Family & Festivities: Supporting a Family Member in Eating Disorder Recovery During the Holidays
A Black family embraces in the kitchen around an island counter

For many, the start of the holiday season may evoke a spectrum of different emotions: the joy of quality time with friends and family, the stress of planning, and gratitude for a new year. But for those navigating eating disorder treatment, another emotion may arise: panic.

As Equip’s Director of Mentorship JD Ouellette describes it, dinner on an average weeknight can be a challenge, but a holiday meal may feel like an insurmountable challenge.

“When it’s hard to eat or feed your child on the best of days,” JD says, “having these holidays coming at us in a culture that’s organized around eating and people can feel overwhelming. At various stages of eating disorder recovery, we have to weigh the impact of all the people and food, and how we’re going to navigate through that.”

How to stay mindful of recovery during the holidays

As you begin to make decisions about how your family will participate in this year’s holiday festivities, stay aware and present of where you or your loved one is in their recovery process. Think about what steps you can take to ensure your family stays focused on recovery:

  • Decide which holiday gatherings you’ll be attending this year. Remember that it’s okay to skip events that may be overly stressful!
  • Make a plan (and even share it with loved ones!) for managing challenges and triggers if you choose to attend or host a holiday get together.
  • Recognize which beloved family traditions may need to be adapted or avoided, and which activities may help your family redefine the focus of the celebrations.
  • Get creative by planning some non food-focused holiday activities. It's totally okay to have your own traditions and spend time with friends - and even strangers!
  • Reflect on what the holiday season means to your family. Focusing on your cultural traditions and values can make celebrations less stressful and more joyful.

How to show up to holiday gatherings in a recovery-supportive way

Should your family choose to attend a holiday gathering, here are some practical tips to do so in a way that is supportive of recovery:

  • Provide your family with education and information on eating disorders to help empower them to support you. and the person navigating recovery. Sharing this article might be an excellent way to get buy-in from extended family!
  • If you’re anticipating, like many families, a lot of “diet talk” at the dinner table, try sending out an email to attendees in advance of the holiday explaining how and why these topics should be avoided.
  • Provide your family with education and information on eating disorders to help empower them to support you. Provide clear, tangible examples such as asking family members to avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” or making comments like “I’m starting my diet tomorrow,” during dessert.
  • Email your loved ones to outline your boundaries in a respectful way and provide suggestions for how to honor them.
  • Find your allies to run interference with you. Appoint a trusted friend or family member to interfere or redirect “diet talk” throughout the gathering.
  • Get creative with tables, and choose to sit with loved ones who you feel will be supportive during difficult moments. Or, find a quiet spot away from the main dining area to give your loved one a calmer space to eat a potentially challenging meal.

Uphold routine to stay grounded and reduce stress

  • Holidays are not the time to deviate from your meal plan. Ensure adequate nutrition throughout the day to support recovery and normalize acting against diet culture norms like skipping meals before a holiday dinner.
  • Model by eating at regular intervals throughout the day for your loved one. Eat breakfast, lunch, and snacks together as a way of establishing normalcy.
  • Stick to your meal plan to provide the powerful learning experience of having consistent energy during a busy day of activities by taking the time to nourish and fuel

Be flexible

If attending food-focused events is too much of a challenge or if your loved one simply needs a break, remember that you can always shift the celebration off of the dinner plate. There are many other ways to honor the spirit of the holiday season through connection, gratitude, and joy.

  • Try a quiet family evening at home with a board game, movie, or crafts.
  • For those for whom movement is a safe choice, suggest a gentle walk or bike ride through the neighborhood to look at holiday decorations.
  • Consider volunteering to observe the spirit of the season in a way that inspires community and connection.

Changing the focus of the holidays doesn’t mean having to avoid food-centered activities altogether. After all, food isn’t simply fuel – food represents culture, love, and community. But for those working towards recovery, holiday meals can also be stressful and overwhelming during this time. Finding the balance between both can be a nuanced, ever-changing process, but figuring out what choices are right for your family this year can help make room for many more years of holiday celebrations in the future.

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