I remember the frustration I felt over mealtime when my daughter became a toddler. My compliant baby had transformed into a fussy and opinionated eater, and I felt helpless.
Meal times had turned into a time of stress. I was resorting to bottles of milk and snacks to make myself feel better about the amount of food she was consuming.
When I discovered Ellyn Slater’s Division of Responsibility, and it was like lightswitch flipped. I realized that mealtimes didn’t need to be a battle and I as a parent there were only so many factors I could control.
Following the Division of Responsibility (or DOR) principles allowed me as a parent to relax my attitude around meals and in turn, allow my headstrong toddler the independence she was demanding.
I know I’m not the only parent who has found themselves backed into a corner when faced with a picky eater. As parents, we only want the best for our children, but it can be so easy to place pressure on our children to eat.
This pressure, in turn, can lead to substantial power struggles over food and have lasting consequences on family mealtimes. And this power struggle means that as parents we become more concerned about WHAT our child is eating rather than the HOW they are eating.
So what is the Division of Responsibility?
Ellyn Slater’s Division of Responsibility breaks down which aspects of feeding parents are responsible for and which the child is responsible for.
Parents are responsible for WHAT, WHEN and WHERE.
Children are responsible for HOW MUCH and WHETHER
It’s important to stress that ALL components of the DOR must be present for it to work.
So, what exactly does this mean?
Parent Responsibility #1: What
Parents, we are responsible for what types of food we offer our children. We need to ensure that we expose our kids to a variety of healthy meals on a daily basis. It also means we need to stop being a short order cook.
Choose a healthy menu which contains at least 1-3 safe foods (a food your child will accept at least 50% of the time) and only serve that meal. Take it one step further and serve your meals family-style when possible so your children can help themselves.
Not sure what a healthy meal should look like? Check out the Canada food guide (created without any input from food lobbyists) and shows you what an average meal plate should look like.
As well, as parents, we are responsible for serving our children age-appropriate foods. Babies need milk and formula, then solid food when they show the signs of being ready.
Parents need to ensure that we are moving from purees to finger foods without too much delay and that we are giving our toddler and preschoolers foods which they are capable of physically eating.
Parent Responsibility #2: When
We are responsible for setting a schedule of when meals and snacks will be rather than allowing our children to graze all day. Having a feeding schedule allows your kids to be secure in the knowledge that although they may be hungry now, that’s okay because the next meal is coming up soon.
For younger children, snacks are an essential meal of the day as they need to eat more frequently. However, snack time often becomes an afterthought with convenience food given out on demand. Make an effort to plan out your kid’s snack schedule as well as the foods you choose to serve. Snack foods are an essential part of the day’s food supply.
Our afternoon snack is often heavily weighted towards fruits and vegetables, often with hummus as a source of protein. For some reason, my kids will more readily accept vegetables at snack than dinner, and I’ve found that it’s been easier to adopt the DOR at dinner time when I know my kids have already had a serving or two of vegetables just a few hours earlier.
Parent Responsibility #3: Where
And, we are responsible for making sure our children eat their meals in an appropriate setting such as sitting at the table with the rest of the family.
Your child is responsible for choosing how much they want to eat or if they even want to eat at all. As a parent, you must not place pressure on your child to eat as that is their choice.
I should note that the DOR is applicable for all picky eaters. However, if you’re dealing with a problem feeder (check out the difference here), then it’s best to refer to the advice of the professionals (OT etc.) that you’re working with.
Challenges with the DOR
The biggest (and hardest) change I found when I switched over to using the Division of Responsibility method of feeding was letting go of the power struggles. It was surprisingly tough. The pull to make sure my child was eating the food took a long time to get over and some days I was better at it than others.
That’s not to say we don’t have struggles around the table.
One of my biggest ones right now is getting my daughter to join us at the table and then stay seated. Some days I feel like she must have a spring attached to her behind she’s bouncing up and down so often. However, it’s a phase, and I’m sure it will pass.
Benefits of Using the Division of Responsibility
All babies are born knowing how to self-regulate their food intake. It’s only when well-meaning adults start to impose their ideas of how much food they should eat that they begin to lose this internal regulation.
By allowing your child to decide when they want (or need) to eat instead of forcing them to clean their plate, you’re allowing your child to relearn this learn self-regulation.
And, by promoting self-regulation, you’re giving your child a solid foundation for a healthy future relationship with food.
On a personal note, I was a lucky child whose parents didn’t force us to clean our plates. Consequently, I’ve never had a problem leaving food behind on my plate, even when out at a restaurant.
That’s not to say that I’ve never overeaten, some meals are just too yummy to stop when full. However, in general, I was allowed to develop a robust sense of self-regulation as a child, a skill which has served me well as an adult.
I noticed the difference in eating styles when I started dating my husband who came from a clean your plate family background. He struggled with leaving food behind when we went out to eat, even when it was on my plate.
Over the years he’s had a constant struggle with his weight and while there are always other factors involves, I believe self-regulation plays an important role.
Meal times become less about boundary testing and control
I’m not going to promise that by implementing the DOR into your family meals you’re going to eliminate all mealtime struggles. My kids continue to test the limits we have set out over mealtimes. However, any battle over whether they eat is gone, and all the associated frustration along with it.
Meal times can become a time of connection
Once your child realizes that they are not going to be forced to eat while at the table, over time they begin to relax. And, eventually, meals become a time to build connections.
I make sure that I always eat with my kids whenever possible, to put away as distractions such as my phone, and make an effort to be present while at the table. In turn, meals have been a chance for my kids and me to stop our busy lives and connect over the day.
One of my strongest memories about meals from my childhood was our afternoon school snack time. My mum, being British, would always make tea for herself and put out a snack for us. We ate together in the kitchen, and it was a chance for us to debrief about the day. Try to find a mealtime (possibly dinner) where you can reconnect as a family.
Making DOR work for your family
I want to stress that incorporating the Division of Responsibility model into your family’s eating habits will be a slow process.
If you’re currently engaged in a power struggle with your child over how much they should be eating it’s going to take time for your child to realize that you’re no longer engaging in that struggle.
If your kids are used to grazing at all times, introducing a schedule will take some getting used to.
And, if you’re dealing with a picky eater, having unfamiliar foods on their plate (or even at the table) can cause tantrums.
Give yourself and your kids time and grace to make the transition and take it one day at a time.
If you or your family is struggling then break down the process into manageable steps. Start by allowing your kids to choose what, and if, they want to eat.
Eliminate short order cooking but make sure that you’re serving safe foods with each meal. Make an effort to eat together as a family.
Start eliminating grazing and nudge your family onto a schedule which works for you.
Change up the variety of foods you’re serving on a daily basis. Have your kids put some of each of the new offering onto their plates (or a side plate). Lead the way be eating the kinds of foods you would ideally like your kids to eat.
Remember that with many children it can take repeated exposure of a new food before it is accepted. It may mean your kids need to see the unfamiliar food 15-40 times before they’re willing to try it.
Get help if you need it. Some children have underlying issues (such as a sensory processing disorder) which can exacerbate picky eating. These kids are often known clinically as problem eaters and will need specialized help with their eating habits.