Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility model (DoR) is completely brilliant. It's brilliant because it supports parents through a really difficult mindset shift, from 'Get food down child' to 'teach child to self-regulate'; from short term to long term. It is an approach that prioritises a child's psychologically healthy relationship with food and, most importantly, it works.
Let me row back a bit - for those of you who are not familiar with DoR, I want to give you a quick overview, but the best thing you can do is read up about it yourself in order to get a meaningful understanding of Satter's approach. You can download my resource guide here, in which I share links to books, articles and websites where you can learn more about DoR. Also, this overview from the Ellyn Satter Institute website is great.
Ellyn Satter is a registered Dietitian, Nutritionist and Family Therapist. She is a leading international authority on child feeding and has published extensively in academic journals and written some excellent books for parents. You can read more about her and her work on her site.
DoR gives parents a clear understanding of their feeding role; it is the parent's (or care-giver's) job to set the structure for meals and snacks (read my post on how to set and review your meal schedule here). This means you decide when eating opportunities happen, based on an age-appropriate schedule for your child. You decide where they happen too. You also decide WHAT food is made available; you take responsibility for the content of meals.
To illustrate this, let's consider what the opposite of DoR looks like: what happens when a child sets the structure? Well, this is offering food because they have requested it. Maybe they are hungry before a meal, so you give them a snack. Maybe they leave their meal and ask for an alternative, so you provide it. If children are in charge of the content of meals, perhaps you are cooking one meal for one child, and something separate for another. If children are in charge of where meals happen, they may eat 'on the go' and miss all those valuable social learning opportunities that communal meals can provide.
The other side of DoR is all about the child's responsibilities; with DoR, children are in charge of how much they eat of what has been made available to them. They can choose to leave their food - that is their right.
I could spend all day writing about the benefits of DoR but I'm just going to focus on a couple of key points:
1) DoR supports self-regulation.
This is when children eat for internal rather than external reasons (ie. they eat in response to their bodies' cues, not because of the adults around them). Research shows that the ability to self-regulate is really important, not just because it is an integral part of a positive relationship with food, but also because it guards against eating disorders and obesity. I explain self-regulation in more depth, here.
2) DoR minimises the potential for meals to become an arena for boundary testing and experiments with autonomy
In early childhood, children are learning about who they are and what they can do. They are learning about personal power, about what the rules are... they often experiment with the word 'No!' - they are learning about autonomy. All of this is normal and healthy, but sometimes, these power battles can take place at mealtimes. Children can begin to use food as a way of testing boundaries, especially if this provokes a dramatic or emotional reaction from a parent.
With DoR, the child is empowered to make their own eating decisions from within the context set by the adult. They have control - there is no scope to get attention or create drama through choosing to leave food, because leaving food isn't an issue any more.
3) DoR leaves room to focus on the joyful side of eating
Once you are no longer embroiled in a battle to make your child eat the food you think they need at every meal, everyone can relax and you can focus on enjoying one another's company. And actually, as if by magic, once the tension dissipates, your child is very likely to begin to eat better.
The DoR model is simple, but using it consistently and meaningfully is SO hard!
This is because it requires a major mindset-shift that challenges what we have been told is 'normal' in much of Western society. We are raised to believe that our job as parents is to get our children to eat. We think we know what they ought to be consuming and that our job is to make that happen.
The idea that children can be trusted to know what and how much they need to eat (from within the context of the appropriate diet that we make available to them) is really radical. But trust is at the centre of a positive feeding relationship, and if we can learn to step back, to understand what is our responsibility and what is not our responsibility, we can start to build that trust and stop inadvertently piling on the mealtime pressure by making it our mission to 'get children to eat'.
When I explain DoR to parents of picky eaters, they often have the same questions for me, so I am going to touch on these here. The first thing I am asked is:
"But my child won't eat unless I cook them a separate meal, with the foods they like"
Just make sure that at least a couple of your child's 'safe foods' are included in every meal or snack so that they can take part in the communal meal without being singled out. If your child eats chicken nuggets and bread, but you want to eat a chicken salad, put the chicken nuggets in a bowl, put the bread in a bowl, put the elements of your salad in bowls and let everyone serve themselves. This way, you are not giving your child a message about 'your food' and 'my food'. They are getting valuable exposures to things that may be unfamiliar while also feeling confident that there is something at each meal they will be able to eat. Even better, take a chicken nugget yourself alongside your salad!
"I DO know best about what my child needs to consume - I am really worried about their weight and growth"
If you are worried about your child's weight and growth, get this checked out with a health professional. Problems in this area could indicate a need for further investigation. If you discover that your child's health isn't a cause for concern, it becomes much easier to trust them to eat in response to their body's requirements.
"I am so used to encouraging my child to eat - I've been doing it for years - I don't think I will ever be able to stop trying to persuade them to eat their dinner"
It is really, really difficult to break out of these patterns we establish. They become as comfortable as a well worn glove... your child says "yuk", you pull out all your strategies to get them to eat. You ask them to eat just four more mouthfuls, striking deals like you're on Wall Street. You plead, you reason with them. These habits take time to change.
Be patient with yourself, acknowledge that your urges to control what and how much your child eats of their meals and snacks, comes from a place of love. But take the time to really understand Satter's DoR and you can be confident that actually, the most loving way you can feed your child is to take responsibility for what food you provide and where and when you provide it, then trust your child to do the rest.