being allowed to be in control of what they eat at meals. No more constant prodding from mom and dad to eat their veggies is exciting for them! And what’s really cool, is that without that stress and micromanagement, they often will eventually come around to trying it on their own. A definite win!

Prevent picky eating and food struggles when feeding your kids. Use the division of responsibility to get back peaceful meal times!

*A version of this post first appeared as a guest post on the ChocolateSoupBrand blog.