Got a picky eater? Ellyn Satter's here to help.

We were so excited when one of our favorite child nutrition experts, Ellyn Satter agreed to share her wisdom with the Better Together community. An internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding, Ellyn is perhaps best known for authoring several best-selling books including Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and Child of Mine. She pioneered the division of responsibility principle that so many parents love her for. Though it sounds so simple, feeding our children is in fact one of the biggest concerns of the average parent. Apparently, there are a lot of picky eaters out there! Here we bring Ellyn Satter's advice to you.

BT: Tell us about what motivated you to enter the world of nutrition and what led you to working with children? 

ES: Well, I was always interested in nutrition; in college I loved the study of Nutrition, Science and Biochemistry. But when I actually started practicing as a dietitian I found it tedious, because I didn’t like putting people on diets. I saw that the diets I was giving people made them miserable so I continually corrected my approach until I found a way to help them manage eating that worked well and didn’t make them miserable. Around the same time, I became convinced that it wasn’t good to put children on diets—which people did do back then [directly trying to get kids to eat less] so I started looking for ways to work around that. The parents needed direction in knowing how to feed their child, which is what led me to the division of responsibility.

BT: How did you arrive at this principle?

ES: I remember the exact session when it came to me. A mother was angry with me, she said, ‘What am I supposed to do? I have one child who is too fat, and one who is too thin. How am I supposed to make this one eat less and that one eat more?’ I responded to her, ‘Your job is to put meals on the table, and their job is to decide what and how much to eat depending on what’s available.’ That was the light bulb moment. From there I tested the hypothesis and I’ve increasingly found that sorting things according to this division of responsibility is THE way to sort out control issues—to help parents decide when to take charge and when to let go.

BT: It sounds simple, but so many parents don't know what to do when they meet up with resistance and are worried about their children getting enough nutrition. Can you break it down for us?

ES: OK. You won't get resistance if you don’t put on pressure. It’s the parent's job to offer the meals at set times. For example, at dinner the parent might put out some chicken, rice, broccoli, bread and milk. The child, who is say, seven years old, decides to eat the chicken and rice, eat three slices of bread, and drink the milk, but doesn’t go near the broccoli.  Using the division of responsibility approach, the parent doesn’t try to get the child to eat the broccoli or even try to influence what the child will eat from what is offered. The parent just lets go of it. The result: there is no resistance. This theory assumes that sooner or later the child will get down to eating broccoli. However, if the child says something like ‘I don’t want that chicken, I want peanut butter’ the parent says, ‘This is what there is for dinner.’

BT: One of your fans from our FB community wanted to know, how can parents encourage children to eat more veggies?

ES: Just by putting them on the table and enjoying them yourself week after week, maybe even year after year! But you can’t fake it. If you eat them but don’t enjoy them, you child will notice that and not want to eat them. Also keep in mind that studies show that parents pressure 90% of the time. Ninety percent! No wonder we have such a high incidence of feeding problems!

BT: But what if your child goes a whole year without eating fruits and veggies?

ES: My daughter went 10 years without eating veggies. She loves them now. One day as kids approach their teens, they wake up to realize they’re missing out and push themselves to learn to like it. They do, that is, provided that you haven’t been hassling them. You can always give them a multivitamin if you’re worried.

BT: Why do you think that most children won’t eat something if you’re persuading them?

ES: Kids feel the pressure as an intrusion on their personal space, and resist. They also sense that if they have to be pressured to eat a food, that food must not be  good. One of the essential components of my model is to feed children in a way that they can have a sense of being in control of their eating, which supports having good feelings about food and about eating. If you’re forcing or even persuading, they’ll have negative feelings, which will in turn interfere with their ability to eat. 

Ellyn, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom! Picky eating is a topic of great concern among many parents out there and your insights are greatly appreciated. Parents, we’d love to hear from you. If you have a picky eater (or two), please share your stories and wisdom with us here. This can be a frustrating topic for many so let’s encourage each other. 

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  • What does Ellyn think about sneaking veggies into food (hiding them) to try to get the child to have better nutrition? (i.e. Broccoli brownies???)

    Monica Krake 12 April 2011, at 1:45 pm

  • Ellyn Satter is an inspiration! I use her division of responsibility in my practice with excellent results. Once parents believe in it and use it, kids' picky eating behaviours dramatically decrease. Kristen Yarker, MSc, Registered Dietitian Vitamin K Nutrition Consulting

    Kristen 12 April 2011, at 9:06 pm

  • Good question, Monica. We asked Ellyn for a response and here's what she says: "The point is letting children grow up so they can enjoy vegetables. The point is not just getting vegetables into children. You can't fool children. They catch on that you are tricking them into eating vegetables, and then they don't trust you. That's a big price to pay for a teaspoon or two or vegetables."

    Better Together 14 April 2011, at 9:05 am