A Guide to Holiday Meals when an Eating Disorder is at the Table
Want a new way to help your loved one with an eating disorder through the holidays – stop talking about food!
You may feel confused by that, but it’s true that eating disorders really are not about the food. You may want to help your loved one by joining in avoidance of foods that stir up fear for him or her. This isn’t that helpful! It actually validates the belief that micromanaging each bite of food can bring peace to their life.
What can you do that’s different and supportive?
I can guide you with these 3 key principles to help yourself and your loved one have a more intentional and satisfying holiday experience. I am Wendy Wright, LMFT, a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist, and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, with years of experience in helping families add in more meaning, and take out some stress, from holidays. Here are your keys: Breathe, Intend, & Move.
Anxiety and uncertainty can be dysregulating to the nervous system, pausing and taking a breath can have powerful impacts. By starting with stopping, you are able to calm your mind. By regulating your breathing, you can have an impact on your loved one’s breathing. By pausing you are able to ground yourself with what you want this day or event to represent.
Pause and Breathe before the meal. As with most difficult situations, its best to talk about it before and after, not as much during. Check in with your loved one before the day, ask what they might need. Let them know you are aware they might need a friend, but let go of any expectations.
Pause Your Reaction Mid Bite. When you see that person in their pattern, either not eating, sitting there sulking, or talking loudly and shoveling food in their mouth, just pause.
Don’t do anything. Don’t ask what’s wrong. Don’t try to fix it.
Do offer non-verbal support, with eye contact or with a conversation shift to a predetermined helpful topic.
Do remember, “No one meal defines our relationship or their recovery.”
Once you pause and take that breath, you can spend a moment to remember what YOU want for your holiday gathering. Do you want to spend the day with negative self talk about what is “bad” about the food, or how you have “messed up the day”? Probably not, neither does your loved one with an eating disorder, but they are more trapped by the intensity. If you are able to name 3-4 intentions for the day, you can lead them with your own energetic shift.
Breathe & Set Your Own Intentions: Down tempo your reaction. Take another breath. Recall the thoughts of what could be helpful to this person you care about. Let go of all expectations around how that meal is going to be. Your person might run away from the table crying. They might not eat. They might try to pretend they’re doing well and then go throw it all up.
You are not here to complete a meal. You are here to be together and celebrate. Remember, “No one meal defines our relationship or their recovery.”
Here are some ideas for setting your own intentions:
- I want to spend the day with an energy of gratitude, and I will name one thing I am grateful for each hour.
- I want to end this day knowing one new thing about each person present.
- I want my loved one to know they are important to me, and not defined by their interaction with a meal.
- I want to build memories of laughter and warmth.
Lead the way, both internally with this energy shift of intention, and externally with a shift in conversation, location, or function. Guide your loved one with words of encouragement designed to highlight their character strengths.
Move away from a focus on the table. Engage others in a conversation not about food. This is the most important part. This is your way of reminding your person that they are more than their meal.
Move into identifying what this person offers your life. Ask questions about that.
If you share school, bring up a funny thing that happened on campus recently.
If you share a love for pets, ask about their pet, or watch some funny puppy or cat videos!
If you share a passion for the environment, you can notice ways they have helped make the day sustainable.
Move away from the table, literally. Engage in activity after the meal that brings you together. It can help to find something to shift into, especially something that impacts several of your 5 senses, to help bring their brain away from the table.
Does this seem different? Does it seem easier to just change the foods on the table? Then you just gained some insight into how and eating disorder works. It says, “It’s so much easier to just change the food!” While this can be, in fact, easier in the moment, I know from 15 years of experience that it does not actually help. Changing the food environment is not helpful in recovery work. It misses the point that eating disorders run way deeper than the amount of sugar, carbs, or fat on the plate, even if that is the external conversation.
These shifts have helped real people in real holiday events.
Share this post with someone you know who is struggling. Post your holidays intentions below so that we can support you.
Wendy Wright, LMFT, CEDS, is a therapist and consultant based in Denver, CO. She has over 15 years experience in counseling those with eating disorders and those who love them. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist [CEDS] and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor [CIEC]. She can help you decode the underlying meanings and functions of eating disorder thoughts.
When she is not helping others find freedom in their relationships with food and finances, she is likely on her yoga mat, the ski slope, or a hiking trail!
You can find her at wendywrightcounseling.com, for in office and virtual sessions and groups.