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.
“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.
We’ve joined forces with Tillamook to support All For Farmers—a coalition benefiting farmers across the nation—with a special market that gives back. Featuring Shop all-stars and a limited-edition Five Two apron, a portion of proceeds from every purchase supports American Farmland Trust’s Brighter Future Fund.The All for Farmers Market