Like a lot of dietitians, I follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. That means:
I decide WHAT is served.
My kids decide IF they eat it and HOW MUCH they eat.
I think this makes great sense–and it also cuts stress significantly. No “Just three more bites!” No negotiating. No short-order cooking.
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To be honest, following the Division of Responsibility can sometimes feel like going rogue. Serving dessert WITH the meal? Gulp. Yes. (It works.) Being okay with your kid just eating bread for dinner? Yep, that too.
Something I hadn’t been brave enough to try until recently was one of Satter’s recommendations: Occasionally offer unlimited sweets at snack time. That was way outside my comfort zone. What if my kids ate the entire plate? Or threw up?
But recently, I set out an after-school snack for my seventh grader and his friend. I offered them a plate of cheese, whole grain crackers, and apple slices alongside a plate of Christmas cookies. I didn’t set a limit on the cookies. I didn’t suggest they eat the “healthy stuff” before the cookies. I just offered it. And then nonchalantly observed them while cleaning up the kitchen.
Here’s what they did: They each ate about 2-3 cookies while also eating almost the entire plate of cheese, crackers, and fruit. Then they went outside to play football and left the rest of the cookies behind.
I was intrigued. If this worked so well with my older son, how would my (sugar-obsessed) 8 year old handle that kind of no-holds-barred cookie access?
So one day at snack time, I offered him a plate of peanut butter cookies and a glass of milk. Again, I didn’t tell him how many he could have or serve any kind of healthy food alongside it. He ate two cookies and went off to play.
Satter says that occasionally offering unlimited sweets can help take the mystique away from “forbidden foods”. She says:
The idea is to allow your child to feel relaxed and be matter-of-fact about all kinds of foods. Then, even when you aren’t around to supervise, she will eat moderately of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, the same as other foods. Research shows that children whose forbidden food intake is restricted eat more of them when they get the chance and are fatter than they might be otherwise.
Both of my kids ate what I consider a reasonable amount of cookies (about two). What if your kids inhale ALL of them? Satter says they might–at first. But eventually the novelty will wear off.
If the goal is to teach kids to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full–even when confronted with a platter of delicious treats–we need to let them practice.
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