If you’re familiar with Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, you’re likely well aware of this “gold standard” in feeding children.
I stumbled upon this in my early years of motherhood, when I started navigating how to feed my first baby at the time.
I was a new mother in eating disorder recovery, and I desperately wanted to learn how to set up my daughter for success when it came to her relationship with food and her body.
I didn’t want my past tumultuous experiences with food and my own body to somehow pass on her to her. I didn’t want to project my issues with her. And so I sought out to learn all about child feeding and what the best recommended practices were that helped parents raise children who were confident in their bodies and have a positive relationship with food.
When we started our family, I was also launching my career as a registered dietitian. Because of the trajectory of my motherhood journey, I took an interest in maternal child health.
The combination of my career along with the deep desire to learn how to feed my kids landed me in the work of Ellyn Satter and the division of responsibility in feeding.
As a newbie mom and dietitian, this approach to feeding deeply resonated with me.
If you’re new to this approach, I can briefly summarize the Division of Responsibility here and how it supports us in building a respectful and trusting feeding relationship with our children. (Please know this is a brief overview, and I am not covering all the nuances of this approach.)
In summary, the Division of Responsibility outlines what parents’ jobs are when it comes to feeding our children and what our children’s jobs are when it comes to eating.
Ellyn Satter’s work is clear on distinguishing between the two responsibilities as an important part of helping our children build a positive relationship with food and trust in their innate eating capabilities.
As parents and caregivers, our jobs with feeding children involve:
Offering reliable access to food
Determining when we’re offering food throughout the day (again, taking care to make it feel reliable to our children)
Deciding where we’re offering food
Determining what we are offering to our children to eat as part of the menu (while taking their considerations into account without catering to what they want to eat)
When it comes to eating, our children’s responsibilities are:
Deciding whether or not they want to eat at any given eating time
Determining how much they want to eat from the foods that have been offered to them at any given eating time
If we, as parents, try to cross out of our lanes to do our children’s eating jobs for them, by micromanaging what they eat or withholding certain foods from them with hidden agendas, this can interfere with their growth, and more impactfully, hinder then from building positive associations with food and trust in their bodies.
Seems pretty straightforward, right?
And again, for the sake of length, I’m not covering all the nuances of the division of responsibility in feeding in this post here.
You can read a little more about this in depth here: “The Feeding Relationship: How to Build Trust With Your Child Around Food”
When the Division of Responsibility Doesn’t Provide the Answer
If you’ve been following this approach in your own home and with feeding your own children, you likely understand the premise of how this works.
You may’ve been trying to implement this with how you feed your children or have heard of this through channels like gentle parenting or raising intuitive eaters.
And perhaps in your attempts to execute the division of responsibility, you’ve gotten stuck somewhere.
Maybe you’ve tried really hard to stick to doing your jobs and in letting your children do their eating jobs, but somewhere along the line, you find where there are certain situations that don’t seem to fit into this feeding/eating equation.
That’s what I want to cover here.
Because the division of responsibility provides helpful guidelines, but it doesn’t provide ALL the answers you need in terms of how you should best feed your children.
I certainly found the limitations with feeding my own children.
And sometimes, when we’re so desperate to just “get it right” (especially when it comes to feeding our kids and avoiding a repeat of our own negative relationships with food), we want to follow the “rules” as best as possible.
But guidelines are just that: recommendations on how to navigate situations in life, but certainly not the end-all-be-all answer to all our questions and problems.
When it comes to implementing the division of responsibility, I’ve seen countless families I work with get stuck because many of the suggested guidelines don’t necessarily seem to be working for their families. Or they find they run into issues that can’t be answered by the age-old advice of “parents provide, child decides.” And if you’ve found yourself in the same boat, you might feel like you’re doing it all wrong.
These are the nuances I want to talk about and explore with you here.
Because I believe that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for feeding our children and supporting them in building a positive relationship with food and their bodies.
What’s most important with helping us enjoy freedom with food as a family and in raising intuitive eaters who trust their bodies is building on a foundation of connection and trust.
Along the way, you might find certain guidelines don’t work for your family, or aren’t really applicable in specific situations. And in those moments, I want you to be able to give yourself permission to choose building trust with the child in front of you over adhering to rules that may not allow you to connect with your child.
All that to say, I want to help you take a closer look at some of the feeding approaches you may be trying to implement in your home and help you understand when and how to bend some of these “rules” and guidelines, with the goal of helping you be more responsive to your child and family’s needs. This will ultimately help you build connection and trust with your child, which will help foster a positive relationship with food and their bodies more than any other guidelines could.
With that said, I do want to start by exploring the Division of Responsibility in Feeding first, because this is the area I see most parents struggling with. This will likely be a series of blog posts, and if you’re resonating with anything here, I would love for you to leave a comment or connect with me so I can hear more about what you’re looking for and needing more support with.
So with that being said, let’s dive in.
Division of Responsibility – What does it say about Sweets?
The one area I do want to start with is with sweets. Again, this is the area where most parents are often coming to me for help.
Parents may’ve learned that they are in charge of offering sweets and deciding on when they’re going to offer them, but have no idea what to do about the many nuanced areas that come up in between these points.
This is what I want to explore here.
First, let’s look at what the division of responsibility says about offering sweets to our kids?
Generally, when it comes to sweets, the division of responsibility suggests that these foods be offered alongside other foods in the context of meals and snacks.
This was something that was revolutionary for me when I first started navigating sweets with my young kids at the time. If you’re anything like me, you grew up with sweets being used as a reward or stipulation for doing something, having good behavior or earning enough stars on the sticker chart.
Sweets also felt scarce and were often withheld, and I grew up having a chaotic relationship with sweets in particular.
Learning to offer sweets WITH meals and snacks felt so freeing to me and in alignment with my efforts of wanting to help my children having an emotional equal relationship with all foods.
Reading about this concept in the division of responsibility was my first introduction to this idea of presenting sweets alongside other foods to our children, and this helped me understand the framework of how I should be offering sweets to my kids.
In alignment with the division of responsibility, it’s also outlined to let our children choose to eat what they want from the foods provided, in the order in which they want to eat them. Even if this looks like your child choosing to eat the cookie first from their plate and not much else from their dinner, the division of responsibility in feeding promotes trusting our children’s appetites and allowing them to eat what they need from the foods we provide.
There are also some guidelines when it comes to portions of sweets to offer and frequency. The division of responsibility does recommend offering portion sized amounts of sweets with meals and periodically offering opportunities for children to have access to more unlimited quantities of sweets at the occasional snack time (like putting out a plate of cookies with milk and letting your child choose the amount of cookies they’d like to eat in that setting).
The division of responsibility with feeding also does encourage the regular incorporation of preferred and enjoyed foods, and for many families, this might mean having consistent and reliable access to sweets in the context of meals and snacks.
So as you can see, the division of responsibility generally does provide some helpful guidelines to approaching sweets to kids.
In light of these guidelines, where might there be limitations?
When the more nuanced situations arise around sweets, this is where I see the division of responsibility falling short; or perhaps, more accurately, being misinterpreted under circumstances where the guidelines simply cannot be followed or provide all the answers.
Let me explain.
Division of Responsibility in Child Feeding Practices: What About Sweets?
What about in situations where you plan on offering a certain amount of sweets at a given mealtime, and your child eats that portion and asks for more? This can be a tricky one to navigate, especially when kids are old enough to understand that more IS readily accessible right there in your pantry?
What about the scenario where your kids are asking for sweets outside of a designated meal and snack time?
What if your child is given an opportunity to eat sweets but you didn’t plan it for being “on the menu”?
How do you handle the child that wants to eat more sweets than what’s already been offered, and it triggers a power struggle around mealtime?
Traditional approaches aligned with the division of responsibility might recommend deferring the child to the next meal or snack, or reassuring the child that more will be available at a later time.
However, these approaches aren’t always effective; in fact, it can sometimes intensify preexisting obsessions and feelings of restrictions around sweets. This is especially true when parenting older children who have more autonomy and independence around food, or when children can readily access the very foods they want permission to eat.
Not having a flexible approach to sweets in particular can often put parents in situations where they feel they have to deny their children in order to adhere to feeding guidelines they’re following; but again, this can make kids obsess about sweets or potentially have an unhealthy obsession with these foods.
This is where I see parents getting stuck and feeling frustrated at trying to implement the division of responsibility “rules”.
The very guidelines that are intended to help parents navigate feeding children can start to feel like rules that can’t be broken, bended or challenged under any circumstances.
Especially when it comes to sweets, as parents and caregivers, we want to be intentional about taking a more responsive approach to how we offer sweets to our children, including the frequencies and quantities of sweets, to ensure it’s in alignment with what their actual needs are to build a healthy relationship with food, not in accordance to arbitrary standards or prescriptive plans.
In light of these potential conflicts and struggles that might come up around sweets while trying to comply with the division of responsibility with feeding, I want to offer some alternative solutions that might help you navigate these situations when they arise.
Troubleshooting: Kids and Sweets
How do you respond or what do you do in situations where your child might be asking for more sweets and they aren’t taking no for an answer.
How do you diffuse the power struggle, especially when the normal scripts/responses aren’t working and kids KNOW that the sweets are available/accessible.
Sometimes, while the division of responsibility framework is helpful, it might not seem to work in these types of situations.
In theory, you provide what you’re serving, you determine the menu; your child decides whether or not to eat it and how much. But what about the nuanced areas to which this doesn’t apply so cut and dry?
Again, this is where it’s important to not allow the “guidelines” around “how” you’re supposed to feed your kids prevent you from taking a more flexible approach that is actually being responsive to what they might need.
This is especially true when it comes to sweets. You might predetermine an amount or portion of sweets you want to offer with any given meal or dinner. But for various factors that may be a play, this may not have been enough for what your child needs. Your child may ask for more. Instead of shutting down or deterring their request, get curious about what might be going on.
Ask yourself if it might be more helpful in that situation to make those sweets more accessible, especially if your child needs more exposure or higher quantities of sweets or if you’re working on normalizing sweets in your home. When kids know those foods are available and you’re saying, “No, that’s not on the menu right now, that’s all we’re having”, but they can see them sitting on the counter – this can feel restrictive.
Consider taking a more flexible approach to sweets that continues to provide structure and support but that is also responsive to the situation and what your child needs.
It’s OKAY to say, “YES – that’s a great idea, let’s have some more cookies!”, even if that wasn’t your intention for that meal.
Sometimes, choosing to say YES, even if it wasn’t part of your plan for that meal, is what might be needed to help diffuse a power struggle and build trust with your child around food. You can navigate this in your response.
It’s also important to consider your language around your responses to your child’s requests:
Instead of things like, “yeah fine, just eat whatever”, or “I guess you can have another one but you might get sick”, take their feedback into consideration and provide leadership by making the final decision. This pivot from plans might look like saying, “Yes, that sounds like a great idea. Let’s have another cookie together with our meal. Let’s bring them to the table while we continue eating our dinner.”
At the end of the day, you want to focus on the relationship you’re building with your child around food. Even the best intended guidelines shouldn’t take priority over being responsive to your child’s and family’s unique needs.
The same would be true for the frequency of sweets you’re offering throughout the day.
Let’s say you were intentional about regularly incorporating sweets into your children’s eating opportunities throughout the day. You might plan on letting them have some candy with lunch and also including cookies at dinnertime.
But let’s say your child has a playdate with friends, and they bring some cupcakes to share. Or your kids get to go out shopping with Grandma and she wants to take them to get ice cream while they’re out.
If it wasn’t part of the “plan”, your inclination might be to shut it down, defer it, or redirect it to another day in effort to follow the feeding schedule or guidelines. And again, this is where you’d want to step back to see the big picture: Does saying “no” in the moment to a sweets request that wasn’t part of the plan teach your child how to be flexible with a variety of eating situations or the opportunities to learn how to self-regulate during times where sweets exposure may be higher than usual?
Does your response, in terms of how you would navigate these unexpected situations, help your child learn to navigate real life eating situations they’ll inevitably encounter in the future and in the real world we live in? Would saying no to your child increase feelings of deprivation or prevent them from participating in an activity where exposure to sweets is accessible (like birthday parties or any situation where they’ll be seeing other children eating sweets).
This is where it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and look at the individual needs your child may have to build a positive relationship with food and their bodies, to trust the accessibility of sweets, and to know they’re not “bad” for wanting to eat sweets, especially when they’re accessible.
It’s exactly in these situations you may want to consider pivoting your “plans” to more responsively address the needs your child may have to build a trusting relationship with food.
It’s okay to make pivots from your feeding plans to honor the relationship you’re building with your child.
Examining Intent Behind Feeding Decisions
It’s also important to examine the intention behind your feeding plans for your children. Are you more concerned with the rules or guidelines you’re following than you are in helping them achieve the bigger picture of building a positive relationship with food and their bodies? Are there any hidden agenda behind your feeding approaches that need to be looked at more closely?
Hidden agendas, like wanting your child to eat lesser sweets or smaller portions because it makes you feel uncomfortable, are of critical importance to examine and uproot in order to support your child in building a trusting feeding relationship with you.
Hidden feeding agendas will only compromise your ability to build trust in your child, which again, can make it hard for them to build trust in themselves.
But sometimes, the biggest hindrances to helping our kids build a healthy relationship with food might be our own hidden agendas.
Sometimes the things that may prevent us from having positive eating experiences as a family lie in our own unrealistic expectations around what feeding kids or having family meals should look like.
Most of these unrealistic expectations are deeply rooted in diet culture, perpetuating an impossible standard for feeding kids.
To take a more responsive and trusting approach to feeding, take the time to examine if there are any hidden agendas or expectations beneath the surface of how you’re feeding your children and ask yourself how they’re showing up, what purpose are they ultimately serving?
Are they there to help you feel more comfortable in navigating foods that are demonized by diet culture?
Are you challenging yourself to move out of your comfort zone in order to better meet the needs your child may have to build a positive relationship with food?
Examining intentions behind feeding choices are crucial to navigating how to respond to what your child is needing and CHOOSING to be responsive to their needs rather than making decisions based on your comfortability or hidden agendas.
Commitment to Building a Trusting Feeding Relationship
I hope this can help you see that at the end of the day, it’s not about calculating how many servings of sweets your child had or trying to keep their exposure to sugar at a minimum at all costs.
These approaches to feeding your children will prohibit you from building a trusting feeding relationship with your children.
What’s most important is to meet your children where they’re at in order to facilitate trust in your relationship. Feeding is an essential part of parenting, and when food feels reliable, this can help your children trust a basic need will be consistently met.
Sometimes, meeting your children where they’re at looks like allowing easy requests, which can truly go further in helping you build trust in your relationship with your children than ANY food rule might do.
It’s also important to understand that your capacity matters in feeding your children, too. Sometimes, you might not have the mental space to maintain certain aspects that you might normally do when feeding your children, and that’s okay, too.
You can read my personal example of this and how we lived on chocolate cake as a family in this post here: “Got a Family to Feed? How to Keep Feeding Families in Times of Stress”
Any guidelines or suggested feeding practices, like the Division of Responsibility, are not meant to dictate how to live your life or what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Again, it’s not about adhering to rules without looking at the greater needs of your whole family unit.
I hope this helps give you some food for thought (no pun intended). I’d love to hear from you, too! What questions do you have about this? Feel free to stick them in the comments below, and let me know if you’d like to see more content around this topic!