Growing up, food was never a big deal in my family, during the holiday season or otherwise. We enjoyed sharing a Sunday meal together and baking pies on Thanksgiving, sure, but it was never something that was an exciting topic of conversation around our house. Then, somewhere along the line, I started to develop a heightened awareness around food–so much so that it began to dominate my thoughts in unhealthy ways. Suddenly, I was constantly obsessing over the quantity and the type of food I was consuming, becoming increasingly restrictive and losing weight in the process.
My memories of my eating disorder are especially acute around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whereas these holidays were once a welcome opportunity to celebrate family and tradition, they were now fraught with anxiety, stress, and careful calculation around food that completely eclipsed any semblance of holiday bliss.
Thankfully, I’m in a much better place now as I continue to recover from disordered eating. Nevertheless, as we approach the holiday season, I’m reminded of darker times when I was much less comfortable with the food-centric atmosphere that seems to characterize most holiday gatherings. Unsurprisingly, even individuals who don’t struggle with eating and body issues can sometimes experience discomfort when cooking or being served by others. Food, which is so embedded in our culture, is given such priority that it can make or break a festive occasion.
Whether you’re struggling with an eating disorder, eat a restrictive diet, or experience judgment from others (ahem, Aunt Sally), you’re not alone. Before the holiday cooking and eating begins, arm yourself with some these helpful tips so that you can dine with confidence.
Take time for yourself before and after the meal. No matter what type of food anxiety you might be facing, it’s helpful to spend some time alone before and after a meal to collect your thoughts. After meals with family members who expressed concern over my eating habits, I would always feel overwhelmed and frustrated. In these times, it was helpful to take some time to be by myself, whether that meant journaling, meditating, calling a friend, or sitting in nature. Doing so will not only give you time to quiet your mind and breath, but it will also create space between you and any triggering people/moments/foods.
Reach out to supports. Do you have a partner or family member with whom you’re close? Reach out to someone who understands your struggles and invite him or her along. As a support, their role is to make sure you’re eating when and what you want, and can divert any inquisitive comments from others. For example, if bread causes you stomach aches, your support can change the subject when your grandmother pushes the bread basket in your direction.
Ensure you have options. For the purposes of this article, I don’t necessarily recommend that you bring a dish of your own to share. In my experience, doing so only draws attention to your different style of eating. If you’re already feeling anxious prior to an event, you don’t want to be forced to answer questions from friends and relatives who don’t likely understand that this is a sensitive subject area. Instead, if you feel comfortable, it’s a good idea to contact your host a few weeks prior to the occasion and kindly request that he or she make a dish that you know you’ll feel comfortable eating. Remember to pack a few snacks, like a protein bar or dried fruit, to supplement your meal if you’re worried about becoming hungry.
Most importantly, remember that only you know what’s best for your body. Don’t allow others–no matter how well-intentioned they may be–to persuade you to deviate from a way of eating that you feel is right. After all, it’s just one day: one day that you won’t remember five years from now, and one that’s just as significant and insignificant as the all rest. Be proud of yourself for showing up, and always remember to be gentle with yourself.
Have you experienced holiday food anxieties? What are some of your own tips?
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Photo: Katie Inglis via Flickr