You’re Invited to Thanksgiving Dinner, but your Eating Disorder doesn’t need to be

It’s that time of the year when we’re hit when multiple holidays in a row, which means multiple family gatherings in a row, which also means: food. For any individual NOT experiencing an eating disorder, holidays are something to get excited for, something to count down the days until they’re face first into a plate of mashed ‘taters and gravy. For those experiencing the food-anxiety from an eating disorder, holidays can result with sleepless nights, the want to avoid, and this irrational belief that we must restrict leading up to the holiday itself. The reality is: Thanksgiving is in 3 days. This holiday will come whether or not your eating disorder wants it to, and it’s up to us to best prepare ourselves.

Focus on the facts

Holidays exist in a society that encourages us to “diet heavily” beforehand, and in a society where we are taught and encouraged to “cut down the calories” during the meal itself.  Of course, this is extremely triggering for any individual who is trying to re-learn what it means to eat intuitively and how to actually enjoy the food they’re choosing. Society seems to teach us to choose foods based on calories, versus on what our bodies may actually need or crave in the moment. And when we focus on social media’s false claims, we’re actually ignoring the facts.

Holidays only take up about 1-2 days of your week. It is physically impossible to gain actual weight from just 1-2 days of a potentially higher caloric intake. Literally impossible. This is not to say that perhaps your weight may fluctuate; however, it is not permanent weight gain. Permanent weight gain occurs over time, after consistently eating more than what your body actually needs. Think about the weight restoration process in treatment: weight restoring only occurs when your dietician creates a meal plan that is giving your body MORE than what it calorically needs over weeks at a time. Weight restoration doesn’t happen over night, just like a few days of holiday eating won’t lead to weight gain over night.

Restricting throughout the day isn’t sustainable

Does anyone else have family members who insist on skipping breakfast and lunch on Thanksgiving day just to feel better about “indulging” at night? Yup, thought that might be the case. This sets up the idea in our minds that in order to enjoy a larger holiday meal, we must first restrict throughout the day in order to feel more permitted or allowed to eat at night. While this may feel “normal” for any individual without an eating disorder, it instantly sets up an unhealthy pattern of behaviors and an unhealthy mindset when it comes to holidays.

If we decide to restrict during Thanksgiving, what does this mean about every holiday to follow? What does this set us up to believe we MUST do when Christmas rolls around? Eating disorders are extremely habitual in nature. If I decide to essentially starve myself throughout the day, I’ll create the rule that every holiday after Thanksgiving must follow the same routine. When we think about habit creation, we must also think about the sustainability of it. Think about your future: what does it look like? Does it include going away for vacation for the holidays? Does it include children, and cooking them pumpkin pancakes first thing in the morning?

In either of these cases, it does involve food. And right NOW is the time to create healthy habits to better prepare ourselves to continue using them in the future. My goal is to be able to spend multiple days at a time with family or with my loved ones, without having to think about the food I’m eating, or without feeling like I must restrict in order to maintain my weight. So, I practice NOW. Every single holiday. Use holidays as a way to create more evidence for yourself. “If I can get through Thanksgiving without using behaviors, and I DO survive through it, this means I’m more likely to be okay during Christmas, too.”

Mentally prepare

If you are at the initial stages of your recovery and aren’t comfortable with intuitively eating, meal plan for yourself. Thanksgiving gatherings typically start around 2:00 or 3:00 pm. Think about the appetizers that your family may have prepared, and whether this would be something you’re willing to have as a midday snack. If you’re not currently at this point, judging yourself for your progress in recovery serves no positive purpose. Pack a snack with you, or have one ahead of time. Thanksgiving is NOT a time to decide to fall off track with your day’s normal intake and structure.

Thanksgiving dinner can actually fit quite nicely into your meal plan that your treatment team has created for you. Think about in what ways you can get a protein source (turkey), a carb (mashed potatoes, rolls), a vegetable (green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash), and a fat source (butter). You’ve got your whole meal plan set out right in front of you! Use the holiday as a way to challenge yourself to estimate what a serving size looks like, and use it as a way to accept that not all food has to be home-cooked by YOU.

Prepare yourself for the reality that dessert will be served. If your relatives are anything like mine, they’ll continue to point out the fact that you’re NOT eating dessert. For six years I was the main focus during “dessert time.” I was defensive, I was upset, and I was frustrated. Frustrated because my relatives were placing so much focus on me, but more so frustrated at the fact that I wanted dessert and wouldn’t allow myself to have it. Mentally prepare for these types of interactions between you and your relatives. Acknowledge where you are at in recovery, recognize that your relatives are trying to support you, and also that they don’t always know the most effective way to do so. Sometimes it is our role to “teach” our loved ones how to best support us through the holidays.

In the moment…

Remind yourself:

  1. Memories matter more. What do you want to remember from your holidays? It’s fully up to you whether you want to remember restricting yourself and allowing the eating disorder to control the day, or whether you want to remember enjoying the time spent with family.
  2. You have coping skills at your fingertips. Not literally. But, look around you during Thanksgiving. Chances are, you’re surrounded by a million distractions. Use your grandma; she’ll love to talk your ear off for hours. Use your little cousin; he’ll want to play games that will keep you busy for longer than you may have even hoped for.
  3. Now is the time that comparisons may actually be useful. While I normally would suggest NOT to compare yourself to others during recovery, it can be helpful during holidays. Look at what your relatives are eating; my guess is that their plates are full, their bellies are happy, and they’re not agonizing over what they ate for the next few hours or few days. Use them as a reference point for what is “normal” during the holidays. How come they can eat holiday food, and you can’t?
  4. The only way to overcome an eating disorder is to constantly challenge it. And I can safely say that holidays are a great place to do exactly that.


Nicole works as a life and wellness coach through Nicole Leigh Coaching ( Nicole strives to empower women with similar struggles to redefine and re-identify themselves, separate from their eating disorder. Through her work, she empowers women to use balance in every aspect of life to maintain lifelong recovery. When Nicole isn't blogging or counseling, she loves spending her time traveling, eating burgers, and surrounding herself with positive people.