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Eating or Feeding: Taking and Giving Responsibility at the Dinner Table

Caitlin Guess, MPH, RDN, CSR, LD

Let’s begin with an exercise: visualize your least favorite food.

What is it? Brussel sprouts? Liver and onions? Kale?

Now ask yourself, why do you dislike it so much? Is it the flavor? The texture? The smell? Or is the reason more emotional?

For me, it is eggplant. I haven’t enjoyed eggplant since I was a little girl and wasn’t allowed to leave the dinner table until I finished my plate. It isn’t the taste, texture, or smell that I dislike, but the emotional attachment of being made to eat this certain food that I didn’t want.

Even as an advocate for nutrient-rich foods, I don’t look forward to meals served with eggplant.

In contrast, my husband has a strong dislike of certain flavors and textures that he has had since he was a child. While it is true that our tastes can change and mature as we age as mine has for certain foods, the same isn’t true for him. He recounts numerous battles with his family over deviled eggs, happy meal cheeseburgers with ketchup and pickles, and the most offensive of all, mustard – all foods he still hates today and works diligently to avoid. I am often asked to remove pickles from his plate when we eat out. (which is fine because I love pickles!)

When caregivers remove a child’s freedom of choice at the dinner table, they undermine the child’s sense of safety and developing confidence in trying new foods, potentially setting up a problematic relationship with food later in life.

And the research supports that pressuring your children to eat or not eat certain foods and insisting they “clean their plate” before they leave the table or have dessert can promote emotionally charged patterns of disordered eating such as overeating, emotional eating, or food avoidance. This may then contribute to conditions like morbid obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

Ellyn Satter and the Division of Responsibility in Feeding

Registered Dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter recommends that caregivers approach meal time as we do school lunch. Adults “feed” by choosing what will be served, when, and where it will be served, and kids “eat” by choosing what to eat, and how much.

When our children go off to school with a packed lunch or money to buy a tray in the cafeteria, we ultimately have no control over what they choose to eat. They may eat the whole meal, or only half, or just the Little Debbie cakes and trade the rest away. But we as caregivers can choose what is served.

This can be challenging to apply at first as it contradicts the rules most of us were raised with: eat your vegetables, clean your plate, and offer dessert as a reward only when those conditions are met.

This is not the case with the Division of Responsibility. If spaghetti, garden vegetables, garlic bread, and a cookie are on the menu, then you must accept that the little ones may only eat the garlic bread and cookie. Oh well, we will try again tomorrow.

As a caregiver, you must:

· Decide and prepare meals

· Offer regular meals and snacks

· Make eating times enjoyable

· Model for your child how to behave during meals

· Remember your child’s inexperience with food without catering to their preferences

· Avoid food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times

· Allow your child to grow into their unique body

Satter’s approach reminds us that children will:

· Eat what their bodies need

· Adopt the food habits of their parents

· Grow in a predictable way

· Learn to follow directions during meals

Remember, you choose what is served, how much, and when, so cookies and ice cream may not be on the menu every night, but when they are, you must trust your child to make those choices. And as they get older, they will learn to trust themselves too and feel empowered to take risks beyond chicken nuggets and French fries because they know they don’t have to eat what they don’t like.

With my two boys (ages 4 and 9 months), there are nights they eat their vegetables, and nights they don’t. Sometimes they eat their protein, but often they don’t. It drives their father crazy at times, but he understands we are working together to raise boys who understand that food is neutral (neither good nor bad) and are all welcome at the dinner table. They are healthy, happy, brave little eaters when the mood suits them. They try new things and like them sometimes, and sometimes they don’t. But they know they only have to eat what “tastes good to their taste buds” and leave what doesn’t. It’s ok, we will try again tomorrow.

Caitlin Guess is a registered dietitian/nutritionist at the Diabetes and Nutrition Institute at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza in Florence. She is a certified specialist in renal nutrition and is a member of the National Kidney Foundation. She is passionate about teaching others how to use nutrition for disease prevention and health promotion.



HopeHealth educates its patients on the importance of having a health care home. As a primary care facility, HopeHealth’s medical team works to prevent and detect illness and the early onset of disease, provide routine physical examinations and promote overall healthy lifestyles.

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