DOR - Game Changing Strategy for Picky Eating

Learn how to use the division of responsibility to help improve picky eating, whether you have a toddler, kid, or teen. Plus, strategies to implement this picky eating strategy.


How many different kinds of picky eating advice have you heard in trying to help your kid eat more? 

Or, maybe you’re a feeding therapist trying to figure out how to help the kids you work with in their treatment sessions.  

As a pediatric occupational therapist that has worked with hundreds of kids on improving their eating (aka the picky eater), and a mom that has walked this with one of my own picky eaters there’s one essential strategy that I almost always start with: 

This mysterious and often unknown strategy is: NOT PRESSURING YOUR KID TO EAT.

While it certainly is not always an easy thing to put into practice, this one concept is the foundation that all of my other picky eating expertise and advice is built on. 

But, it is simple and it’s based on evidence from Ellyn Satter’s great body of work and research, which she compiled in her famous Division of Responsibility. 

It’s true that without any other strategies in place that the most extreme picky eaters may not “eat new foods” for years, but more often I’ve witnessed kids, let down their defenses and start to get curious about food.

Sometimes trying something new days, weeks, or a few months after the DOR is implemented.  

With my own son, I layered on strategies, after establishing the DOR as a base. It was important to address the underlying cause and use some advanced strategies to help him explore new foods (without pressuring him). 

I used this picky eating plan and watched him make incredible progress with eating new foods.  

If you’re skeptical, let me first say that I totally get it. But there is a lot of research behind this strategy, and I’ll try to make it clear why I and many other feeding specialists have adopted this as the best outlook for getting kids to eat. 

First, we need to talk about why pressuring kids to eat is so harmful to their eating habits, then I’ll tell you all the hidden ways we pressure our kids during meals, and what you can do instead.

Why Pressuring Kids to Eat Can Make Picky Eating Worse

Before we get into the nitty gritty here, as always, I want to remind you that I respect and encourage parents to make decisions for their child based on their gut, knowledge of different techniques, and their child’s individual temperament. 

I REALLY do feel like this is one of those super important strategies that works across the board, but some parents won’t be comfortable with it and that is okay. I hope you can take this information and apply it in a way that works for you and your child. 

In fact, maybe your child is  in feeding therapy and their therapist is taking the opposite approach? 

While it is becoming less popular, it’s true that many therapists use a behavioral approach (i.e. take a bite of this and then you can have this candy/video/preferred food). 

I can appreciate the value in this approach and some families feel this is the right strategy for their child, I totally respect that. The behavioral approach is very black and white and sometimes can get quick results.

Although, the results don’t always last. Meaning that overtime the child’s eating reverts.

But, this article is not meant to shame or guilt you into using the “no pressure”. If you have concerns, discuss them with your therapist, leave a comment here, or consider seeking out other opinions.

Here’s the thing though, when some kids (often picky eaters) feel pressured to eat they often feel they need to protect themselves further and close themselves off from being open to new or different foods. 

For a variety of reasons (I call these underlying causes of picky eating). they have already decided that eating some foods is not for them, the pressure factor for parents and other well-meaning adults builds their brick wall up further and further. 

It creates an environment that closes off the opportunity for exploring new foods, the opposite of what most parents want.

Imagine a food you REALLY don’t like, we all have at least one. For me it is olives. Now, think about having a plate of that food in front of you and someone you love and trust getting really angry or upset that you don’t want to eat it.

Or, maybe they don’t get upset, but beg you to try a bite? Would that work, would you want to eat it then? Maybe, they even throw in a treat, “If you have three olives, I’ll give you a cookie?” 

How would you feel? Motivated or aggravated? Depending on your child’s temperament, they may oblige and maybe you would too, but many of us would get aggravated and defiant as a result. 


Pressuring Kids to Eat Can Have Long Term Effects

Even if your child isn’t a picky eater, or they do give in to the pressuring tactics and it seems successful, as parents we are teaching our kids to ignore their own internal cues for appetite. 

Picky eaters often have decreased awareness or sensitivity of their interoceptive sense, which controls this, so pressure actually worsens this issue. 

This leads to over-eating, under-eating, and/or an unhealthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime. In fact, most of my generation was brought up on pressuring tactics. We had the clean plate club or weren’t allowed to leave the table until the food was gone. 

We were given dessert as a reward for a well eaten dinner, and many of us now look to food to console us when we are bored or have just had a bad day. Get out the pint of ice-cream, you deserve it, right? 

I’m not trying to blame our parents. I’m just saying that we are sending a big message to our kids when we pressure them to eat, and those messages will shape their relationship with food throughout their whole life.

Learn how to use the division of responsibility to help improve picky eating, whether you have a toddler, kid, or teen. Plus, strategies to implement this picky eating strategy.


How Adults Pressure Kids to Eat

Well, pressuring kids to eat comes in many forms. One of my favorite feeding books, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, talks about this extensively. 

If you’re interested in an easy read geared towards parents that fully explains the loads of research that support not pressuring kids to eat, I highly recommend this book. I’m not going to go into as much detail, but let me share some examples:

  • “Broccoli is good for you, just have a bite.”
  • “I just made this whole dinner for the last two hours, the least you could do is eat some.”
  • “Take three licks of the carrots and then you can have more chicken nuggets.”
  • “Take a bite of the pot roast, and I’ll put a sticker on your chart for that new toy you want.”
  • “I’ll let you watch the iPAD if you eat your dinner.”
  • “If you just eat the rest of your potatoes, you can have a cookie for dessert.”
  • “Oh, YAY!!!!!!!!! You had a bite of apple!!! Whoop! Whoop!”
  • “Your brother is eating the food, take a bite like he’s doing!”
  • “You are too old to be this picky!”
  • “Carrots are healthy! Don’t you want to grow big and strong?”

These are just a few examples, but I think you are starting to get the idea. If you are bribing, rewarding, distracting, begging, shaming, coaxing, or even praising your child for eating new to get them to eat, then you are pressuring them.

The praising aspect of pressure is usually most surprising to parents. 

But research shows us that kids usually feel pressured when they are praised because it is either putting the spotlight on them which some kids don’t like, or it’s setting an expectation that they have a hard time living up to. 

If you really want to acknowledge what your child has done, try to wait until the end of the meal and make a comment in passing. Although we want to give them praise, they actually don’t need it when it comes to eating. 

Instead, we want to teach them to be intrinsically motivated. Remember how I mentioned many people in my generation seeking out food for emotional comfort? Being praised for eating can make it more likely to pass this down to your child. 

But when a child is in control of making the choice to eat, they are much more likely to have a neutral and healthy relationship with food, which is the ultimate goal, right?


What is the Division of Responsibility (DOR)?

If this is a brand new concept to you, it can be a lot to wrap your head around. It goes against what our parents did, and the advice of many family members. 

It’s a complete perspective shift. 

If you decide to go this route, you will likely have people think that you are being a push-over. But, not pressuring your child to eat doesn’t mean that you don’t provide structure, routine, and some rules around meals.

Ellyn Satter, who has completed a TON of research on this topic says, “The parent is responsible for what, when, and where [the child eats]. The child is responsible for how much and whether.”

 Meaning, we decide when and what our kids eat, and they decide if they are going to eat it or not. 

If this totally freaks you out, look at our whole picky eating guide for how to establish routines, structure, and other picky eating tips!

Satter has a famous one page document called the Division of Responsibility, that clearly lays out the roles of parents and children in eating. I encourage you to take a look!


How to Improve Picky Eating- What to do Instead of Pressure

Now let’s talk about how you implement the DOR practically. 

Because it is not fair to run to put a plate of lasagna in front of your kid and say: “It’s your choice if you eat or not”, if they have never had it or refused it many times.

Or, you might be thinking that your child would never try something new if you just give them free reign over whether or not they eat.

The last thing I would want is for your child to eat when, where, and what they want. Deciding those terms is the job of the parent. The child’s job is to decide if they are going to eat it or not.

To follow this strategy it is imperative that your child be on a feeding schedule and that at least one food be given they prefer at each meal.

But, if you serve that lasagna with some bread (which they love) and maybe a side of fruit, then it’s totally fair. Especially because you’ve made a routine that allows their hunger to build.

They should eat every 2.5-3 hours with nothing in between but water. If they have access to food whenever they want it, they will likely not eat anyways.

Eating at the dinner table, and ideally eating family meals together (having the whole family together helps with modeling new foods!), will have a big impact on their success at meals and are a good idea.

 Grazing and eating in front of the TV regularly, also sabotage this strategy. If this is a problem, learn tips for decreasing distractions while eating

But, really I highly recommend watching my FREE Picky Eating Workshop to learn more about these other key strategies. It will take everything you’re reading here to a whole other level!

Learn how to use the division of responsibility to help improve picky eating, whether you have a toddler, kid, or teen. Plus, strategies to implement this picky eating strategy.


Help! What if My Child Refuses to Eat Anything?

This is a valid concern, and one I hear time and time again from students in Mealtime Works, our Picky Eating Course. There are some instances when this is a genuine concern, and in these cases the child should be in the care of a team with a specific feeding plan in place. 

If your child is on their own growth curve, then they are probably eating enough. We tend to over analyze what our kids eat, and their caloric needs are significantly less than ours. It can be hard to let go of the control or worry, but I encourage families to try this for a month and see what the results are.

If you are able to put this structure in place and they then refuse to eat, then, yes, you allow them to not eat. Honestly, there isn’t much you can do about it anyways, but spin your wheels, cause major anxiety, and power struggles over your child trying new things.


How Much Preferred Food Should You Serve?

When you first begin the DOR, your child may be interested in only eating the food they like that you serve. So in the example above with lasagna and bread, should you just keep serving unlimited amounts of bread if your child requests more, or stick to small amounts and wait it out?

Ellyn Satter would say yes, give them as much bread as they want, and that would be truly following the Division of Responsibility. 

I know this is hard for a lot of parents, and I personally feel there is some gray area here, but parents need to tread very cautiously because putting any restrictions on food is a quick slip into pressure. 

With my oldest, who doesn’t have any eating issues, and eats a wide variety, I will occasionally give a prompt for him to eat some more of his food before he just has more bread. I know he eats these foods, I don’t give a specific quantity or make a big deal about it. 

I’m also careful to not turn this into a reward, but technically I am pressuring a bit. However, I don’t get into power struggles over this or monitor his intake closely.

At the same time, if he or my selective eating child have things on their plate they don’t typically eat, I don’t ask them to eat it. I will use other strategies like, changing up the food they are refusing by cutting it into a different size or shape or by giving a dip.


Picky Eater Toddler Strategies

You may be wondering at what age you can start implementing this DOR strategy. 

This concept can be difficult with young toddlers, and I think there is some leeway, but you can absolutely begin the structured mealtime routine and decide the menu when your children are quite young. 

In some ways it’s even more important in these early impressionable years. But don’t beat yourself up if you have an older picky eater and are just now trying this strategy. 

Keep in mind that toddlers are notoriously inconsistent eaters, this comes with the territory. Your job is not to freak out (I know easier said than done) and trust that they are following their internal cues.

By the time your child is 18 months to 2 years old, you should be able to totally follow this approach completely without having to maybe grab something extra part-way into the meal if they aren’t eating.


More Help For Picky Eating Using the DOR Strategy

How does splitting the responsibility of eating with your kids make you feel? 

It can be a tough adjustment when you were raised differently, and truthfully, it can be hard to give up some of the control. Believe me, I know!

But allowing your kids to take an active role in mealtimes can have some major payoff. And the good news is, you don’t have to do it all. Think of picky eating like a partnership between you and your child.

Grab a free list of how I structure meals that also includes 25+ picky eater meal ideas.  We’ll send it right to your inbox! 


Keep Reading About Picky Eating Strategies

My Child Won’t Eat Anything But Junk Food

10 Extreme Picky Eating Red Flags that You Need to Know

Feeding Therapy

Feeding Red Flags for Babies and Toddlers 


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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 19 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.

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