Cultivating Healthy Eating Habits in Kids with the Division of Responsibility

Many of us grew up in the era of the ‘clean plate club’, where mealtimes were governed by ideas such as:

  • Leaving food on your plate is wasteful, like throwing money away. 

  • Not cleaning your plate might lead to a punishment or negative consequence.

  • Dessert must be ‘earned’ by eating everything on your plate.

President Truman's Impact on Feeding Philosophy

While researching the origins of the clean plate mentality, I stumbled across a fascinating piece of nutrition history. In 1947 President Truman initiated a ‘Clean Plates Club’ campaign in U.S. elementary schools, where school children were taught and encouraged to eat everything on their plates during mealtimes. On the heels of World War II and the Great Depression, this strategy made sense during times of economic scarcity and food rationing. However, these ideas became ingrained for generations to come, even when the economy and availability of food has drastically changed over time. 

In modern times, there are several problems that can arise from requiring kids to clean their plates. Deciding when to stop eating based on an external cue (the plate) vs an internal cue (fullness) interferes with kids’ ability to sense when they are ready to stop eating because they are pushing through their satiety signals. Over time this desensitization to feelings of fullness can lead to overeating and digestive issues. It can also lead to an unhealthy relationship with food when kids feel they are being forced to eat in order to avoid some form of punishment or negative consequence. Requiring kids to ‘earn’ dessert by cleaning their plate also sends the message that sweets are superior to the other foods being consumed. For a child who is a more selective eater, feeling forced to eat takes away any sense of control the child has over mealtime, which can make the feeding situation worse & perpetuate resistance at mealtimes.

Introducing Ellyn Satter's DOR (Division of Responsibility)

A newer concept that can support a healthier relationship with food is the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR), which was developed by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician & family therapist. Although the DOR was developed by Ellyn over 30 years ago, it has recently been gaining popularity as a framework for improving kids’ relationship with food, making mealtime less stressful for everyone, and helping both picky eaters and kids who are fixated with food and tend to overeat. Within the DOR framework, parents & kids each have well-defined ‘jobs’ at mealtimes:


Parents’ Responsibilities:

  • What to Eat: Parents are in charge of deciding the types of food that are offered to their children. This involves providing a balanced and nutritious variety of foods that support overall health and development. It is usually recommended to include a mix of safe or preferred foods along with foods that might be new.

  • When to Eat: Parents establish regular meal and snack times, creating a structured eating routine that helps children develop healthy eating habits. Regular, spaced meals & snacks are preferable to non-stop grazing as time between meals helps with appetite and is also better for the digestive tract. Regular meals also help prevent episodes of low blood sugar, which can lead to overeating and big swings in blood sugar impacting mood & focus.

  • Where to Eat: Parents create a positive and pleasant eating environment, free from distractions such as television or electronic devices. This encourages mindful eating and fosters a connection with the sensory aspects of food.

Children’s Responsibilities:

  • How Much to Eat: Children are responsible for deciding how much food to eat based on their hunger and fullness cues. This promotes self-regulation and helps children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies.

  • Whether to Eat: Children have the autonomy to decide whether they want to eat a particular food item. This encourages them to explore different foods and develop their own preferences over time.

Benefits of the Division of Responsibility

  • Promotes Autonomy: Allowing children to be in control of their own eating fosters a sense of autonomy. This autonomy is crucial for developing a positive relationship with food and preventing power struggles at the dinner table. Over time, it will often also lead to kids trying new foods on their own because the power struggle has been eliminated.
  • Builds Healthy Habits: By exposing children to a variety of nutritious foods, creating a structured eating environment, and modeling habits such as eating a variety of foods & listening to body signals, parents set the stage for the development of healthy eating habits.

  • Prevents Overeating and Undereating: Encouraging children to listen to their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues helps prevent both overeating and undereating. This supports the development of a balanced and intuitive approach to eating.

  • Reduces Stress at Mealtime: The clear division of responsibilities reduces stress and tension during meals, creating a positive atmosphere for enjoying food and fostering family connections.

Implementing the Division of Responsibility

The DOR approach to feeding kids might seem intimidating at first, as many parents are worried that their kids will never branch out and try new things without some pressure & coaxing. Many families are happy to find over time using DOR, kids feel more relaxed and in control which leads them to branch out and try new things. It can take some patience and practice, and it is not a short-term approach. Here are some ideas for implementing DOR at home:


  • Serve family-style meals where different options are in the center of the table, available for anyone who wants to try them.

  • Include at least one food that you know your child likes with meals (preferred or ‘safe’ foods).

  • Don’t make comments about whether or how much they are eating of the foods offered.

  • If you are planning to offer a sweet or dessert, don’t withhold it based on how much of the meal they ate. (Also note that you are in charge of when and how often sweets are offered as part of the DOR).

DOR is best suited for kids who are toddlers through early adolescence. Ideally if these methods are used when they are younger, by the time a child is in their teenage years, they are better equipped to start taking over more of the responsibilities of the ‘what, when, and where’. Comment below if you try this to let me know how it works for your family! 

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