A Beginner’s Guide to the Division of Responsibility for Family Mealtimes

A Beginner’s Guide to the Division of Responsibility for Family Mealtimes

At Learn Play Eat we talk a lot about using the ‘Division of Responsibility’ (DOR) approach by Ellyn Satter to help picky eaters at family mealtimes. DOR says that the parents should provide the food and decide what the meal is, when it will be and where, and the children decide if they will eat and how much. It’s not the parents’ job to ‘make’ the child eat. 

Sounds simple, but it can be difficult to get out of the habit of trying to coax a picky eater to eat their dinner. My son was born a little early, was a small baby, had reflux and difficulties breastfeeding. I became obsessed with his weight-gain. So when he started solids, I closely monitored how much he would eat, and tried to get that ‘just one more bite’ in through distraction or bribes. Unfortunately, this may have made his picky eating tendencies worse. I later learnt that using the Division of Responsibility, we need to let go of all that. We have to trust that they know their hunger levels, and they will try new foods when they are ready. Here are a few points to cover questions I know I had, when we started with this approach.

What is the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding?

DOR uses evidence-based and clinically-tested models for peaceful family mealtimes, helping children develop a healthy relationship with food, enjoy eating and grow into the right body size for them. It can remove stress and drama from dinner. 

The Ellyn Satter Institute website says that for toddlers through to adolescents:

“You are responsible for what, when, and where. Your child is responsible for how much and whether.”

What are the benefits of the Division of Responsibility?

  • Children learn to eat the right amount for them
    Learning to listen to their own bodies’ hunger and fullness cues means they won’t be under or over-eating.
  • No stress for children
    If a child is stressed at dinner time, the adrenaline that produces actually decreases appetite. 
  • No stress for parents
    Parents no-longer feel the pressure to make sure children eat a certain amount.
  • Positive mealtime experience
    We can focus on some pleasant family chat about our days, what we are looking forward to, what we are grateful for etc., instead of “eat your dinner” on repeat.
  • Exposure to new foods
    Children are seeing and interacting with foods they wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.
  • Only cook 1 meal for all the family
    No need to cook the kids dinner, and then adults dinner later, we can all eat together!

What if my child won’t eat what I serve?

We add 1 or 2 ‘safe’ foods (foods which your child can usually eat) to the meal. For example for my family it might be some yoghurt, and some bread or fruit. These foods are not just for the child though, they are a part of the meal and anyone can take some.

If they don’t want to eat some parts of the meal, that’s OK. Just by having those foods on the table to look at, they are starting to learn more about them, and taking steps towards being able to eat them at a later stage. 

If they are happy to, they could put a small amount of some of the food onto their plate just to learn about, and you can talk about this food as part of the meal. Some families I know also use a small ‘learning plate’ for this, if the child is not ready to serve a food they don’t know onto their own plate. 

What if they only eat the ‘safe’ foods?

It can be helpful to discuss your child’s eating with your GP or dietitian and ask for help with their nutrition through supplements if needed. If they can tolerate a smoothie or milkshake, extra fruit and veg or protein powders can be blended into that as part of breakfast or snack time. Also if we try to look at what is eaten over a week rather than over one day, sometimes there can be more variety than we realised.

How should I serve the food?

The food can be served ‘family style’ so all components of the meal are separated out in different serving bowls. Each family member can then serve themselves which parts, and how much they would like.

What meals should I serve?

You should be able to serve most meals in this way. It might be harder with meals that need to be cooked altogether like a pie or a stew, to separate meal components out and deconstruct for family style serving. But usually we can still serve some bread, salad or yoghurt on the side so it still works. Sometimes these foods might not traditionally go together, but that’s OK. For example, you might say “tonight we are having lasagne, chicken nuggets, steamed vegetables, and bread”.

I find it works best to do a meal plan for a couple of weeks and always have a few of the ‘safe’ foods available to go with them.

However, here are a few meal ideas which are more naturally served this way:

  • Fajitas – my son started out choosing just a wrap with grated cheese, and has gradually started adding more ingredients.
  • Tacos.
  • Rainbow rice – plain rice plus bowls of diced ham, corn, peas, carrot, red capsicum etc plus sauces if you like them, we often make this a game to see which colours we each want to include in our bowls.
  • Build your own pasta – similar to the above!
  • Roast dinner.
  • Mild curry with plain rice, poppadoms or naan bread, chutneys, yoghurt.
  • Stir fry – as shown in the photo above (and similar to Rainbow rice), this was Korean Bibimbap which my husband and I love, so we still eat it, but we leave it unassembled so we can all choose the pieces we want. Carrot and rice are the ‘safe’ foods for my picky eater here, the beef is ‘sometimes safe’ and the other foods he is still learning about.

What about dessert?

Dessert can be tricky. DOR recommends to either serve dessert with dinner (and they can eat it first if they like), or to not serve dessert at all. Otherwise you can get into challenges with children saying they are full of dinner but still wanting dessert.

Who should be eating?

At least 1 adult should eat with the child, and be eating the same food as the child. In this way we can model eating a variety of food, show them how we are happy about eating all types of food, and demonstrate to younger children how we chew and use our utensils.

How long should the meal last?

Health professionals suggest a child’s meal should last 20 to 30 minutes depending on age. It can be hard for young children to sit and concentrate for much longer. At the end of the meal they can help to clear up, and interact with any uneaten food by placing in boxes for leftovers or moving it into the bin.

How long until my child starts to eat some new foods?

It can take a child who is a regular picky eater 10 times of seeing or interacting with a new food before they are ready to eat it. For a child with more challenges around eating this can take 25 times or more. So it may take some time, and we may need some patience. You can help by offering other opportunities outside of mealtimes for exploring food. Activities such as cooking, baking, grocering shopping or food play can all work well. If you’d like more ideas for this you can take a look at our Learn Play Eat app, which has over 200 suggestions for ways to learn about and play with food!

Is it hard to do?

At first it can be a big change. Especially if you have gotten into the habit of coaxing your child to eat like I had. Also the logistics around trying to have one parent available to eat at an earlier time with the child can be tricky. And it does create more dishes to wash up! But it has been so worth it for our family and many others we have spoken to. Now it’s just the way we eat and it doesn’t really take up much more time or effort.

Are you using this kind of approach for your family mealtimes? We’d love to know how it works for you and if there are any other tips you can share?!