One of the parenting books that has had the greatest positive impact for me when it comes to toddlers & food is Ellyn Satter’s “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense (Revised and Updated Edition)“. I stumbled across mention of her ‘Division of Responsibility in Feeding‘ in a parenting blog and was intrigued enough to track down her book through my local library.
I read it when my daughter was still under 2 years old and I had already found myself starting down the road of short-order cook in a desperate attempt to convince her to eat at dinner time. She has various health concerns which mean that for the first 12 months of her life her weight was of vital concern (plummeting at one point as low as 1% on the growth charts before climbing up to 40% by her birthday) and periodically her reaction to pain and inflammation is to simply refuse to eat for a week.
At one point, a few weeks after one of her hunger strikes, I was exhausted from regularly making her a second meal because she’d refused what I’d offered her for dinner. I realized that my fears about her not eating were largely rooted in a traumatic past rather than in the present. Her weight had stabilized along a healthy growth line and I didn’t want to set myself up for a lifetime of cooking stress by creating a fussy child with too much power in the kitchen – something that wouldn’t be comfortable for either of us! So I looked around for more information published by parents, nutritionists, and dietitians, discussed these with our GP and settled on Ellyn Satter’s method.
Essentially, her division of responsibility boils down to: the parent is responsible for the WHAT, WHEN and WHERE of feeding. Your child is responsible for the HOW MUCH and WHETHER of eating.
Her book goes into much more depth, has a ton of nutritional information, and is broken down into age-related sections (i.e. differentiating between a baby and a toddler). She also discusses the importance of providing nutritionally balanced meals; the child feeling safe & secure that these meals/snacks are regularly provided as part of a routine; trusting that your toddler has an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake over the course of a week; and to include treats/dessert in moderation and as part of meals (and not as rewards). For me it’s been a huge relief as I no longer worry when my 2 year old decides one dinner that the only thing she is going to eat on her plate is the protein and the next day she only eats the vegetables. I’ve also observed that if I sometimes give her a cookie with dinner then sometimes she’ll eat it first but other times she won’t bother with it at all.
Our power struggles around dinner time are pretty manageable (they could certainly be much worse!). Her choices are to eat what’s been provided for dinner, or to have bread & butter, or to leave the kitchen and go play with her toys. I always ask her if she’s “All done” (and it was one of the Baby Signs that we regularly used); if she chooses to play then I’ll leave dinner out for 20-45 mins depending on how much she’s eaten and then check with her one final time before clearing it away. I’m not saying that there are no dinner time tantrums but it does kinda take the wind out of her sails that my response is to simply tell her that she can choose to go play if she wants to. I do find as well that I need to be really consistently firm that I’m not going to give her anything else for dinner and that ‘Yes, muesli bars are yummy and she can have one at snack time tomorrow but that’s not a dinner food’. It’s still frustrating though when I’ve spent ages cooking dinner and she decides that she’d rather wait for breakfast than try any!