How to Raise a Healthy and Happy Eater: Follow a Division of Responsibility in Feeding (page 2)

By — Obesity Prevention Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

What parents can do to prevent and correct feeding problems at any age:

The parenting style for feeding children and preventing obesity that is recommended as best practice by pediatric and nutrition organizations3 is the Division of Responsibility in feeding. Developed by Ellyn Satter4, the Division of Responsibility describes the very dynamic feeding relationship between parent and child. It identifies both the parent’s and the child’s unique responsibilities in the feeding relationship. In a nutshell:

The Division of Responsibility in feeding: Parents take leadership by providing all of the structure needed to make mealtimes and feeding go smoothly. Children are given autonomy over their eating.

Parents are responsible for:

  • What food is served
  • When eating occurs
  • Where eating is allowed

Children are responsible for:

  • How much to eat
  • Whether or not to eat

When feeding issues appear, most parents feel that it is the child that needs fixing. They force, cajole, bribe, threaten, and manipulate their child into eating certain foods or amounts. Research indicates that this is unproductive, and actually creates the problem.5 The Division of Responsibility focuses on the parent and his or her parenting style. Children don’t need fixing. With proper parenting, the child learns to be a competent eater.

Structure is key to the division of responsibility. Parents help children become good eaters when they schedule regular meal and snack times, eat together as a family, have rules about when and where eating is allowed, and forbid grazing between the scheduled meals and snacks. If parents do their jobs with feeding, the child can take responsibility over how much and whether to eat.

Eating is a learned skill that children must be taught:

Parents are skilled teachers. They teach their child how to read, dance, and play sports. These learned skills require lots of practice, limit setting, the teaching of rules. Parents who teach their child a new skill expect that the child will master that skill. Mastery expectation is the norm.

Same applies for eating. To become a competent eater, a child requires the same type of teaching and mastery expectation from their parents:

  • Practice: In order to learn to like vegetables, a child may need many exposures (practice). Parents who give up on their child after he refuses a food two or three or even 10 times deny the child the practice he needs. When the child refuses a food, parents should not force the child to eat it. They should, however, assume that by continuing to eat that food themselves, and offering it at mealtime that their child will learn to eat it. Eating together with a family is the best way for children to learn to like new foods.
  • Teaching rules and setting limits: Every game has rules that must be followed. So it is with eating and learning to eat at the dinner table. Mealtime rules for children include how to: behave; say “no thank you;” refuse food politely; eat off his own plate; and know that once he gets up from the table or begins to misbehave, mealtime is over. Parents who expect that their child can master the skill of being a pleasant mealtime participant, will have the patience to teach these skills over many years.
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