Using the Division of Responsibility to Feed Kids (and Yourself!)

A Registered Dietician explains the Division of Responsibility -- a low pressure, high structure approach to feeding children that can take the pressure off parents and make mealtime enjoyable for the whole family.

By Billie Karel, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE

I had my first and only child about three years after becoming a dietitian. Feeding my own child has been an exciting and humbling experience. 


Even in my previous work with families, I hadn’t fully registered what a huge portion of their waking hours little kids spend eating, and by extension, what a large portion of our parenting energy is spent feeding them. Add in the enormous pressure parents feel to *get it right*  and whew!  You have a recipe for a seriously exhausted parent.


I’d already been coaching families on how to use Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility to feed their little ones, so you’d better believe I wanted to follow Satter’s advice in feeding my child from the start.

Satter's philosophical approach to children's nutrition is that *how* they are fed is ultimately just as important as *what* they are fed. She advises a low pressure, high structure approach that gives them the space to learn and grow with their eating at a developmentally appropriate pace.....this includes sweets!

Division of Responsibility

Ellyn Satter is a dietitian and psychologist who has written several wonderful books on feeding children, including Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, and Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming. I highly recommend these to anyone looking for sound and balanced guidance on feeding their family.


Satter’s philosophical approach to children’s nutrition is that *how* they are fed is ultimately just as important as *what* they are fed. She advises a low pressure, high structure approach that gives them the space to learn and grow with their eating at a developmentally appropriate pace…..this includes sweets!


I grew up in a no-refined-sugar household, and sweets have been a bit of a tricky spot for me to navigate throughout my life. I can remember as early as first grade, dutifully declining cupcakes a classmate brought in for their birthday because “I’m not allowed to have sugar.”


Early in middle school, I started sneaking a few extra cents from my Dad’s change jar each morning before school to buy myself cookies from the cafeteria. At about 11 years old, it was my first successful and sustained lie to my parents, and I did it every single school day for years! I certainly had many homemade honey-sweetened treats, but buying myself a treat with real sugar felt like a whole different thing.


As a young adult, I had at least one period of trying to mend a broken heart with a daily ice cream and pie habit. I defaulted to not keeping most sweets in my house, because whenever they were around, I’d go through them faster than I wanted to in a way that felt difficult to understand or manage. That followed me through my years in nutrition school and the early stages of my nutrition career, until I had a child old enough to eat solid food!

Satter recommends offering children sweets regularly as part of meals and snacks. Being an RD, and a very earnest first time Mom, I followed Satter’s advice as best as my sugar-restricted heart could manage!


At birthday parties, I’d make my child a plate with a cupcake, fruit, crackers, and cheese and present it all at the same time to reinforce that they’re all neutral foods and she could eat them in whatever order she liked.


As a toddler, I took her to the ice cream shop for afternoon snacks on many sweaty summer days. Now that the weather is getting chilly, we make hot cocoa together some mornings for breakfast and dip our waffles in it. I’ve been keeping ice cream in the freezer and chocolate in the cupboard so I can incorporate sweets into my girl’s meals and snacks on a regular basis. And every time she has them, I do too!


I’m pleased to report that she is doing just fine so far with her eating and with sweets, and more surprisingly, so am I! I am now apparently the kind of person who can have ice cream in the freezer and not always be in the mood to eat it. That is an important breakthrough in my own relationship with food that I wasn’t even looking for, but am so glad to have had the opportunity to find.


Good luck and happy feeding to you all, Mamas!


For more reading and support: 

The Ellyn Satter Institute

Sunny Side Up Nutrition

The Feeding Doctor


Or, inquire about becoming a client at Lutz, Alexander & Associates Nutrition Therapy.


Billie Karel, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE

pronouns: she, her, hers

Billie is a Certified Diabetes Educator, and uses a weight-neutral approach to diabetes and prediabetes nutrition and self-management that emphasizes self-compassion, skill building, and joy in eating. She also specializes in nutrition for children and families and enjoys supporting parents at all stages of feeding their kids, from pregnancy all the way through adolescence. In addition to her work at Lutz & Alexander, she works as a primary care nutritionist and diabetes educator at Advance Community Health. When she’s not working these days she can usually be found chasing her toddler around any of downtown Raleigh’s lovely playgrounds and museums. Billie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Human Biology from Stanford University, and earned her Masters in Public Health in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She meets with clients in Lutz, Alexander & Associates’ Raleigh office.

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