Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Hungry Monkeys and Challenges in Teaching them Division of Responsibility

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This past summer I had the pleasure of connecting with TwinToddlersDad on Twitter. He writes a science-driven, real-life toddler nutrition blog at In the guest post he asked me to write on his blog, I wrote about family meals and tips for feeding toddlers. One of my tips was to understand and apply Ellyn Satter's model of the division of responsibility in feeding. It has been a few months now and TwinToddlersDad and Mom have been attempting to apply the model to their adorable young twins. The article below is written by TwinToddlersDad about his experience. I really admire his honesty in writing about the challenges his family has faced, and I'm sure these challenges are shared by many other parents. In future Dinner Together blog posts, I will be sure to share some suggestions for strategies to consider to overcome some of the obstacles parents face in trying to apply the division of responsibility model.

I am honored to write a guest post for Dr. Kathleen Cuneo’s Dinner Together blog. I first learned about the concept of division of responsibility for feeding children through her post The Power of Family Meals: Tips for Feeding Toddlers which she wrote for my own toddler nutrition blog. It is a very intriguing idea. Pioneered by Registered Dietitian Ellyn Satter, it has found strong support among nutrition experts because of its simplicity, elegance and effectiveness in shaping the child’s eating habits.

Simply put, division of responsibility means parents are responsible for what, when and where and the child is responsible for how much and whether. Satter advises parents to trust their child’s natural instinct to eat when needed and stop eating when full. If done right and consistently, she confidently suggests that children will learn to eat the food their parents eat, they will grow predictably and they will learn to behave well at the table.

Sounds good, you say as you make a resolution to give it a try. We did the same but we had no idea how challenging it would turn out to be in real life! Especially if you have to deal with two little monkeys at the same age with very different personalities! We are not giving up though, but I should tell you that progress so far is slow.

In this post, I want to share with you some of our challenges in implementing this idea. I would love to hear about your experiences and tips for what has worked for you.

Can’t be sure if they are really full

A parent’s worst fear is to leave her child hungry after dinner. Since young toddler children are not very good at expressing their feelings, it is not easy to read their cues. One moment they can refuse to eat but the very next they may come back to the table asking for more! If they continue to refuse whatever you offer them, you can’t be sure if it is because they are full or because they don’t like their options.

We try to offer whatever we have prepared for ourselves at dinner. But we also keep some of their favorites handy to make sure they will at least eat something. We do not offer dessert as a reward to finish their meal and we do not force them to wipe their plate clean before they can leave the table.

They are not ready to eat at your dinner time

Maybe it is because you gave them a light snack on the way home from Daycare. Or maybe they are just not in the mood to eat and want to continue playing. As busy parents, we are constantly watching the clock. It’s time for dinner, it’s time to go up to get clean, it’s story time and then it’s time for bed. We want to establish a routine to make things predictable and simplify our life.
But guess what! Toddlers don’t operate by the clock. They don’t have a sense of space and time. They live in the moment and naturally resist your attempt to make them do the next thing on the schedule. It is a delicate balance between imposing a structure and waiting for them to make a choice to eat.

We set the table at our regular time and ask them if they want to join us. If they do, that’s fine but we try not to force them if they don’t appear to be hungry. We simply finish our dinner and let them come to the table later if that is what they want.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

They are distracted by TV

Before we had our twins, we never had the TV on during dinner. It was our time to catch up with each other since we were both gone the whole day. But now, the TV is constantly on when we bring them from Daycare because they like to watch their favorite shows like Dora, Diego, Little Einsteins, Wonder Pets, Barney and High 5. My son loves to watch his train DVD’s while my daughter prefers these On Demand shows or her Princess DVD’s.

On one hand it is nice to have them go to separate rooms to watch their shows and leave the two of us alone. But then, it is also a problem to have them come to the dinner table when we are ready to eat. Worse still, they try to bring the food in front of the TV so they can continue watching.

We have tried to make them turn the TV off before dinner. Again, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

They are too tired at the end of the day

One reason toddlers may not want to eat is because they are too tired and they simply don’t realize they are hungry. Maybe they didn’t take a nap or maybe they played too hard with daddy when they got home! Their mood can change suddenly because of exhaustion. In that case, you will likely have a huge tantrum on your hands if you try to force them to eat with you.

We try to get them to nibble on something, maybe their favorite snack before trying to bring them to the table. Or we offer the snack side by side with the regular dinner foods.

You can’t resist anymore and give in

You have had a long, stressful day. You are tired and just want to get it over with! You don’t have enough patience to go into a cat-and-mouse game with your child at dinner time. In those moments, it is easy to give in and let them nibble on anything they want. In our case, it is usually sweet stuff and chocolate for our son and cheesy snacks for our daughter. If they fill themselves with these snacks, there is no way they will sit with you at the dinner table.

It has happened to us many times and I am sure you too have found yourself in a similar situation. We try not to let it make us feel guilty. We are not trying to raise perfect children, if there is such a thing! We simply move on and try another day.

I think it is hard for parents to accept Satter’s division of responsibility as a simple black-and-white contract with their child. You do this as a parent, and they will do that as a child and magically they will turn into well-behaved children at the dinner table. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Feed with love and respect, have courage to face your emotions, and don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t work. Just keep trying and don’t give up. On good days, it is a lot of fun playing with them and enjoying our dinner as a family. Here are a couple of posts I have written on how to make dinner time a fun experience for them:
My favorite food is (blank)
Play is the secret ingredient of success at mealtime
What has worked for you? What has been your challenge? I would love to hear your comments!


  1. The Division of Responsibility sure isn't easy but it's worth it. I've seen my 3-year old daughter progress since we started family dinners with her one year ago. She doesn't usually eat much at dinner time but she's usually pleasant and seems to enjoy the time with mom and dad. Lately she's been asking her dad "how's working going?" Hang in there, it gets easier!

    Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen

  2. It sure is hard! When I work with clients on the DOR, I often find that if they are still struggling it's because they haven't quite established DOR. Maybe they bent the rules or gave in on a vacation, or because a new sibling came on the scene. All these instances of giving in or violating the DOR can slow the process.
    Perhaps parents still let the child do their job (catering with favorite foods or letting the child decide when to come to the table) or they try to do the child's job (pushing foods because they worry about size or appetite.) The good new is, as they get older and more rational (not much!) it gets easier to understand their cues and explain what is happening. If parents still struggle, I ask them to step back and think about the DOR. Are they really holding firm or not, which is often easier in the short-term but harder in the long run. Parents also worry about size, so sometimes getting at the fear behind the action can help. Good luck, stick with it, it's so worth it! I started with my daughter at 16 months, and at 4 now it's largely smooth sailing and a pleasure to eat with my family.

  3. I, too, as a mother of 4 and an RD, pediatric specialist, recommend this approach. Nearly every family I work with sees improvement in the dynamic around the dinner table. It is well worth the effort, as many school-aged clients who come in for help with obesity, have never been able to decide if they will eat what mom/dad has made, and the amounts that are right for them. The DOR, when established at a young age, can off-set weight problems, picky eating, and more, in the long run. Stick to it and keep striving for positive feeding experiences!


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