A question from a reader: “After starting following the Division of Responsibility in feeding, my child chooses only the “safe” food I include in the family meals. Before following the DOR principle, I would prepare a separate balanced meal for him like a pb&J sandwich or chicken nuggets with pasta. This way, his meals were at least somewhat balanced, with some carbohydrates, protein and even occasional vegetables. After I switched to family-style meals he chooses to eat just one “safe” food, often a starch, most of the time. Should I be worried about his nutrition? Protein? Iron? “

Many parents are concerned that their picky eater eats only one or two foods at one sitting despite being exposed to a balanced meal. While some kids are able to select and eat food from most food groups, some seem to stick to the old favorites like pasta or bread. This eating behavior can make any parent worry about calories, nutrition, and building balanced eating habits. Even a trained dietitian like myself finds it hard to watch my kids eat sometimes only a couple of bites of their favorite food and ignore most of the meal.

Does your child need balanced meals?

The feeding dilemma

Here is the dilemma many parents face:

1/focus on a short term goal of achieving a minimal nutritional balance ensured by providing a separate meal for a child or

2/ long term goal of building eating competence by providing one or two safe foods (not meals) within a balanced meal the rest of the family enjoys.

The decision about which way to go depends on the parents’ goal with their child’s eating. If there is a valid concern about the child’s nutritional status, a short-term plan involving creating special meals or even tube feeding will help. If parents are looking to help their child build eating competence, expand his or her eating repertoire and learn to eat the meals enjoyed by the rest of the family, providing separate meals is a step back.

Toddlers and preschoolers going through a picky eater stage or older selective eaters who are not nutritionally compromised do not need to be catered to. For them, eating a balanced meal at each mealtime is less important than working on developing their competent eater skills. In fact, if these kids are pressured to eat a balanced meal at each sitting they may start further disliking healthy foods like vegetables or learn to overeat on a regular basis. Although they tend to make predictable food choices and often lean towards starchy choices, gradually they will learn to expand their food choices to include foods from all food groups as long as their parents support them along the way and trust them with their eating.

Is your child a competent eater?

To see whether your child is a competent eater, check out this definition by Ellyn Satter. Note that the definition does not include “eats everything put in front of him”. Rather, it emphasizes a long-term healthy relationship with food, the ability to self-regulate, and proper mealtime behavior. Your child is a competent eater when:

• He feels good about eating. He enjoys food and joins in happily with family meals and snacks.

• He enjoys meals and behaves nicely at mealtime. He feels good about being included in family meals and does his part to make mealtime pleasant. He does not make a fuss.

• He picks and chooses from the food you make available. He is okay with being offered food he has never seen before. He says “yes, please,” and “no, thank you.” He ignores food he does not want and also “sneaks up” on new food and learns to like it. Eventually, he will learn to eat almost everything you do.

• He eats as much or as little as he needs. Only he knows how much that is. Trusting him to eat as much he needs lets him grow consistently and develop the body that nature intended for him.


More ways to create balance

Here are some suggestions to work in more balance without compromising the long term goal of raising a competent eater:

– Include 1-2 foods your child eats in each meal. This food has to be a part of the meal and not something you serve only for your child. Choose from starch, protein, fruit, vegetable or dairy food groups.

– If your child is a very selective eater, make a list of all the foods your child eats and choose “safe” foods from a different food group for each meal. This way, even if your child does not always eat from every food group, over time he will be likely to get more variety than if you serve “safe” foods from the same food group for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

– Do taste tests outside mealtimes or before meals to expose your child to more choices without the pressure to eat.

– Serve deconstructed meals often and allow children to serve themselves. Examples: sandwich bar, salad bar, pasta bar, baked potato bar.

Above all, make sure that the pressure or restriction does not creep into your feeding strategy. To check if you are staying on track, test yourself with the Division of Responsibility rule: parents are responsible for what, when, and where to serve meals. Children are responsible for how much or whether to eat.