It was a chamsin, a sandstorm. For those that live in Israel, you know what I’m talking about. During a chamsin, it’s hot outside and gets pretty dark, like a yellow layer of smog has taken over the usual blue skies.

I was watching two of my neighbor’s girls and my daughter for the afternoon. Due to the heat, I immediately offered everyone ice pops. I wanted to try and balance the artificial sugar, so I cut up some fresh fruit and put it on the table. The girls enjoyed the nectarines and apples, and then I immediately offered everyone ice popswent off to play with dolls. Once they were done, the girls asked for a treat. I don’t know if they were testing my boundaries or if I was caught off guard, but I had a hard time saying, “No, we already had our snack.” I remembered we had some marshmallows, so I decided to give everyone one. Later, two more girls came by to play. As a good hostess, I offered them a treat and then, of course, offered the rest of the girls as well. The girls were happy, but I didn’t feel quite right about giving so much junk.

I didn’t want to force the kids to eat healthy foods, but I didn’t want to just let them have free rein over the refrigerator, either. How could I find the healthy balance between being too strict and too indulgent? I found the answer to this question when I learned of Ellyn Satter’s1 Division of Responsibility in Feeding:

  • The parent is responsible for the what, when, where of feeding.
  • The child is responsible for the how much and whether of eating. 2

Much research supports this model, and shows that children eat well when they are given a structure of meals and snacks, opportunities to try new foods, and limits. Parenting research also supports this model.

An example of such research was done by child development specialist Diane Baumrind, in which she defines three types of parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Authoritarian parents have unrealistic expectations for their children and demand immediate compliance. These parents may force their children to eat a certain food or eat everything on their plate without any regard for the children’s preferences or feelings. Children of authoritarian parents tend to be shy and nervous, and not as motivated as other children. The permissive parents set unclear boundaries or have no expectations for the children’s schedule. They do not set any limits on their children’s eating behavior or participation in family meals. Children of these parents learn from their parents’ behavior, and tend to act out aggressively and lack self-control. Finally, authoritative parents set boundaries, but are also attentive to their children’s requests and take them into consideration. These parents give love and limits, and in turn their children tend to be content with themselves and generous with their friends. The Division of Responsibility in Feeding is based on the authoritative method of parenting.3

I realize now that I was being a permissive parent. I wasn’t setting strong enough limits. I needed to set a snack time and to decide what was going to be served—of course, while still taking into consideration the kids’ preferences. I’m not going to be too harsh on myself—I know that the weather was pretty awful, and I’m glad that the girls had a good time. On the other hand, a couple of weeks later, one of the girls said to me, “If you are a nutritionist, why do you give us so many treats?” I understood from this comment that she knew she was testing my boundaries and did not need any more snacks.

While children are constantly testing our boundaries, being clear about what rational limits are will help us be better parents. Here are some tips for setting good boundaries with eating:

  • Teach children table manners (respectfully saying “no, thank you” if they don’t like a certain food).
  • Schedule meal and snack times.
  • Set a meal/snack menu, and let your child choose from the foods you serve (no short-order cooking).
  • Let children know that eating time is at mealtimes and snack times (no bedtime snack after teeth brushing, etc.).
  • Set a limit to how much milk or juice you serve.

These feeding practices step over healthy limits:

  • Forcing children to stay at the table or eat their vegetables
  • Forcing children to finish everything on their plate
  • Serving dessert only if the children eat everything on their plate
  • Only serving three meals a day (a child needs scheduled snacks)

Reflecting on the Division of Responsibility in Feeding and the authoritative method of parenting, I could not help but compare it to the healthy boundaries a Jew is given in the Torah. In the Torah, G‑d sets guidelines and limits, but within those boundaries we still have the power of choice. As we learn in chassidic philosophy, “It is an important, fundamental rule that the entire world was created for choice. Therefore, choice has a very big power . . .”4 G‑d does not want us to be like puppets or to be forced against our will; instead, He gives us guidelines and limits, and from there we have the power to choose how to incorporate them into our lives.

For example, we are given the laws of keeping kosher, which tell us the types of food we can and can’t eat. G‑d does not want us to be like puppetsWe still have the ability to choose from a wide variety of products at the grocery store, a plethora of recipes to prepare, and many types of cuisines. Even with all these choices we are still within the boundaries of the Torah, which enable us to elevate the food and ourselves when we sit down for a meal.

G‑d, our father in heaven, is our ultimate teacher. Just as we Jews need guidelines that allow us to make good choices, so do our children. By making a schedule of meals and snacks for your children and setting a menu with options they can choose from, you are giving them the ability to make good choices. You are being an authoritative parent, just as G‑d is with every Jew. You are incorporating the wisdom of the Torah and implementing it into your daily life.