A Theory from the 1980s Could Be the Key to Solving Picky Eating

It's called the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, and it's here to save your family from nightly buttered noodles.

September 12, 2021
Photo by Hyesu Lee

Welcome to Kids & the Kitchen, our new landing pad for parents who love to cook. Head this way for kid-friendly recipes, helpful tips, and heartwarming stories galore—all from real-life parents and their little ones.

Last year Ellen Kehs, a mom of three boys all under 10 in Papillion, Nebraska, signed up for an online workshop called “Stress Free Family Eating.” It ended up changing her life—or, at least, her dinner table. Before she took the class last January, Kehs recalls, she heard a constant nightly refrain: “I’m not eating that. Can’t we just have chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers or take-out?” A fight with the youngest would ensue. The middle kid would storm out.

“Every night was just this wrestle and battle and fight, and it was so exhausting,” says Kehs with a sigh. “And now we haven’t had a food battle in months.”

That 90-minute workshop—run by Nicole Cruz, a registered dietician nutritionist in Los Angeles—featured an increasingly buzzy method that actually dates back to 1983. It’s called the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, and its fans sometimes call it “DOR" for short.

DOR is the brainchild of registered dietician and family therapist Ellyn Satter, and its basic tenets are super simple: Parents are responsible for what, when, and where their children eat. Kids decide how much—and even whether—they eat. (It’s the nutritional equivalent of “Stay in your lane.”)

Satter, a South Dakotan, started her career in the early 1970s, with social work and a clinical practice in Madison, Wisconsin. Since then, she’s written four best-selling books on childhood feeding, published a dozen academic journal articles, and produced countless guides and videos. She also helped found an eponymous institute, which now—for $1,200—offers certification to practitioners of her techniques.

Her goal, Satter has said, is to lower the pressure and to help kids develop a healthy relationship with food over their entire lives.

“There are some things parents can and should do,” Satter wryly told a South Dakota newspaper reporter in 1990. “Once they carry out those responsibilities,” she said, “they can and should let go of it.”

For members of the Clean Plate Club, DOR is radical thinking. No food is “good” or “bad,” and no child eats “too much” or “too little.” There’s no punishment for not clearing a plate, but also no shame in asking for seconds. There’s no airplane-spoon trickery, no praise when a bite goes down the hatch. Parents don’t make special kids’ meals, though they can set out items—such as a banana, or bread and butter—they know kids like. You should set the snack and family meal times, typically without grazing in between, and (mic drop) everyone usually gets dessert.

If you’ve read up on intuitive eating, the anti-diet movement, body positivity, or health at every size (HAES), these concepts probably sound familiar.

“Division of Responsibility and Ellyn Satter’s work is foundational in a lot of things,” says Amee Severson, a co-author of the forthcoming book How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence. “It’s really what came first,” she says.

Eliana Perrin, a professor in the department of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, knows Satter’s work well. “Those of us doing clinical work and research have been working with this method and theory for a while.” Dr. Perrin uses Satter’s approach as both a pediatrician and a professor. “I really do believe it helps children to grow up with the healthiest relationship to food and keeps mealtime peaceful and social, which has all kinds of other benefits.”

Ayelet Goldhaber, a pediatric dietitian at the NYU Langone children’s hospital, finds it an excellent tool for children between five and 12, in particular. “They’re old enough that they understand the concept,” says Goldhaber, “and at that age, being in charge of something is huge.”

The approach also takes “the stress level down,” she says. If a child didn’t eat a single vegetable, that’s okay. “As a parent, I know that I gave them the right opportunity,” says Goldhaber. “I feel powerful that I gave them the food and the structure and the access.”

That kind of trust is a key part of the Division of Responsibility, says Carol Danaher, a registered dietitian on the board of the Ellyn Satter Institute. One of the many ways people commonly misapply the original principles is using pressure or praise, she says. Another is not leaving the child’s responsibilities to the child. “Parents can be very fearful of trusting their child's innate abilities to follow hunger and satiety cues,” says Danaher.

It’s that idea that worries David Katz, the author, health journalist, and founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University. Katz likes the sentiment behind Satter’s work, but doesn’t believe it makes sense today.

“Our native intuitions about eating only really work in a world where native and actual foods prevail,” he says. “In a world where engineered Frankenfoods prevail, those intuitions are far less reliable.” Of course, there are “bad” foods, says Dr. Katz: “More ominously, there are ‘bad’ dietary intake patterns that have resulted in diet being the single leading predictor of premature death in the U.S. and much of the modern world.”

Dr. Perrin also has some reservations about applying DOR as written across the board. “When the theory gets grounded in the reality of people’s lives, you can see how they’d be super worried about wasting food or not know what’s healthy or not healthy,” she said. “We try to take the best of these good theories and work to make them practical.”

Satter’s critics might also include your kid’s grandparents, many of whom grew up with the Clean Plate Club. Even intuitive eating proponents like Amee Severson believe Satter’s work doesn’t go far enough in making all foods neutral, or all body sizes acceptable.

It’s also a tough sell for plenty of parents, says Nicole Cruz, the registered dietician nutritionist whose course ended Ellen Kehs’ supper battles.

"There’s two schools. One is, ‘They’ll never stop eating, this is crazy, it’s way too hands-off!’ The other is that ‘It seems so controlled, there’s too much structure.’" Still others flip over access to sugar, or when they see their kid eat noodles for the third day in a row.

Her usual response to that is that kids don’t need to eat fruits and vegetables every day: It’s trends across the weeks that matter more. Even more important, says Cruz, is that DOR is more a philosophy for how to live. That’s the real game changer, right?

“Those are big life lessons that we have to give them over time,” says Cruz. “Which is more important, that they ate broccoli tonight or that they actually want to eat broccoli in 20 or 30 years?”

That’s exactly what resonated with Kehs—who also didn’t want to pass on her troubled history with dieting and body image—when she took Cruz’s workshop.

“It’s so nice to not have that battle every night,” says Kehs. “And now that there’s not this pressure for them to eat, they’re willing to try new things.” Imagine that—no more nuggets every night.

Have you tried DOR with your kids? Let us know how it worked for you in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Allaya Fleischer
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    Heidi S
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Rachel Wharton

Written by: Rachel Wharton


brandyk September 17, 2023
Keep kids involved in all aspects of food, growing in your own garden, visiting farms, cooking in the kitchen. Picky eaters are usually more interested in the food if they have a deeper relationship with it.
stumbleguys September 15, 2023
This article is really good and meaningful, please post more on this topic
Allaya F. September 13, 2023
A doctor gave me this advice for my son (a toddler at the time) who would often go days without eating. "He'll eat when he's hungry," he said, "They always do." Fast forward 11 years to today, and my son and daughter (now 9 and who was also given this advice) were both diagnosed with failure to thrive. It turns out that they are both neurodivergent and have severe food aversions that will not be remedied with simply "giving them the opportunity to eat." They will always choose not to eat at all, regardless of how hungry they are. In fact, they don't understand their own hunger sensations. Granted, this is probably an unusual case, but my personal advice to parents out there is to trust your gut feelings. I knew deep down that doctor's advice was completely wrong for my kid (I ended up switching pediatricians), and, after advocating for evaluations to identify the issue, I learned that I was right. Giving kids the opportunity to eat a variety of foods works with most people -- I've seen it happen myself. But if anything seems a little off to you, please follow your gut feeling and get it checked out!
Heidi S. June 4, 2023
When my son was very small, someone once told me to make sure there was always one thing in the plate that I knew my son would eat. That way, I knew he wouldn’t leave the table with an empty stomach.

Everything I put in front of my son was stuff I’d be happy with him eating. And since he had one “sure bet” every meal, he was free to try and like (or not) anything else on the plate. This worked really well for us!

The key to this approach (in my opinion) is to make sure that everything on the plate is pretty healthy. Because then, who cares if your kid eats nothing but whole-wheat pasta and tomato sauce one night? Or if his lunch is 90% peas and one bite of a burrito? Like the article says, it can balance out over the day or week.
Rasha A. August 29, 2022
This is good. But the "everybody gets dessert" is a very strange concept to me. What is the obsession here with dessert after every meal? In the Middle East, where I am from, desserts are a treat and never straight after a meal. I remember listening to talk with Marcella Hazan's husband and he said the same thing. "Dessert" is usually fruit which is eaten after lunch, and actual dessert is for special occasions or when we have guests.
Rosie August 28, 2022
As a former child, I'd like to make a comment.

The idea of parents relaxing about mealtimes is great. I remember times I couldn't leave the table without finishing the food on my plate.

My parents were incredibly controlling of every aspect of my life, having had me as an only child in their 40s. (They were born in 1898 and 1904, and had had difficult lives.)

In retrospect, I may have been anorexic. I was so seriously underweight, that the school nurse visited to investigate my home situation. I believe that unconsciously, what and how much I ate was the only thing I could control in my environment.
Fern August 28, 2022
Katz's argument against this approach seems to be based on the idea of an all-out free-for-all, in which the parents' responsibility in making food available necessarily includes processed or junk foods. Dividing responsibilities means that the parents are also being responsible in what they set in front of their children to choose from. I agree with his criticism that "bad" foods exist.
Miche August 3, 2023
exactly! I agree with letting the kids decide what to eat, but the parent decides what to provide. In the house where I grew up there was no soda and very little canned or processed food. (Just) once my mother put a Ring Ding in my brother's lunch as a treat and he threw out the whole lunch because he couldn't believe it was his! There was a green salad with dinner almost every night, with homemade vinaigrette, none of those icky dressings you can get at the grocery store. We at a lot of fish and chicken (never fried) and had steak once in a while, but one steak, sliced, served 5 people. Dessert was rarely served except for holidays or parties.
Ksk10177 September 23, 2021
Following this method (somewhat loosely at first when I was too anxious about my child not eating) has helped our family a lot. My son isn’t always picky, but he’s not a big eater and I would get so stressed out that he wouldn’t eat much. Letting go of that was really hard, but taking the pressure off him has helped us so much! I’m less worried and crabby, he’s less defiant (some of the time 😆), and he’s gotten much better at trying new things! He still won’t eat soup, but we’ll keep trying!
AntoniaJames September 14, 2021
What an interesting and informative conversation here. Many thanks to all who have commented. ;o)
witloof September 13, 2021
I'm a pediatric occupational therapist. I work with kids who have delays in the maturation of their central nervous systems leading to impaired sensory processing and motor coordination. A kid who gags at smells, categorically refuses anything that doesn't collapse into a paste {Goldfish, cookies} can't tolerate foods with multiple textures, coughs or chokes routinely when eating, or has a highly emotional aversive reaction to foods, is struggling with a combination of factors that make eating a challenge. Usually it's a combination of sensory defensiveness and weakness/lack of coordination in the mouth/jaw/tongue/cheeks that make controlling the food before it's ready to swallow very difficult.

Some things I recommend to parents: make sure the child is VERY HUNGRY before setting out dinner, which means no snacks and lots of outdoor play to work up an appetite, having the child eat the most nutritious part of the meal first, and using the French approach to introducing new foods: giving one or two bites on a separate plate and telling the child "You don't have to like it and you do have to try it." It sometimes takes over ten introductions of a new food before a child will accept it. And staying emotionally neutral during mealtimes!
Jennifer H. September 16, 2021
Thank you for this. I felt a bit of bait and switch at this article, as the subtitle spoke of picky eaters, but the article was almost entirely about healthy relationships with food instead over over or underrating. The former is very different from the latter. Both of my boys are ‘picky’ due to sensory issues. The eat healthy but restricted diets. No meat, crisp fruits and raw veggies. I just started them in a food therapy program with an occupational therapist. Hopefully this will make eating out as a family and vacations a bit less stressful. Thank you for your response.
Erin D. September 12, 2021
This is what the WIC program teaches. It’s gratifying that such a common sense approach is fashionable again. I’ve passed these tips to many of my friends. I encourage you to look up the Ellyn Satter website- it gives additional guidelines on family eating such as what to do if you have a dieting adult in addition to growing kids (hint- you add foods rather than remove them).
Windischgirl September 12, 2021
I wish I had been aware of this theory; however, I didn’t do too badly by my trio! I wanted them to have some control over their feelings of hunger and fullness but also over what they ate, so we did a lot of customizable meals, such as homemade salad bar, DIY tacos, pasta with sauces/toppings on the side, etc. There was always bread and PB or sandwich meats if the main dish didn’t appeal, but the kid had to make the sandwich themselves…no Mom as short-order cook! In order to increase fruit/veggie intake, I filled each of the sections of a compartmented platter with a different fruit or veg, and that went on the table as the after school snack (my son named it the Food Court). As they entered elementary school, I bought a globe and we would randomly pick a country and try a food (or make a meal) reflecting that culture, seeking out library books to help us find recipes.
I will say it grated on me no end when my MIL would watch the kids and dole out portions that they had to finish, and they couldn’t have seconds of anything unless they cleared their plates. Quite frankly, I didn’t care that my child wanted more green beans and less beef. I knew they weren’t going to gorge on chips later because…they weren’t in the house. If healthy choices are what you have, you learn to make healthy choices!
Windischgirl September 12, 2021
I should add that I let the kids serve themselves and usually suggested a smaller serving of a new dish or ingredient than they might give themselves, with “see what you think.” There was also encouragement to try new foods but all that was required was a taste…there were enough other items that I knew they had eaten before and liked. They are all in their 20s now, and two really enjoy cooking; my picky eater has become more adventurous and recently joined me for a tasting menu at a top local restaurant!
Edith September 13, 2021
When I was growing up we had could take a "no thank you" helping, a little taste.
Andrea N. September 12, 2021
Such a powerful concept to bring to us readers! Wish I saw it referenced more. I was taught this theory in my first job out of undergrad as a child nutrition specialist teaching it to family daycare providers throughout Alameda county Northern California. So powerful and such great evidence behind it.
Edith September 12, 2021
This applies to cooking for large groups of children. In summers when I was in college I worked as a camp cook. I remembered good and bad meals from my going to camp as a child and planned accordingly. Toast at breakfast was cardboard; I made a huge batch of biscuits and never had leftovers in baskets or on plates. Of course there were picky eaters; I had a load of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly on the pass-through so children would eat something. Counselors were happy because kids weren't cranky.

A week before our Covid lockdown I cooked a Purim seudah for 90 people, including many children. I made a big pan of jello (plain gelatin and fruit juice) with lots of fruit and many deviled eggs (hardboiled and peeled eggs from Costco and a zipper bag with the corner cut off to fill them). That's all many children ate and parents were relaxed and enjoyed themselves because they didn't have cranky kids.
Sue September 12, 2021
I am 69, and this is how I was raised. My mother would prepare meals or snacks she hoped would appeal to us all (a 3 generation home) and were healthy and balanced by 1950’s and 1960’s standards. I was super skinny and a picky eater, my brother was normal weight and often finished his plate and parts of mine. No one made us feel bad about not eating stuff or asking for / getting seconds on some item, and meals were happy and fun. And we were both healthy kids, but the food offered was all nutritious even if we didn’t eat some parts. As adults both of us developed broad eating palates.
My husband grew up where meAls were a battle over food, and didn’t want that for our kids - to this day, he has very narrow food likes. So our kids grew up like I did - we controlled what went on the table and when, and tried to make food nutritious and appealing. They ate what they wanted, no comments. We often ate out where kids ate from salad bar for free - they loved the chance to tell us what they wanted on their plates (from a young age!), we liked that the options were mostly healthy, and they usually ate most of what they had picked. Meals were always fun with talk of our days, not talk of what they were or weren’t eating. Both are healthy, slender adults with very broad adventurous palates, with one a steak lover and one a vegetarian. I never heard of this theory before - but have lived it over several generations of happy meals and happy eaters!
zippy365 September 12, 2021
We were introduced to Ellyn Satter's work through a feeding therapist who was helping us transition our tube fed daughter to table food. As you might imagine, we were desperate to get our medically fragile child to eat. We chronicled everything she ate (10 cheerios today! She licked the ranch dressing off a carrot today). To the critics that say too much sugar and junk i say YOU are responsible for what. I will also add that family dinner is an important element of a healthy relationship with food and something that my now healthy 21 year old daughter looks at with high regard.
Windischgirl September 12, 2021
I recall talking with another parent when our kids were in elementary school, telling her my kids packed their own lunches starting in first grade. She said if she let her children pack their own lunches they’d be eating pop tarts, chips, and candy bars. I didn’t have the nerve to ask her why those items were even options! We’d occasionally have those items, but they were reserved for camping or parties, not an everyday thing.
Nora September 12, 2021
I discovered Ellyn Satter's books when I was trying to figure out the switch from breast to bottle with my oldest (in 2005), and overthinking everything. Her books set me up for an easy and successful "feeding relationship" (as she calls it) with my family. The books include case studies which are interesting in of themselves--one of the challenges Satter (and all family nutritionists, I'm sure) runs up against is the generational legacy of parents whose relationship to food was established in an unhealthy way when they themselves were children. It's important to learn to trust yourself, learn about preparing sharing healthy food, and create a new generation of healthy, empowered kids.
Judy September 12, 2021
I met Ellyn in the 1970's, used her approach in my own family, and used this approach when treating eating disorders for over 25 years. I am a retired dietitian with a Master's Degree in Psychology. When a family can use this approach, it works, it works, and it does work. However, the parent must curtail the need to be in control and trust that this attitude about food will finally be adopted by the child. It must be a family philosophy that is not just for food. To find this kind of balance within the family takes dedication, trust, and love.
Windischgirl September 12, 2021
Actually, the parent IS in control…of the environment, of what’s available to eat. What the child is in control of is their own body: their tolerance for tastes and textures, their sense of hunger or satiety, the emotions associated with food. That’s a much healthier relationship with food!