Give A Little, Get A Lot

Give A Little, Get A Lot
How giving your kids control over how much they eat can pave the way to lifelong healthy eating

learn easy ways to raise healthy eaters

It usually starts at the table. That nightly struggle to get kids to eat the broccoli, eat the green beans, eat the salad, eat the chicken, don’t eat just buttered pasta … again.

You encourage them to try it, just one piece!

They say it again, as they do every night: “No, I hate it.”

Then the battle starts, the threats of no dessert or the promises of extra dessert. The tears, the guilt, the kids sitting at the table after dinner, dolefully looking at cold, limp vegetables, determined to outlast their parents.

It’s gotta stop.

Instead of forcing or bribing your kids to eat healthy foods, try something new. You decide the what, when and where foods are consumed. Then you give your kids complete control over if they will eat and how much. Research shows this feeding strategy results in children being more likely to branch out and expand their food choices, even if they do it slowly (and for some kids it can take years to learn to like certain foods).

Ellyn Satter, an internationally recognized expert in eating and feeding, calls it Division of Responsibility, and the concept is pretty simple. You, the parent, bring the healthy foods to the table, then allow your child to choose what and how much she will eat.

Research shows that forcing kids to eat certain foods makes it less likely that they’ll choose those foods as adults. The opposite is also true. Restricting foods (like sweets) in childhood will make those foods seem more desirable.

Offering dessert as a reward for eating vegetables is also not recommended; kids start to give food emotional heft and dessert becomes the "forbidden fruit" while broccoli becomes punishment that must be endured to receive the reward. And, let's face it, broccoli can and should be enjoyed, not the price to pay for dessert. 

Babies are born with an innate sense of how much food they need and will break off suckling when they have reached that point. That’s why parents are advised to listen to their baby, offering breast milk or formula frequently while paying attention to the behavioral cues that they are full.

As your child grows and starts to eat food at the table, keep in mind that each new food is unfamiliar. It’s important for parents to show their children that eating a new food is pleasurable and normal. If the kids don’t want to try it this time, no problem. It may be that you have to serve and eat eggplant or bok choy many times before your child will give it a try. Don’t let that worry you. Your job, according to Satter, is to provide regular meals and snacks, make eating time pleasant and offer a variety of foods both familiar and unfamiliar.  

As for your kids, their job is to eat to their appetite and eventually learn to eat more of the foods their parents eat. Mealtime should not be a battleground, rather a time for families to enjoy each other's company while nourishing their bodies. Rather than considering the amount of food eaten at each meal in terms of success or failure, take the long view and realize that becoming a competent eater takes time. 

In other words, don’t sweat it. As long as you’re doing your part (providing healthful foods from all five food groups) at consistent meal and snacks, your kids will do their part, eating what they need and slowly accepting new things on their plates. The day will come when your child asks you to pass the broccoli, please. By following the Division of Responsibility, you can be confident that you’re raising a healthy eater who will have a long-term, positive relationship with food.  

To learn more about Ellyn Satter and the Division of Responsibility, visit



1. Ellyn Satter Institute Website. Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Madison, WI Accessed March 29, 2015 

2. Satter EM. Children, the feeding relationship, and weight. Maryland Medicine. 2004;Summer:26-28.  

3. Satter EM. Child of mine: Feeding with love and good sense. Palo Alto: Bull Publishing; 2000.  

4. Satter EM. Your child's weight...helping without harming. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press; 2005.  

5. Satter E. Eating competence: definition and evidence for the Satter Eating Competence model. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007 Sept-Oct;39(5 Suppl):S142-53.