Do you have a picky eater in your household? I’d be shocked if you said “no.” It’s a battle we all face as parents, but following Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility can help us call ceasefire and lay claim to a peaceful dinnertime as well as a nourished child.
The Dinnertime Battle with a Picky Eater
Sometimes parenting feels like a series of relentless battles, a constant navigation of how hard I’m willing to fight, how many resources I’m going to throw behind my cause, and how long I’m willing to engage before waving the white flag.
So the last thing I want at dinnertime is another battle. Yet sometimes this is when my picky eaters seem more determined than ever to engage… Even if last week they loved chicken, or broccoli, or tacos, this week it’s “disgusting” and makes them burst into tears at the very sight of it. Ugh.
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility
Satter is an authority on eating and feeding your kids (she’s a therapist, dietitian, social worker, author, and lecturer) — and basically a lifesaver.
When it comes to mealtimes, Satter says parents are responsible for three things:
You child, on the other hand, is responsible for two things:
- how much
Why Does it Work?
Satter explains that when we structure meals and snacks like this, our children will eat the amount they need, and eventually learn to eat the same food as us, the parents. As a result, they will grow at the rate they should and into the bodies they are meant to have. AND… they will learn to behave at dinnertime!
How Does it Work?
So as parents, we need to take responsibility for providing healthy, home-cooked food for our children (the “what”), at regular intervals (the “when”), and in a pleasant, stress-free mealtime environment (the “where”). And once we do this, we can then let go of trying to control whether or how much our kids actually put into their mouths, because this is their responsibility.
So what does this look like in my household? Well, you may want to do as I say, not as I do. Because we have a lot to improve upon!
Breakfasts and lunches are where I need to do the most work, as we usually negotiate back and forth between what my kids want and what I want to make them. It’s exhausting, inefficient, and very rarely ends up with vegetables on their plate. So this year I need to work on providing healthy meals without asking for their input, and let them handle the whether and how much.
But at dinnertime, which is when we all eat together, I do a better job of following Satter’s framework. And let me tell you: it works. My oldest child is particularly strong-willed (not pictured here, because he was demanding $5 for posing) and this takes all the fight out of what would normally be “the dinnertime crazies.”
Dinnertime in Our Home
This is what I do for dinner most nights: I make a well-rounded meal, something that is nourishing and delicious, and not too unusual or spicy or adventurous. Basically something that I can reasonably expect them to eat if they show up with an appetite.
I call everyone to dinner when it’s ready… and the rest is up to them. If the kids are super hungry they eat everything, if they are less hungry they are more picky (and sometimes walk away without eating anything at all). Overall since implementing Satter’s strategies I’ve noticed the kids slowly but surely trying new foods — maybe not the first time I serve it, but usually by the third or fourth. And there are fewer tears and less drama.
When I follow Satter’s rules, I stress far less about what I’m serving and whether the kids are eating it. I’m comfortable with what I set on the table, and enjoy my own meal knowing that I’ve done my job, providing the environment in which their bodies can guide them to nourish themselves adequately.