Tips for Navigating the Holidays with an Eating Disorder

Holiday dinner table setting. Unsplash - Jordan Arnold

If you are dreading the holiday season, know that you are not alone. The holidays always bring some form of stress for most people. For some, it’s anticipating having to buy unique gifts for their hard-to-shop-for fathers. For others, it’s knowing that their relatives are definitely going to get in a fight over politics. And for still more, it’s worrying about the food that will be available, comments that family members might make about their bodies, or feelings of guilt around eating certain goodies.

Food is often a big focus during the holiday season, which can make navigating the holidays while working on eating disorder recovery seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be so. There are steps you can take to reduce the stress that holiday situations can bring on; the main key is to be prepared. Here are some ideas to help you get through the holidays while still moving forward in recovery.

Plan Ahead

Work with your dietitian to make a meal plan for the holiday gathering you’ve been invited to. Be sure to plan for balanced meals throughout the day, and don’t skip any! You may be tempted to eat a light breakfast or lunch, or skip out on those earlier meals altogether. But actions like this more often lead to overeating later on. Plus, you’ll be more likely to feel hungry, and when you’re hungry, you’re more apt to get hangry. And no one wants to talk to a hangry person at a holiday party!

Call Ahead & Offer to Bring a Dish

If, when you’re planning what you’re going to eat for the day, you find yourself feeling particularly anxious about not knowing what will be offered at the party, call the host! Ask her what foods she is planning to offer and offer to bring a dish yourself.

Thanksgiving dinner with mashed potatoes.

Calling ahead kills two birds with one stone: You’ll already be familiar with the food that will be available so you can plan your day out AND if you do want to bring a dish, you’ll be able to avoid preparing a repeat dish. Plus, you’ll know you’ll have at least one dish you can eat — the dish you bring! If you do opt to bring a dish for the main reason of having a safe meal for yourself, try to make it a balanced dish, such as a casserole.

Prepare for Triggering Comments

Go into holiday conversations prepared. Maybe progress in your recovery has meant weight restoration; anticipate that well-intentioned family members might comment, and be ready to respond! Regardless, here are some response ideas to comments such as ‘you look so healthy!’, ‘is that all the food you’re going to take?’, ‘you don’t usually eat that,’ or any other uncomfortable things they might say:

Diversion response:

Direct response:

Try to run through different scenarios in your mind and come up with some responses, and feel free to use these ones too. Have them at the ready so you don’t get flustered in the moment!

Have a Support System

If you have a trusted friend or family member attending the gathering with you who knows about your recovery journey, let them know that this event might be a struggle for you. Ask them for support and accountability. If there’s no one at the gathering you want to ask for this sort of help, find a person who would be willing to be on stand-by for you. Set up a plan with them to check-in a few times throughout the event, both via text or phone call, to build some support into your day.

Make a Plan for After the Meal

You should make an after-meal plan tailored to the eating disorder behaviors you struggle most with. For example, if you struggle with bingeing, maybe you can set a goal for yourself to go for seconds one time and to only eat during the hour of actual meal/dessert time.

Thanksgiving pies at dinner table.

If you struggle with purging, have a concrete plan for the hour after the meal; maybe you can play with the dog, or talk with your weird cousin from Oregon for a while, or make the rounds and set out to learn one interesting fact about everyone you speak with!

Enjoy the Meal

Regardless of where you’re at in your recovery journey, make a point to enjoy the meal, even if there’s only a small part that you enjoy. Practice some mindfulness and be in the moment. Do your best to take the focus off of the food and put it on the things going on around you; the people you’re with, the sound of music in the background, the kids stomping around the house.

Don’t minimize your struggle. At the end of the day, navigating the holidays while in recovery can be difficult. Continue talking with your support system or recovery team throughout the holidays, and tackle get-togethers with a solid plan. Be prepared to deal with the eating disorder thoughts that might pop up in your mind by having a game plan that will help you be in the moment and find the joy that is available during family gatherings.


Grace Engels is a registered dietitian and content writer based in the Greater NYC Area. As an anti-diet dietitian specializing in eating disorders, Grace believes that all foods fit and that everyone deserves respect no matter what size their bodies are. She can be reached at grace@graceengels.com.

Back