As a parent are you concerned that your child is developing unhealthy eating habits?

There are two questions I’ve been asked repeatedly in the past week:

  1. How do I get my toddler to eat vegetables?
  2. How do I stop my teenager from overeating junk food?

These are legitimate concerns and as the mum of a toddler I’ve been diving deep into the research to better understand this topic. 

There is some fascinating research I want to share with you that provides a surprisingly simple answer to these two questions.

The answer lies in “The Division of Responsibility”.

This term is coined by Ellyn Satter, a paediatric dietitian and therapist who has done a substantial amount of research on childhood eating over the past 40 years.

When you apply Satter’s theory you’ll find that it solves – and can prevent– many childhood feeding problems.

Let me explain further.  The Division of Responsibility states simply that the parent is responsible for what food is provided, when it is provided and where it is provided. The child is responsible for how much and whether to eat.

Fundamental to your job as the parent is trusting that your child can determine how much and whether to eat from what you provide. When you do your job with feeding, your child can do their job with eating.

I know that this is very different from what many of us grew up with.  We were clearly instructed to “eat all of your dinner if you want dessert”.  There was possibly a comment or two about not wasting food as well.  The approach I’m recommending is the opposite to this.

Your job as a parent:

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Role-model how to behave at family mealtimes.
  • Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Do not offer food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.

Your child’s job:

  • Eat.
  • Eat the amount they need.
  • Learn to eat the food you eat.
  • Learn to behave well at mealtimes.

Below are two examples of when the Division of Responsibility is not practiced correctly.

Example 1: Child running the show

Little Charlie insists he gets certain foods at meals so his mum gives in afraid he’ll starve to death. As a result, his diet consists of macaroni and cheese, white bread and sultanas. The problem? Charlie has taken over his mum’s job of deciding “what” to eat.

If Charlie’s mum were following the Division of Responsibility, she would tell him that even though she takes his requests into consideration, it’s her job to decide what he eats – and he can decide whether or not to eat it. She plans his meals with his food preferences in mind but doesn’t resort to feeding only his favourites.

Research shows that children need ample opportunity and time to learn to like certain foods. At around 18 months of age many toddlers become skeptical of certain items, like vegetables, but this is just a stage. By continually offering foods your child may not like (without pressuring) you give him the opportunity to learn to like that food. If you take away the food, you take away the opportunity.

Example 2: Parent controlling their child’s food intake

In this example, Charlie is eating very little at meal time and his mum says “Is that all you’re going to eat?” She even starts to make him eat at least half of his plate before he can watch TV or play with his favourite toy.

Another example is Rosie, a girl with a hearty appetite. Her mum purposely limits how much she eats because she’s already 90th percentile for weight.  When Rosie asks for more her mum says, “That’s all there is.”

In both examples, the parent is crossing the line of responsibility by deciding how much a child eats. Why is this bad? Studies show that children tend to eat less when pressured and more when they feel food is scarce. Additionally, you want your child to maintain their ability to self-regulate intake. This is a gift that most adults would die for, to eat when hungry and stop when full.

When a parent and child divide the responsibility of eating in this way, it solves most childhood feeding problems. And it sure does make life – and mealtime—a lot more pleasant.

As you can see a big part of helping your child eat a healthy diet is to role-model.  Eat meals together.   I need to point out – if you have a “messy” relationship with food (restricted, controlling, binge eating, comfort eating etc) … then chances are you handing this down to your child.  Your challenges with food will become your child’s challenges with food – your struggle will become your child’s struggle.  If you sneak junk food and eat it when you “think” your child is not looking – chances are they will follow your lead.   They will learn about “forbidden” foods and over consume them in secrecy.