Mealtime Chaos Solved: the Magic of the Division of Responsibility

My passions as a dietitian have a wide and ever expanding reach. When forced to narrow it down, I really love developing plant-based recipes, helping people decipher and sift through the abundance of nutrition information/misinformation, providing specialized nutrition care to children with unique medical needs, and hold a very special place in my heart for teaching families to feed and eat well without mealtime battles.

The last one in particular can be very challenging at times, surprisingly more so than the others. And I suppose it’s because parents already have so much on their plate and too often feeding is so challenging and contributes to daily overwhelming stress and anxiety. There is so much conflicting information on what and how to feed children, that sometimes (often) even healthcare professionals get it wrong.

This article on parenting caught my attention today and compelled me to comment. Some might say that I have no jurisdiction on this topic, not being a parent myself. But here’s the thing, I consider myself and expert in childhood feeding (10 years of working in paediatrics does allow me to say that with confidence and without arrogance), and feeding is an act of parenting, so despite my lack of offspring, I do feel that I have some valuable things to say about both.

For a variety of reasons, parenting has shifted from the authoritarian ideology imposed on me growing up with a “my way or the highway” doctrine and corporal punishment peppered throughout for good measure (anyone else relate to “the wooden spoon”??), to a permissive style of current generations – parents paralyzed by fear of disappointing their children, fearful of saying no, wanting to please their kids in a way that perhaps they never were and asserting themselves as their child’s best friend.

The thing is, kids need very clear and definitive leadership in order to feel safe and secure. They need boundaries and rules, without which they have a very difficult time organizing themselves and the world around them. This all boils down to chaos. I say this with no trace of hyperbole, but I can identify kids of the permissive style of parenting right in the waiting room of our clinic; defiant, easily upset, irritable and generally unhappy, usually referred to see me for picky eating, disturbances in growth (poor or excessive weight gain) and possibly nutritional deficiencies. Their eating is erratic, mealtimes are fraught with arguments and the dining table is a battle ground. My judgment lays neither with the kids nor with the parents. The pressure on parents from family, friends and healthcare providers ii unbearable, and it inevitably transfers onto the child.

As with all areas of parenting, feeding requires some guts and defined leadership. Parents need to be neither too strict nor too lenient; as with Goldilocks, the sweet spot is somewhere right in the middle. In parenting terminology this is often referred to as an authoritative style of parenting: fair limit-setting, positive consequences, defined parent and child roles and consideration for the child when making rules (with flexible but appropriate “exception to the rule” situations.) [There is a fourth style of parenting, coined neglectful parenting but I rarely see this and I shall leave it out of this discussion.]

When counselling parents on establishing/re-establishing a positive feeding relationship, I always refer to the Ellyn Satter Feeding Dynamics Model which uses the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) as the backbone to guide feeding and eating attitudes and behaviours. If I had to name a golden rule book for mealtimes, this would be it. I know it sounds very official and kind of daunting, but it isn’t (though I  will say that it is sometimes harder to put into practice than it should be, given outside pressures and ingrained practices.) Essentially the sDOR guides parents to be leaders in deciding what, when and where their children eat, while children autonomously decide how much or whether to eat. The idea that children naturally know how much they need to eat for their growing bodies is deeply central to this concept, and any outside interference from caregivers dismantles this. The sDOR allows children to eat the right amount, to help them grow as they are meant to grow and to help families develop competence and confidence with mealtimes. When really applied (I mean like wholeheartedly, with courage), it can restore mealtime peace and greatly improve nutrition. Seriously, it’s magic. The tricky thing is knowing whether you’re doing it right, because a lot of bad habits can persist or sneak in while trying to implement it.

Some basic principles of sDOR include:

-set regular, predictable eating times

-don’t allow grazing or snacking throughout the day (avoid never-ending snack cups of Goldfish crackers or Cheerios which interfere with a child’s appetite at mealtimes)

-limit juice and milk intake and relegate these fluids only to eating times

-eat at the table together without distractions like TV (to promote role modeling and social interaction)

-in the words of Ellyn Satter, be considerate without catering at eating times (remember, you decide what goes on the table, just make sure to include at least one food your kids will eat if you’re serving a new dish – it’s okay if they fill up only on that food,  they need time to learn to like new foods)

-avoid pressure to get your child to eat more or try new foods; pressure always backfires

-above all, trust that your child will eat and grow as they are supposed to

No exaggeration when I say that the sDOR can work like a well-oiled machine and sound like a masterfully crafted symphony when applied well. I’ve seen it in action in all sorts of circumstances and it works! You do have to submit yourself to the process and  trust in it.

A registered dietitian knowledgeable in sDOR can help you achieve happy, healthy and pleasant mealtimes and quell the mealtime chaos once and for all.

Wishing you joyful, nourishing mealtimes,

ilona

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