How to Navigate Thanksgiving with Your Child’s Eating Disorder

Written By Megan Drake, LMHC  

When you think of Thanksgiving what comes to mind? The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; seeing a gigantic Snoopy gliding down Central Park? Whisking together the cinnamon and pumpkin for your grandmother’s pie? You feel happy, warm, or even comforted by the nostalgia of the tradition. Other than timing getting the turkey out of the oven for your family’s arrival, it may be difficult to think that this holiday could possibly cause stress. However, if your child is struggling with an Eating Disorder, Thanksgiving is often an incredibly anxiety inducing day. With everyday snacks and mealtimes as a challenge, this holiday not only amplifies but creates a slew of new challenges. Like the Cowboys and the Lions, it’s imperative to have a game plan ready. Use the 4 tips below to help you build your playbook by partnering with your child to anticipate and stay in control of the stresses of the day.  

1. Create a plan for food ahead of time. There are often lots of people in the room, possible fear foods, or even cultural expectations to eat what was prepared.

  • Talk to your child before the event. Let them know that you empathize with how this holiday could bring up difficult emotions.
  • Review and discuss what dishes will likely be served at this event. If possible, choose to bring a dish to share at the event that you know your child prefers to eat. It can also be useful to pre-pack preferred meals and snacks that your child feels more comfortable eating. Or, if your child is interested in eating the Thanksgiving options, make the child’s plate for them.
  • Unless decided on beforehand with your child, stay away from challenging them to try a new food at this event. While your intentions are good in wanting them to break free from the eating disorder, it is likely not the right setting to effectively challenge and manage their food related anxiety.

2. Bring your child’s coping skills toolbox with you.

  • Pack your child’s preferred coping strategies and have them accessible to your child at the event.
  • Have your child’s best support (parent, sibling, cousin, friend) sit next to them at the table.

3. Be aware of diet culture talk and make attempts to shift the conversation. It is not uncommon for family conversation to drift to topics about weight loss, dieting, calorie counting, and or exercise. Try to change the focus of the conversation to neutral topics that are not triggering to the Eating Disorder.

4. Have an exit strategy. As part of your pre-event discussion, discuss the possibility of your child becoming overwhelmed during the meal and needing to leave the table or the event entirely. Is there a code word that your child could utilize to get your attention that they need support in the moment?