If mealtime feels like a battle even when there's no one else around, this post is for you.
We've written a lot about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (aka DOR), a framework that divides the jobs of feeding between the domains of parent and child. The reason we've done so is because DOR is so very useful. It greatly reduces stress and power struggles around feeding. And today I have some great news for you: even if you are not a parent or no longer have children at home, you can use DOR on yourself. Yep. It works beautifully on adults too. Read on to learn how.
Just a refresher:
The parent's role in DOR is to be in charge of what, when, and where food is served.
The child's role in DOR is to be in charge of whether and how much they will eat.
Problems arise when the parent encroaches upon the child's domain. Then the kid starts to feel controlled and trapped. It's not healthy for a kid's autonomy to be taken away. It's also bad news for the relationship.
Issues also crop up when the child tries to do the parent's job. If the kid is bossing the parent around, that kid's nutrition will likely suffer and eventually he or she won't feel very good.
In order for a child to eat well, both parent and child have to do their job. And in order for YOU to eat well, both parts of you need to do their job. Your inner parent needs to plan meals and snacks, shop for them, prepare them, and make time to eat them. Your inner child needs to sit down to a meal and allow him/herself to relax and take pleasure in that meal and decide how much food feels comfortable at that moment.
What does it feel like when your inner parent is doing everyone's job?
It feels restrictive and joyless. It feels like a chore. When you are not only planning and preparing for a meal but also being overly controlling and critical about each bite you put into your mouth, when you are making decisions about what to eat purely from your head and not from your body, eating is no fun. It feels like just another thing on your to-do list. You begin to dread the whole idea of meal planning and prep and your meals become a source of stress rather than pleasure. This often happens when someone tries to eat "perfectly" or when they're on a diet. Eating becomes about rules and restrictions and the fun is gone.
What does it feel like when your inner child is doing everyone's job?
It feels like a party at first, but after a while it's not so pleasant anymore. This is when when someone throws all their rules out the window but fails to replace them with any sort of structure. It is eating whatever sounds good at the moment without any planning or boundaries. It is snacking on whatever's around rather than sitting down to balanced meals. This is often the natural response that occurs after a diet or another form of highly-restrictive eating. It can also happen after someone has become overly ambitious about meal planning and then crashes because food has become such a chore. After a while of eating in this way, it can start to feel yucky. When this happens, the body starts to crave moderation. It doesn't need the mind to yell at it. It happens all on its own. It's kind of like what might happen if you let a child choose their own bedtime for a few nights. After a while they'd ask you to put them to bed earlier. The body is wise. But it needs some help. If you haven't already, you'll discover that your body really does want some "adult" in there when it comes to making food decisions.
The key is for each part of you to stay in its lane. The parent part really does need to plan and prepare for those meals. Sometimes you do need to push yourself to do things you don't really want to do, such as getting up early enough to have time for breakfast, doing the grocery shopping, and putting together a balanced meal. But once that meal is sitting in front of you, it's time to let the child do its part. The child doesn't need to think about balance or nutrition at that point. The child listens to its body and decides how much to eat. And I also recommend letting kids get involved in menu planning. Let them pick a recipe. Let them add a dessert. Remember that when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers! For more on this, read How to Not Diet.
If this topic intrigues, you, you'll be glad to know that there's an entire podcast episode on this by the wonderful Katherine Zavodni, pediatric dietitian par excellence. It's called Feeding Dynamics to Heal Your Own Relationship with Food and you can find it here.