Who’s bringing a dessert? Can someone help with appetizers? Here, have some more! Are you really taking another helping? I wish I could eat like you. Ugh, my diet must start tomorrow!
Sound familiar? It’s not unusual for pre-Thanksgiving talk between family members to focus on food and food-related tasks. It’s also not uncommon for holiday conversation to revolve around what people are eating or not eating, who’s eating too much or too little and, in some cases, criticism or praise regarding weight and size. To be clear, making sure there’s enough food to feed everyone at a gathering is important, but it doesn’t need to be the center of everyone’s day.
When an individual is struggling with an eating disorder, or working hard to maintain recovery from one, these topics can activate disordered thoughts about food, trigger negative body image and impact a person’s ability to be emotionally or physically present at the gathering. Intentionally steering the day towards gratitude and connection instead of food and weight can take a bit of work in our diet-obsessed culture but it stands to benefit many, not just those with eating disorders.
Where to start? These are just a few suggestions from our therapists and dietitians. Feel free to share your ideas and recommendations on our Facebook page.
1. Offer roles for family and friends who want to contribute something but may not want to bring food. Not everyone enjoys cooking and some people, especially those with eating disorders, might feel incredibly anxious around food. There are definitely other ways to help and have a meaningful connection to the day that don’t involve preparing food. For example:
- Planning activities or bringing a craft for the kids (or adults!) to work on.
- Pet duty. Someone might really love to take the dogs out for a walk while everyone else is distracted in the kitchen or watching the football game.
- Helping with clean-up and dish-washing (Yes, some people enjoy washing dishes!)
- Ask the musicians of the family to bring their instruments.
- See if anyone would be willing to put together a slideshow of past Thanksgiving photos for after-dinner viewing.
Quick Tip: Tap into everyone’s strengths. If your brother has taken up a recent interest in photography ask if he’d be willing to document the day and capture different positive interactions. How great would it be to have a beautiful photograph of a grandparent rocking a new baby or all the cousins playing football outside? These are, after all, the moments you’d choose to remember about a holiday, not how many calories you ate or an offhanded remark someone made about your weight gain/loss.
2. Give in to the gratitude trend. Gratitude might seem like a big social media gimmick right now but the truth is it does have the power to shift your attitudes and perceptions. The moment dinner is served and everyone sits down to eat can be a moment of peak anxiety if you have an eating disorder. In anticipation of this, Google “gratitude quotes”, pick your favorites and write them on small cards to place at each table setting. Depending on how willing your family is, you could also give everyone a chance to go around and verbally share something for which they are grateful.
3. If you’re hosting, do a quick assessment of reading material around your house. Put away (or better yet, recycle) any magazines that are overly focused on appearance, diet or beauty. Studies show even just 3 minutes of looking at fashion or “fitness” magazines can negatively impact self-esteem and trigger feelings of sadness and guilt. Do you really want your 7 year-old nephew to practice his reading skills with a fitness magazine full of photoshopped bodies? Do yourself and your guests a favor by instead stocking your coffee table with photo albums, short stories written by your kids, or some photography books by a favorite artist. (If you really want to make a body positive impact, you could leave a copy of Intuitive Eating or Health At Every Size laying around as well.)
4. Identify an ally (or two). Many of us look forward to holidays with great anticipation because we get to spend time with family members we don’t often see. Some of us experience dread and stress for the very same reason. It’s no secret that family dynamics can be complicated. Instead of focusing on family members who are particularly difficult to handle, focus on the ones who can help. If you have a grandparent, cousin or significant other who knows you’re struggling with recovery, have a conversation with them in advance about the ways in which they can support you at the gathering, at the table, and in specific situations throughout the day.
5. Step away from the bathroom scale. If you’re hosting and you have a scale in your house, move it out of sight temporarily, or permanently. If you are a guest in someone else’s house, consider asking them if they can stash it in a closet for the day. As a parent, spouse or support person of someone in recovery, this would be a great thing to take care of in advance as a way to advocate for your loved one.
6. Whatever you spend time focusing on will be what you spend time focusing on. If you’re in recovery you likely going to need to think about meal plans and meeting nutritional needs and that’s okay, but make sure you also have holiday intentions that don’t involve food, eating or weight. Why? Because if all your goals that day revolve around what you’re eating you will be hyper-focused on food just like you were with the eating disorder. Prioritize your nutritional goals, talk them over with your dietitian and then consider adding some non-food goals like these:
- I will record an interview with a grandparent. (Check out The Great Thanksgiving Listen)
- I would love to cuddle with a relative’s new baby.
- I’d like to sneak off to do a 3-minute mindful meditation before dinner
- I’m going to talk with each family member about their favorite songs, then compile a playlist to share after the holiday.
- I will give at least 3 non-appearance related compliments to other people on Thanksgiving day.
Quick Tip: Whatever you choose, make sure your goals are easy, achievable and positively worded. Think about adding good things into your experience, instead of avoiding a negative. For example, instead of saying “I won’t go on Facebook during our Thanksgiving get together” say “I look forward to taking a break from social media so I can catch up with my loved ones.” Remember, whatever you focus on will be what you’re focused on.
7. Remember that you cannot control everyone else. We live in a food and weight-obsessed society, so it’s likely some of this conversation will make it’s way into your holiday despite your best efforts. If and when it does, be prepared with ways you can change the conversation, set boundaries and seek support.
8. Give Back – Identify a local charity and ask all the Thanksgiving guests to bring a donation for the cause. Even if the day is hard for you and your recovery you will be left with a visual reminder of everyone’s generosity, (even if they couldn’t stop mentioning how many calories were in the appetizer all day).
Thanksgiving can be a truly beautiful holiday that reminds us all to give thanks and reflect upon the positives in life. Taking the focus off food might not only benefit those with an eating disorder but anyone struggling with negative thoughts, low self-esteem or loneliness this holiday season.
When we lift the food frenzy and body angst we are better able to focus on gratitude and authentic connection with others and ourselves.
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Questions about treatment for an eating disorder? Call us at (410) 427-3886 or visit eatingdisorder.org
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