Ellyn Satter’s Division Of Responsibility At The Dinner Table: Do You Follow It?

Thursday November 20, 2014

In “How To Get Your Kid To Eat (But Not Too Much)”, Ellyn Satter breaks down the following parent-child division of responsibility at the dinner table:

Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the matter in which it is presented

Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat.

And, we need to “quit when the job is done.”

This really has two messages. First, if our kid sits at the table and declares she doesn’t want to eat anything, then that is so. Accept it; whether she eats is not our responsibility. On the flip side, if she devours bowl of chili after bowl of chili, do not cut her off. Let her eat until she wants to stop. How much she eats is not our responsibility.

(Satter’s theory on this is that a child will not starve herself. A child will turn dinner into a power struggle though, if she senses any pressure one way or another. Begging, threatening, short-order cooking, and forcing will all backfire in the long run, because it’s not about the actual food, it’s about the power. Give up the struggle, and the child is more likely to eat.)

I read this book long before Bean started solids (I really can’t pass up a parenting book). Bean’s been a pretty good eater this whole time. When she was around a year old, she’d sometimes out-eat me and Dave at dinner. Lunch lasts a solid 45 minutes to an hour, Bean sitting happily in her chair and eating away. She’s good at restaurants — she seriously just likes being at a dinner table.

And then, you know, she became a toddler.

These days, Bean will sometimes sit at the table, take a look around, and tell us she’s all done. (She doesn’t even want dessert!)

It is a struggle to remain affectless: “Oh, ok, Bean’s all done. Let me help you take off your bib.”

I even have Ellyn Satter’s matter of fact voice telling me that toddlers actually eat less than babies — growth slows down in the second year, if a toddler grew and ate like a baby, she’d be the size of a 5th grader by the end of her 2nd year. Toddlers also tend to be more cautious around food, even if the food is something they ate readily as babies.

For now, I’m choosing to follow the division of responsibility. Bean does sometimes devour dinner without abandon, so it’s somewhat easy to rationalize those nights that she’s all done. I’m trying to include more foods that Bean likes as components to the family meal — adding red peppers to a pasta dish, baking up some sweet potatoes to serve with salmon.

If you’ve followed Ellyn Satter’s advice, I’d love to hear about how it turned out.


Here’s my update on how following the division of responsibility has gone a few months later.


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