What Instagram Gets Wrong About Feeding Your Kids
Division Of Responsibility was supposed to be the anti-diet way to feed kids. Then the influencers arrived.
First, some housekeeping!
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Did Instagram Ruin the Division of Responsibility?
Evie Ebert’s son, now age 6, has never been much for food. When she introduced him to solids as a baby, he spit most things out. By the time he was a toddler, he had a short list of accepted foods even compared to other picky eaters his age. “This was a big blow to my ego,” says Evie, who is a fellow Substack writer and mom of two in Chestertown, Maryland. “I always thought just by the power of my cool personality that I’d have a kid who loved kale or whatever.”
Evie turned to her mom friends for advice—a community she describes as “very brainy, but not into over-achieving or perfection”—and they all told her: You need Ellyn Satter’s Division Of Responsibility In Feeding. DOR, as it’s more commonly known, guides parents away from pushing bites and nagging kids to eat, while also empowering them not to play short order cook for picky eaters. “I loved that it gave me permission to let myself off the hook in these ways,” says Evie. And lots of the moms who endorsed DOR held up their now-6, 7 or 8-year-olds as proof: “I bought into a lot of testimonials that these kids had all been picky toddlers and were now eating what their parents ate,” Evie says. “That was very intoxicating to me.”
If you’re not familiar with DOR, it’s worth clicking the link above to read about it straight from the source. Ellyn Satter is a dietitian and family therapist who developed the DOR framework more than 30 years ago and has since published many books and case studies supporting it. Her method has long been championed by pediatric dietitians and childhood feeding experts eager to get parents to break with the more punitive “clean your plate” model of child feeding. Within the past 10 years, DOR has moved from a niche technique to mainstream feeding philosophy—and that’s thanks in part to Instagram.
Full disclosure: It’s also, a teeny bit, thanks to me. I wrote about DOR for the New York Times Magazine in 2016 when I told the story of our baby who couldn’t eat. I did a deeper dive in my first book, and wrote about DOR again for the NYT Parenting section in 2019. Amy Palanjian and I also spent many episodes of our former podcast dissecting how to implement DOR, and those conversations have informed Amy’s work as a kid food influencer. And I’ve endorsed it plenty of times right here in this newsletter. As a parent trying to escape diet culture, DOR has so often felt like the answer because it helps us to stop policing our kids’ bodies. I decide what we’re eating. My kids decide how much of that meal they want to eat. No food pushing, no coercing, no portion-controlling. Done.
But I get why, for Evie and many other parents, DOR becomes a kind of diet. Dutifully sticking to her responsibility to decide “what kids eat,” Evie served her son a perpetual variety of vegetables and grain salads, all the while insisting he didn’t have to eat them. Then she watched, quietly panicking, for years, as he... continued to not eat them. “I thought the promise of DOR was that, at some point, your child will be ‘fixed,’” she says. “And so for a long time, I saw his eating as a problem that needed to be fixed.” Earlier this year, Evie wrote about why she broke up with DOR for Romper. It wasn’t easy to admit that this beloved progressive parenting method hadn’t worked for her. Especially online. “There’s this vibe of ‘well if it’s not working, you’re just not doing it right!’” she says.
That vibe—which yes, is also what diet brands say when dieters don’t lose weight—comes straight from social media. “I feel the flavor of Satter’s principles in almost every kid food influencer on Instagram,” says Evie. “At least all the mainstream ones who are focused on vaguely crunchy, neurotic white moms.” Accounts like @solidstarts, @kids.eat.in.color and @weelicious are all strongly influenced by the DOR ethos, if not full-on ambassadors for the cause. And something happens when we pair the principle of “parents decide what to serve!” with aspirational rainbows of produce arranged on pristine white backgrounds. DOR is supposed to be the anti-diet way to feed kids. But, on Instagram at least, diet culture has arrived for DOR.
As a case study, let’s consider this @kids.eat.in.color post from September with over 17,000 likes. Two toddler-sized lunchboxes appear side by side. They are both filled with four kinds of produce—carrots, cherries, strawberries and something that is maybe a mango or a squash cut into flower shapes—plus a small sandwich (also with one perfectly placed flower-shaped bite). The lunchbox on the left features seven blueberries. The lunchbox on the right offers three blue M&Ms. This post is dietitian and creator of KEIC Jennifer Anderson’s response to a common question about DOR: “But what if they only eat the candy?” She wants parents to “normalize” candy because “open restriction leads to candy obsession.”
Without the accompanying image, Anderson’s advice and my response to that same question sound similar. Instead of banning candy, Anderson wants parents to say “here’s your lunch!” and offer the meal with M&Ms because “strategic exposure makes candy no big deal.” Anderson also acknowledges kids may not love this. “If a child has been feeling restricted, they may only eat the treat food and obsess about it and tantrum for more,” she writes. “And they may continue to eat large quantities of a treat food if they have the chance, until they realize they are going to be able to eat it often.”
But she also only puts three M&Ms in the lunchbox.
On Kid Food Instagram, this is a “child-sized” portion that avoids “open restriction,” but still lets you get away with more covert constraints. You don’t let kids decide how many M&Ms they want to eat, because you want them to use their hunger on the four kinds of produce you’ve just spent half an hour cutting into whimsical shapes, and maybe the sandwich as long as you made it with whole grain bread. For many kids, the “strategic exposure” of three M&Ms will feel just as restrictive as the candy-less lunchbox beside it. And maybe even more manipulative and confusing.
For a parent hoping to raise the kind of vegetable-loving, eclectic healthy eater celebrated by Kid Food Instagram, the resulting tantrum over those three M&Ms (and why three? Why not five? Or 12?) will inspire feelings of frustration and failure. And that’s on top of the pervasive sense of failure inspired by this kind of aspirational content any day you didn’t cut the squash into flower shapes, and instead threw together an Uncrustable, some goldfish and an applesauce pouch and called it a day. Kids pick up on our angst when they love the foods we least want them to love. And they bring that angst into their feelings about your flower-shaped squash slices.
Some proponents of DOR would argue that limiting M&Ms to just three isn’t even DOR, because the child isn’t responsible for deciding how much to eat. But here it becomes difficult to draw a line between what’s diet culture and what’s DOR orthodoxy. Ellyn Satter herself has always made an odd exception for treat foods. “Put one serving of dessert at each person’s place when you set the table,” she writes. “Eat it before, during, or after the meal. Don’t have seconds. Too many sweets at mealtime compete unfairly with other mealtime foods.” As a follow-up, she advises that parents periodically offer unlimited sweets at snack time and “let your child (and yourself) eat as many cookies as he wants” so kids can practice self-regulation. But as meticulous as Satter’s advice usually is (she also wants milk served with those cookies because every eating opportunity should be “balanced”), she never specifies a frequency for “periodically.” In my house it happens at least a few times a week. On Kid Food Instagram, where influencers pack toddler lunches of dehydrated dragon fruit in $60 PlanetBoxes, “periodically” appears to mean never.
“The idea that you could spend a weekend afternoon baking cookies together with the kids, then also sit and eat as many of those cookies as you want is a really hard sell with parents,” says Amy, who is both a creator on Kid Food Instagram and someone with a front row seat to how these DOR-driven messages from kid food influencers confuse parents. “It took me years to feel comfortable allowing that kind of unrestricted treat access because every other message I got about feeding kids told me that unlimited cookies was wrong.” It felt wrong because we associate such unbridled eating with dysfunction and fatness, things that should have nothing to do with each other, but that parents are taught to understand as the worst outcomes of feeding our kids “wrong.”
Another good case study is a @solidstarts post from earlier this month with over 21,000 likes. It offers a script for parents to use when their toddler demands a different food for dinner, in this case strawberries. Instead of rushing to get out the strawberries, which DOR would classify as “short order cooking,” the post coaches parents to respond with: “Strawberries are not on the menu. Tonight you have a choice of chicken, rice and asparagus. You don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to. I’ll try to serve strawberries at another meal.” Note that the coveted food is strawberries—a Kid Food Instagram toddler knows better than to demand gummy bears for dinner!—and yet @solidstarts still holds firm.
To their credit, the @solidstarts team (which includes several pediatricians, feeding therapists, and dietitians, all of whom have influencer-worthy headshots) acknowledges in the caption that this line will almost certainly be met with a tantrum. No toddler has ever calmly accepted the information that their parent has already made dinner and isn’t interested in getting up to grab another component. And it is important that we make the labor of meal preparation visible to our children. But what if your toddler (or preschooler) can get the strawberries (or a cheese stick or some crackers or even some candy) themselves? Is it so important to retain total control over what gets served that we never allow kids to grab a backup option when faced with a meal they don’t love? “What if we saw their suggestion to add another food to the table as a contribution, rather than an attempt to derail us?” asks Amy.
We feel derailed by the strawberry request because Kid Food Instagram has taught us that we have to retain total control over the family meal experience because our side of the Division Of Responsibility bargain matters more than our kids’ role. So we want that control not because it’s good for our kids (it often demonstrably isn’t) but because it feels like the only way to attain the kind of mealtime perfection that Kid Food Instagram performs. “When influencers translate concepts like Satter’s into oversimplified pastel infographics, they end up conveying the message that it’s on individual parents to optimize our children, fix unwanted behavior, and resolve conflicts in the home around eating,” says Evie. “The clever, peaceful mom is the one who follows the right accounts.”
What’s happening here is both a distortion of DOR and an unveiling of some fatphobia and diet anxiety that has been there all along. Satter’s 1987 book How To Get Your Kid To Eat...But Not Too Much includes a chapter titled “Helping All You Can To Keep Your Child From Being Fat.” Satter’s own perspective and the work of her institute have evolved since then; a more recent post encourages a matter-of-fact, non-shaming response if your child asks “am I fat?” But it’s unclear if Satter has ever fully acknowledged or reckoned with the anti-fat bias woven through her earlier work.
I want to be clear that there is a lot that’s great and useful about DOR, and that it is possible to employ DOR in a weight-inclusive manner. If you are letting your kids decide how much they want to eat at any given meal, you won’t inadvertently try to push food on a skinnier kid or limit it for a kid in a bigger body.
But that’s not everyone’s experience. “The hardest thing about DOR is being fat and doing it,” says Christin Dow, RD, a Health At Every Size dietitian in Matthews, North Carolina who describes herself as “midfat.” She tried to institute DOR with her three kids after her oldest child began sneaking food in response to what Christin says now was way too much parental restriction. “I was over-spending and under-feeding, and not listening to what my kids needed,” she says. For Christin, DOR was terrifying because it advised more permission around food than she knew how to handle. “The idea that I’m supposed to bring donuts into my house — what?” she says. “I’d spent years trying to be a good fatty. To even think about doing that activates my inner child that was hand-smacked for eating donuts.” And yet she also ran up against its rules in ways that felt just like a diet. “This system was developed to help parents with feeding but it’s not helping with our trauma,” she explains.
Parents and influencers starting with a specific vision of how their kids should eat can use DOR as reinforcement for that restrictive mindset. When bringing donuts in the house feels too scary, the alternative is to interpret our responsibility for “what gets served” to mean that we should only serve the Instagram version of healthy foods, with just the tiniest “child-sized portion” of processed snacks and treats. And then we’re surprised when our children don’t magically stop craving carbohydrates. “The thing that no one tells us in most of these DOR-related posts is that our goal is not to get the kids to love vegetables more than other foods or to train them out of liking their preferred foods,” says Amy. “It’s to raise kids who are competent eaters.” Amy defines “competent eater” as “a child who can recognize their own hunger and have some autonomy over their bodies.” A competent eater may not be a child who who willingly eats your pea popsicles. “For me, the goal is also to be able to have family meals that are not a giant, endless negotiation,” Amy adds.
For Evie, a turning point in her relationship with her son and food came when she consulted with a pediatric dietitian who challenged Evie’s desire to “fix” a kid who wasn’t particularly broken, as she wrote here:
“If your son’s diet couldn’t be changed for the rest of his life, if he had to move through a world hostile to this kind of eating behavior indefinitely, how would you want him to think back on his childhood?" she asked me. "Would you want him to think of it as a place of safety or a place of shame and disappointment?” I watched as my own face on the screen, airbrushed by Zoom’s “touch up my appearance function,” experienced ego death.
Letting go of her goal to fix her son’s picky eating has let Evie feed her kids in a relaxed way that isn’t strict DOR, but also isn’t a return to the clean plate club. “He takes the same exact lunch to school every day,” she says. “At dinner he picks what he wants from what we’re having, but if he makes a reasonable request for something different, we accommodate it.”
Christin says she has landed in a similar place with her own kids, especially as they are getting older and more able to get their own snacks. “We have a better method now that involves some amount of free grazing for afternoon snacks,” she says. “The rule is just ‘please show up hungry for dinner.’ It is 85 percent DOR because that’s my capacity as a working mother. I can’t swing the after-school charcuterie board.” With clients, Christin works on their trauma around food and body before implementing any DOR principles.
What Evie and Christin are doing is closer to what many practitioners are now calling “responsive feeding,” where you implement enough structure to make sure kids know they’re going to be fed in predictable ways, but steer clear of anything that feels like an unrealistic expectation or pressure to perform. It may be harder to define and distill than DOR, but perhaps therein lies its power. Because if we can’t perform our philosophy of family meals, maybe our kids can just eat.
Diet Culture for Dinner: I adapted an old newsletter piece for Outside Magazine; read it here.