5 tips for a smooth transition back to school when you have an eating disorder

“Back to school” is a phrase that often elicits excitement and/or dread. The start of each school year welcomes new schedules, friends, sports, activities, and opportunities to embarrass yourself. For someone with an eating disorder, anxiety about eating in an overwhelming cafeteria setting can take away a lot of excitement. Consider the following tips for the smoothest possible transition to lunch room eating.

  1. Plan with your treatment team/support system how to fit all snacks and meals into your school day.

Between getting ready at the crack of dawn, shuffling between classes every hour so, and after school activities, it can be difficult to remember to eat regularly. Before school starts, map out your schedule in a planner and draw in how you will meet your meal plan throughout the day. If needed, ask your treatment team or parents for help. A solid plan will help relieve some anxiety on the first day. Plus if you start a good routine of fitting in every piece of your meal plan, it will be easy to stick with throughout the semester!

  1. Anticipate and immerse yourself in the new eating environment.

Often, kids go from eating alone/with family over the summer to in a busy, crowded cafeteria setting in school. If you are someone with high anxiety, consider how this may make mealtime more difficult. Identify what the most difficult parts will be (the noise, number of food options, social pressure, etc.) and try and simulate this before your first day back. For example, eat with a friend or parents at a hospital cafeteria several times to practice navigating the overwhelming environment with many choices. The more times your brain encounters something it fears, the less fear produced. This practice can also help build confidence.

  1. Seek healthy social support

Who will be available to support you during lunch or snacks? Do you have friends or siblings in the same lunch hour, or can you text/call/Facetime your parents? Some kids even eat with the school counselor until they are prepared to go it alone. Facing our fears is easier when we don’t have to do it alone. Make sure those who you talk to during meal time are supportive of your recovery and encouraging. The other person can double as an accountability partner (for days you are doubting yourself).

  1. Take a moment of mindfulness

Before you enter the lunch room or before you eat, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Bring your awareness to the chaos of the environment and the emotions that are rising within you. Notice how your thoughts may start to race. Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable without pushing this feeling away.

  1. Look for positives

When a person is anxious, their mind tends to focus only on negatives. Bring your attention to what you like about the present moment to welcome positivity. Maybe it’s hearing so much laughter, seeing your favorite teacher again, using brand new school supplies, or something else entirely! If nothing else, repeat a kind mantra in your head while you complete the meal. My favorites are: you gotta nourish to flourish, I CAN do this, and one bite at a time.