Family Meals Focus
The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter
Giving children autonomy with eating: What it is—and isn’t
by Ellyn Satter, MS, MSSW, Dietitian and Family Therapist
Children have lower nutrition risk when their parents score high on sDOR.2-6y.1 For parents to score high, education must be compatible with the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model (fdSatter) and the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR).2 While fdSatter and sDOR are responsive feeding, the opposite is not true, and approaches investigated under the umbrella of “responsive feeding” are likely to produce lower sDOR.2-6y scores.3 fdSatter and sDOR avoid stipulating “healthy” food and recommend against all pressure and restriction, direct or indirect, overt or covert.
From the fdSatter/sDOR perspective, giving children autonomy with eating means giving unreserved permission to children to determine what and how much to eat of food parents provide for them at regular meals and sit-down snacks. This permission gives children agency with eating: within the context of parent leadership, they can act independently and make their own free choices about what and how much to eat. Parents who score high on sDOR.2-6y tend to be Eating Competent,4 they score high ecSI 2.0,5 and are therefore likely to provide structured meals and snacks and be comfortable with letting their child determine whether and how much to eat of what they provide. Autonomy items on sDOR.2-6y include:1
- If I think my child hasn’t had enough, I try to get him or her to eat a few more bites. (reverse scored)
- I let my child eat until s/he stops eating and doesn’t want more.
- I struggle to get my child to eat. (reverse scored)
fdSatter, sDOR are based on child competence
fdSatter and sDOR are based on trust in children’s competence with eating, even when children show extreme eating attitudes and behaviors and patterns of consistent growth outside the limits defined by health policy as “overweight,” “obesity,” and “failure to thrive.” Intervention consistent with fdSatter defines child outcomes not as the children’s dietary quality or avoiding BMI extremes, but in terms of children’s Eating Competence—their positive eating attitudes and behaviors.
Trust in child competence with eating is based on children’s biopsychosocial processes:
- Hunger and the drive to survive
- Appetite and the need for pleasure
- The social reward of sharing food
- The biological propensity to show growth tracking
Children push themselves along to learn to eat the food parents eat, even through they . . .
- Refuse new foods at first
- Are inconsistent about what they eat
- Are more or less skeptical about unfamiliar food
- Are more or less sensitive to tastes and textures
- Are more or less enthusiastic about food and eating
- Eat more, less, or different food when they are excited or upset
- Are inclined to maintain preferred and stable body weight
- Are more or less typical developmentally and neurologically
Children regulate their food intake and grow consistently, even though . . .
- Some have big appetites, some small
- Some children eat more, others fewer calories
- Some grow rapidly, some slowly
- Some are large, some are small
- Some eat a great deal; others not so much
- Some love food and eating; others not so much
- Most vary day-to-day in how much they eat
“Responsive feeding” research is inconsistent with fdSatter, sDOR
While fdSatter and sDOR are responsive feeding, the opposite is not true, and the “responsive feeding” approaches outlined here are likely to produce lower sDOR.2-6y scores. “Responsive feeding” is a loosely defined approach that varies with the researcher/educator. From the early WHO publication endorsing seeking methods to verbally encourage children to eat,6 current “responsive-feeding-based” nutrition research looks for ways to get children to eat appropriate (e.g.“healthy”) food in appropriate (e.g. externally determined) amounts. The basic assumption is a child-deficit one: Instead of trusting children to eat, trying to manage children’s eating. For the most part, “responsive feeding” research does not consider the impact of the parent-child feeding relationship on children’s eating behaviors.
Child-deficit assumptions in responsive feeding research
- Children will not voluntarily eat fruits and vegetables,7-9 increase food variety.10
- Some child genetic predispositions are obesogenic:11 enjoying food and eating,12 having high fat-preference scores,13 having lower ability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration,14 showing erratic temperament, negativity,15 and impulsivity,16, having a sense of loss of control over eating.17
- Food availability in today’s world overwhelms children’s ability to regulate food intake,18 as does formula-feeding,19 early solids introduction.20
- Big and rapidly growing children regulate poorly.21
Child-deficit strategies in responsive feeding research:
- Use autonomy support,22 child-centered practices,23 covert non-directive strategies,24 responsive feeding and nondirective control,25 do encouragement through negotiation,26 encourage, praise,22 do elaborate modeling,25 prompt, reward, bargain,7 allow choosing appropriate23
- Give children guidance on appropriate self-regulation, 22 teach children to internally regulate,27 self-limit portion sizes,22 delay gratification,28 reference their internal state during eating (“are you full?”).29
- Use structure as covert control:22, 24, 30 emphasize “healthy” food, identify family values (eat vegetables, not candy),22 avoid eating out, purchasing “unhealthy” food,30 do selective availability of food in the home.24
- Enhance fruit, vegetable (FV) intake by using positive 31 or responsive pressure,32 nondirective control,31 get children to associate pleasure with eating healthful food in moderate amounts,22 mix FV with food the child likes,9, 25 serve vegetables first,8 increase vegetable portion size,33 make FV available for PRN eating.25
- Control food selection, portion size to manage child food regulation: avoid high energy density food, large portion sizes,34, 35 bottle-feeding,19 early solids introduction.20
The take-home message
Manipulating children’s eating in any way to achieve specific nutritional or growth outcomes is inconsistent with fdSatter and sDOR and is likely to result in lower sDOR.2-6y scores. This manipulation can be subtle, so pause before you follow well-worn pathways. Do you have an agenda for what/how much the child shall eat? Are you taking away the child’s permission to eat or trying to get the parent/child to eat certain foods or certain amounts of food? If so, your nutrition counseling is inconsistent with sDOR.
- Lohse B, Mitchell DC. Valid and reliable measure of adherence to satter division of responsibility in feeding. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2021:211-222.
- Satter E. fdSatter and sDOR. Ellyn Satter Institute. Accessed March 31, 2021. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/satter-feeding-dynamics-model/
- Satter E. Family meals focus #110: Giving children autonomy with eating: What it is—and isn’t. Accessed April 1, 2021. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus-no-110-giving-children-autonomy-with-eating/
- Satter E. Eating competence: Definition and evidence for the satter eating competence model. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39:S142-S153. Computer.
- Godleski S, Lohse B, Krall JS. Satter eating competence inventory subscale restructure after confirmatory factor analysis. J Nutr Educ Behav. Jul 23 2019;
- WHO. Guiding principles for complementary feeding of the breastfed child. 2003.
- Blissett J, Bennett C, Donohoe J, Rogers S, Higgs S. Predicting successful introduction of novel fruit to preschool children. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:1959-1967.
- Spill MK, Birch LL, Roe LS, Rolls BJ. Eating vegetables first: The use of portion size to increase vegetable intake in preschool children. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:1237-1243.
- Spill MK, Birch LL, Roe LS, Rolls BJ. Hiding vegetables to reduce energy density: An effective strategy to increase children’s vegetable intake and reduce energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94:735-741.
- Cooke LJ, Haworth CMA, Wardle J. Genetic and environmental influences on children’s food neophobia. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:428-433.
- Schrempft S, van Jaarsveld CM, Fisher A, et al. Variation in the heritability of child body mass index by obesogenic home environment. JAMA Pediatrics. 2018;172:1153-1160.
- Carnell S, Wardle J. Appetite and adiposity in children: Evidence for a behavioral susceptibility theory of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;88:22-29.
- Fisher JO, Birch LL. Fat preferences and fat consumption of 3 to 5-year-old children are related to parental adiposity. J Amer Diet Assn. 1995;95:759-764.
- Miller AL, Rosenblum KL, Retzloff LB, Lumeng JC. Observed self-regulation is associated with weight in low-income toddlers. Appetite. 2016;105:705-712.
- Leung CY, Miller AL, Kaciroti NA, Chen YP, Rosenblum K, Lumeng JC. Low-income pre-schoolers with higher temperamental surgency enjoy and respond more to food, mediating the path to higher body mass index. Pediatr Obes. 2016;11(3):181-186.
- Duckworth AL, Tsukayama E, Geier AB. Self-controlled children stay leaner in the transition to adolescence. Appetite. 2010;54:304-308.
- Kurz S, Schoebi D, Dremmel D, Kiess W, Munsch S, Hilbert A. Satiety regulation in children with loss of control eating and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A test meal study. Appetite. 2017;116:90-98.
- Savage JS, Fisher JO, Birch LL. Parental influence on eating behavior: Conception to adolescence. J Law Med Ethics. 2007;35:22-34.
- Modrek S, Basu S, Harding M, et al. Does breastfeeding duration decrease child obesity? An instrumental variables analysis. Pediatric Obesity. 2017;12:304-311.
- Huh SY, Rifas-Shiman SL, Taveras EM, Oken E, Gillman MW. Timing of solid food introduction and risk of obesity in preschool-aged children. Pediatrics. 2011;127:e544-551.
- Taveras EM, Rifas-Shiman SL, Belfort MB, Kleinman KP, Oken E, Gillman MW. Weight status in the first 6 months of life and obesity at 3 years of age. Pediatrics. 2009;123:1177-1183.
- Haines J, Haycraft E, Lytle L, et al. Nurturing children’s healthy eating: Position statement. Appetite. 2019;137:124-133.
- Hughes SO, Power TG, Fisher JO, Mueller S, Nicklas TA. Revisiting a neglected construct: Parenting styles in a child-feeding title. Appetite. 2005;44:83-92.
- Wood Alexis C, Blissett Jacqueline M, Brunstrom Jeffrey M, et al. Caregiver influences on eating behaviors in young children. JAHA. 2020;9(0):1-15.
- O’Connor TM, Hughes SO, Watson KB, et al. Parenting practices are associated with fruit and vegetable consumption in pre-school children. Public Health Nutr. 2010;13:91-101.
- Vereecken C, Legiest E, De Bourdeaudhuij I, Maes L. Associations between general parenting styles and specific food-related parenting practices and children’s food consumption. Am J Health Promot. 2009;23:233-240.
- Johnson SL. Improving preschoolers’ self-regulation of energy intake. Pediatrics. 2000;106:1429-1435.
- Evans GW, Fuller-Rowell TE, Doan SN. Childhood cumulative risk and obesity: The mediating role of self-regulatory ability. Pediatrics. 2012;129:e68-e73.
- Ramsay SA, Branen LJ, Fletcher J, Price E, Johnson SL, Sigman-Grant M. “Are you done?” Child care providers’ verbal communication at mealtimes that reinforce or hinder children’s internal cues of hunger and satiation. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2010;42:265-270.
- Ogden J, Reynolds R, Smith A. Expanding the concept of parental control: A role for overt and covert control in children’s snacking behaviour? Appetite. 2006;47:100-106.
- O’Connor T, Watson K, Hughes S, et al. Health professionals’ and dietetics practitioners’ perceived effectiveness of fruit and vegetable parenting practices across six countries. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110:1065-1071.
- Lumeng JC, Miller AL, Appugliese D, Rosenblum K, Kaciroti N. Picky eating, pressuring feeding, and growth in toddlers. Appetite. 2018:299-305.
- Mathias KC, Rolls BJ, Birch LL, et al. Serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables together at dinner promotes intake of both foods among young children. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:266-270.
- Fisher JO, Liu Y, Birch LL, Rolls BJ. Effects of portion size and energy density on young children’s intake at a meal. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:174-179.
- Smethers AD, Roe LS, Sanchez CE, et al. Portion size has sustained effects over 5 days in preschool children: A randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019;109:1361-1372.
More about sDOR.2-6y
- sDOR.2-6y validation transforms nutrition intervention
- Giving children autonomy with eating: what it is and isn’t
- Application for sDOR.2-6y usage
- To read about raising a child who happily joins in with family meals and learns to eat the food you eat, read Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense: 18 Months through 6 Years.
- To see what positive feeding looks like as well as to read about it, see Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense DVD II. For home use version, click here.