Table Talk: Providing Support during Meals for a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating disorders do not discriminate. People of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds are on their own personal eating disorder recovery journey.  If you are one of their friends or loved ones, it is understandable that you might have questions as to how to best support them when around food.  While there are many different ways to have a supportive meal or snack with someone working through an eating disorder, all varieties of support are person dependent.  Be sure to have an open and honest conversation regarding their preferences or concerns prior to the meal or snack you will be eating together.

One of the best ways to provide support during a meal or snack is just by simply being there.  Food can be scary for those struggling with disordered eating or healing from an eating disorder, and by having someone by their side, eating can feel safer and less frightening. You can help by staying present while with them, which in turn encourages them to stay connected to the moment as well.  We encourage a calm environment, which will also yield to a more peaceful experience.

Staying present often means putting away your own phone or any other possible distractions.  Devote all your attention to them by engaging them in conversation. Try to pay attention to subtle nervous ticks, like messing with a straw wrapper for example, as well as more obvious signs of distress, like tears. If it seems they are struggling, remind them that you are here with them and see if there is anything you can do to help, whether that be a subject change or stepping away from the table with them for a minute.

As the supporter you are being tasked with eliminating your personal distractions, but please note, it is ok for you to become their distraction during mealtime.  Some people struggling with an ED thought(s) will welcome a shared distraction to get through a meal. By all means, if this is the case, come prepared. Have some kind of mental game or conversation topic on hand to help your loved one take their mind off the food. Discuss the most recent episode of your shared favorite show, play 20 questions, share travel plans, or create and play mealtime Q&A cards.  Conversation should be kept light and, especially in the beginning, steer clear of discussing the food you are eating. Food focused chats can be triggering and put unneeded pressure and stress on your friend. In fact, avoid any food or weight related topics as these definitely can dampen the mood and trigger more unhelpful ED thoughts.

It is often helpful to make sure you are eating the same exact foods as the person you are eating with. This promotes a sense of comradery and helps eliminate any food comparing thoughts that might pop into their mind.  This often means that you will also have to challenge any diet culture food thoughts and rules that have weaved their way into your mealtime patterns.  Be mindful of your good vs bad food labels and your conscience or subconscious food rituals.  Modeling HAES (Health at Every Size) beliefs and presenting an “All Foods Fit” approach with your own meals will not only benefit your loved one, but also may have a positive impact on your own beliefs about food.

Once the meal or snack is complete, take the time to process the experience with them.  Post meal process is very important to those in recovery, as it is a huge part of re-establishing connection to food and meals.  Validate overwhelming emotions and discuss the struggles and successes with the meal.  Ask them to reflect on the following:

  • What was the meal like?  What thoughts and feelings arose during the meal?
  • What was difficult about the meal?
  • What was enjoyable about the meal?
  • Were you able to tolerate difficult feelings that came up during the meal?
  • Do you feel proud of having faced any fears during the meal?  What were the fears that came up?

Were you able to connect to the taste of the meal?

  • Were you connected to hunger and fullness cues during the meal?
  • How did you feel coming into the meal?
  • How did you feel about your pace during the meal?

After this post meal processing, it might be necessary to offer up more distraction, specifically for those in the early stages of recovery.  If your loved one is prone to shame and guilt after eating, spending time together immediately after consuming food may help distract from unhelpful thoughts and urges.  Keep in mind that we don’t want to continue using these distractions in the later stages of recovery, because we like to promote more engagement and mindfulness around the act of eating.

By providing TLC during mealtimes, and when recovery coping skills are being utilized most often, friends and family become vital members of their recovery support team.  You want to support your loved one’s progress by celebrating their strides and providing reassurance during their missteps.  Be sure to reinforce any of the wins your loved one had during the meal or snack.  Praise the efforts and note the hard work it takes to nurture and nourish during recovery.