So, you are having someone over for Thanksgiving that has an eating disorder and you are looking for some information about how to best support them (or at least not make a major faux paus!)
Congratulations, you have already taken the first and most important step – trying to get yourself educated. The second, equally important step is to remember that everyone is an individual, and that the advice you read here (or elsewhere) may or may not pertain to the specific individual who will be sitting at your table.
That being said, here are a few guidelines that can help to make the holiday successful for both you and for your warrior guest:
1. Manage your own anxiety. Anxiety is contagious. It seems counterintuitive, but the best thing that any one of us can do to help other people to be less anxious it to manage our own feelings. Of course you are bound to be a little bit out of sorts hosting a big dinner and wondering about how your choices will impact all of your guests, but I guarantee things will go much more smoothly if you take a few minutes in the morning to do some deep breathing, take a walk, or do whatever helps you to feel calm and centered.
2. Talk with your guest about it at the level your relationship warrants. If the guest is a close family member, ask them in person what sort of support they might need from you to navigate the holiday successfully. If it’s someone you don’t know as well, it isn’t a terrible idea to send a text to the effect of, “Looking forward to seeing you at Thanksgiving! Just wondering if there’s any food preferences or allergies I should have in mind”. Now that I write it out, it’s a probably good idea to ask everyone who is coming over!
3. If possible, offer a variety of foods. Many people with eating disorders have some foods that feel safer or easier for them to eat, and other foods that give them a lot of anxiety. Without doing more than feels ok to do (see point number one) it’s a good idea to have variety in mind so that people can make choices based on what they need.
4. No comments about food choices. The last thing someone that a person dealing with an eating disorder needs is to feel like their choices are being scrutinized. Someone’s food choices at Thanksgiving are not an indication of how they are doing with their eating disorder overall. They might eat a lot, they might eat a little, or they might eat differently than you would.
All of that is OK – eating disorder recovery is actually about being flexible and being able to tune in with one’s own body. Since you do not live in your guests’ body, you cannot know what they need for any given meal. If we are talking about your child, spouse, or other close relationship and Thanksgiving is a part of broader concerns, you can discuss that with them separately from the holiday.
4. Discourage diet talk. In our culture a disordered approach to food is normalized, and this is evident at Thanksgiving like nowhere else. It’s seen as completely reasonable to eat more than your body wants or needs while simultaneously talking about “making up for” having eaten or disparaging your own body. What? We should be discouraging diet talk at every table no matter who is sitting at it, but it’s particularly important if you have a guest who is struggling with food. Without being too obvious about it, which can also make your guest feel uncomfortable, it’s a good idea to gently steer the conversation away from diet talk it if gets into that territory. “Oh, you say you’ll have to pay penance at the gym? Do you go to the one on Braeburn Avenue? That light is so long, I wish they would do something about it.”
5. Plan some non-food activities. Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to enjoy togetherness in lots of different ways. In addition to the “big meal”, consider other ways for your guests to have fun together like playing games, going for a walk, watching sports, putting on a movie, or even hitting the early shopping deals. If it matches the vibe of your Thanksgiving, you could also consider making a gratitude tree.