If you’re living with an eating disorder, have disordered eating, or are in recovery from either, you know that the holidays can be a difficult time.
The reason is obvious: From Thanksgiving through early January, a lot of food gatherings happen. Family dinners, work events, holiday parties, nights out with friends. Sometimes it can feel like food is around you all the time.
If just the thought of all that causes anxiety, you’ve come to the right place. Here I offer six strategies to help you get through those occasions with more peace of mind.
One: Try to steer clear of diet talk (and thoughts).
With all the food events that happen during the holidays, many people obsess about going on a diet. As in, the next day. Or next week. Or after all this holiday eating is over with.
It’s probably best to keep away from that kind of thinking. It creates an adversarial relationship with food. It can also lead to thinking that certain foods are innately bad because they’re followed up with yet another dieting attempt.
Instead, try to accept holiday foods. All of them. No need to judge them. Focus on being present with the food you’re eating. Taste it and enjoy it. And realize that it doesn’t necessarily require the “diet response.” Maybe go with the “I like the taste of this!” response instead?
Two: Ditch the “Last Supper” mindset.
People sometimes imbue certain holiday foods with an almost magical power. They think, “I’m not going to have this eggnog/stuffing/pecan pie again for a year, so I’m going to make the most of it.”
For people with eating disorder tendencies, this “now or never” thinking may lead them to eat past fullness. It’s the “Last Supper” mentality, so they need to make it count.
In fact, there is no need to put any food on a pedestal. Some people work through this by planning to have the food again the next week, so it’s not so special. When a person knows before they eat a food that they’re going to enjoy it again soon, that can decrease the desire to eat past fullness the first time.
Three: Stay consistent with your eating each day.
People often get more sporadic with mealtimes during the holidays. This is completely understandable. For example, if a person knows they have a big holiday meal coming in the evening, they sometimes don’t eat anything earlier in the day. That way, they’ll be ready to enjoy the meal guilt-free.
Instead, go ahead and eat normally before and after these holiday meals. That will naturally help you eat and enjoy normal portions during the big gathering.
Remember also that skipping meals or eating very little before a holiday meal may cause low blood sugar, low energy, and a bad mood. A steady, consistent eating plan always leaves you feeling better.
Four: Skip the weighing, tracking, and counting.
It’s fine and normal for people to keep track of the foods they eat. But it’s best to do that by relying on their innate signals. The two main ones: eating when they’re hungry, stopping when they’re full.
It’s also important to know that a person’s weight often fluctuates throughout the year. That’s normal. And yes, many people gain some weight in winter because of eating more and/or fewer hours of daylight for being active. Also normal. Given those realities, it makes sense to allow weight fluctuations to happen naturally without constantly getting on the scale.
Bottom line: Give yourself a break. The holidays are a great time to lay off the weighing, counting, and tracking. Best to let you guide you.
Five: Set boundaries that work for you.
Here’s a classic (made-up) example of when boundary-setting is necessary: Casey, who is years into her recovery from an eating disorder, always goes to her grandparents’ house for a big holiday gathering. Inevitably, when everyone is at the table, Casey’s aunt leans in to Casey to talk about how much she’s got on her plate. Or she’ll comment on what she’s eating. Or she asks in a nosy-not-supportive way about her weight, or her recovery.
This is when it would be appropriate for our imaginary friend Casey to plan ahead and set boundaries. Which might mean being sure she sits apart from her aunt. Or maybe Casey could pre-empt “the inquest” by calling her aunt the day before the dinner to say she’s looking forward to catching up but doesn’t want to talk about food, eating, or her weight.
The idea with boundary-setting is to control your environment and your interactions in ways that suit you, and that are healthy for you.
With that in mind, maybe this is the year to skip that dreaded and occasionally triggering family gathering, and schedule an appointment with your therapist instead. Or plan a fun outing and dinner with a good friend. Point being: Choosing to do something other than going to a lion’s den of a family gathering is your call.
Six: Stay present, practice gratitude, and enjoy the moment.
The holidays can be a great time to get together with people you haven’t seen for a while, and to be thankful for the friends and family in your life.
Lean into that. Be curious when you’re at holiday gatherings. Ask people how things are going, and make it a point to listen.
It can also be fun to host your own gathering, so you can surround yourself with people who are positive and thankful. Put out extra candles, and play music you love.
Being present with people, and remembering what the holiday season is all about, are wonderful all by themselves. They also take the focus off the food—a nice side effect.
Final thoughts on the holidays
Consider using this holiday time as your opportunity to grow.
People often go on autopilot this time of year. They knuckle down and just try to get through it. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy sometimes, but there are probably better ones.
Maybe this is the year to make choices and decisions that better align with your desires. Make this the year when you keep things on your terms, and do what works for you during the holidays.