I Tried the 'Division of Responsibility' Mealtime Hack With My Kids—And It Worked

One mom often struggles with how to teach her kids healthy eating habits in a positive way. The key may be to let them figure it out for themselves.

A girl grabs a slice of pizza
Photo: Getty | Oscar Wong

Like many mothers, I spent a lot of time either feeding my children or thinking about what to feed them, because they are almost always hungry. But as they get older, I've found that their nutritional needs have changed, which makes the whole process more challenging. My 10-year-old son is super athletic, plays on several sports teams, and is seemingly always in motion. Sometimes I feel like he burns calories faster than I can replenish them. For him, a diet rich in nut butters, avocados, and full-fat dairy is the norm. And if he has an extra ice cream at lunch every now and again, I don't pay it much mind.

My 7-year-old daughter is also active—though not as much as her brother—and has a tenuous relationship with vegetables, so I encourage her to make healthy snack choices more regularly, and often dissuade her from a second dessert.

Recently, she put her leotard on before gymnastics class and stuck out her stomach. "Do I have a big belly?" she asked me. "Do you think I'm fat?" That made my stomach immediately drop.

As the daughter of a wonderful, caring mother who was a product of that generation of women indoctrinated to think of food as the enemy and dieting as de rigueur, I was often told what not to eat. "You don't want to get fat" and "A minute on your lips is a lifetime on your hips" were on constant repeat throughout my childhood. It really messed up my relationship with food—something that took me years to overcome.

Because of this, I'm intentional about not using the word "fat" to describe myself or others and I'm careful not to equate what my kids weigh with their worth as people. They know that I exercise and eat well because I want to be healthy—not because I'm obsessed with a number on a scale. So when my daughter questioned her appearance, it made me wonder if redirecting her from sugary snacks was having an unintentionally negative impact.

According to Charlotte Markey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey and the author of The Body Image Book for Girls and Being You: The Body Image Book For Boys, food is one of the rare subjects where, as parents, saying less is more. "There are so many things in parenting that are good to talk through, but I'm not convinced that food is one of them," she says. "It just creates some worries and insecurities in kids that aren't necessarily healthy."

Instead, Dr. Markey recommends applying a well-known concept among nutrition experts called the "Division of Responsibility," where parents provide a variety of mostly healthy foods to their kids at designated times, and the kids themselves decide what and how much they want to consume—even if that means occasionally eating more cookies than carrots.

"Some days your kids will eat crap and that doesn't feel right as a parent, but they're learning how to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full," she says, adding that parents should employ this strategy with their kids equally, unless they have a medical condition or a food allergy. Aside from listening to their hunger cues, allowing kids to eat what they want also exposes them to the natural consequences of their decisions. "When your child says, 'My stomach hurts,' you can say, 'Well you had a lot of sugary foods and you might feel better if you made some other choices,'" she says. "Let them feel like they have some control over it."

I found this freeing, as I often feel guilty if every meal or snack isn't founded on the four food groups. It was permission to stop being the snack police, but the uncertainty of doing so was hard to shake. What if eating a bag of chips became a regular habit? "Then don't buy that," says Dr. Markey. "Buy their favorite fruit. Mastermind things behind the scenes. Or have one drawer or cabinet of food that's completely unrestricted. Give the control back to them but with parameters."

There was also the matter of the "f" word, which my daughter was clearly beginning to see as a bad thing. Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, a family nutrition expert and author of several books including My Body's Superpower: The Girl's Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty, says that parents need to have an open dialogue with their kids about weight gain. "It's going to be a big part of their lives," says Jacobsen, particularly for girls, who need extra body fat to begin menstruating. "Girls grow fast during the first two years of puberty which can be scary, but this is all normal. Their bodies are in transition. You want your kids to be able to talk to you about this."

Kathy Wright, a fitness professional and mother of five in Sloatsburg, New York, often struggles with how to navigate her two older daughters' different appetites and level of activity. "I try to explain that it's OK if you don't want to run 10 miles, but you also have to balance your activity with what you're eating," she says. "But I also don't want to tell them not to eat something. It's so hard."

And probably ineffective, too. "Some kids just like food more and they eat more," says Dr. Markey. "Saying, 'No, you can't have anymore' isn't going to solve that, so it's better to let them figure out that eating six cookies will make you feel awful." Jacobsen suggests parents encourage kids to sit down at the table for meals and snacks so they can focus on hunger and fullness. Also, "equate food with things that are important to them. If they play sports, food will help them. Focus on what food does for them, not their weight," she says.

I've been trying out these strategies—being better about cutting up fruit and veggies for easier snack access, and saying yes when my kids ask for ice cream, even if they already had some that day. (The eating meals and snacks at the table is still a work in progress.) And I've found that when I'm less restrictive, they do make better decisions. And on those days when vegetable intake is scarce, we'll try again tomorrow. "Feeding is a long game," says Jacobsen. "The food you have available makes a huge difference even if they don't eat it because they're seeing it. And then all of a sudden it clicks."

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