4 Steps For Family Meals During Eating Disorder Recovery
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD
Many people with eating disorders have spouses and children. So when they are trying to figure out what to eat themselves, they are often also having to figure out what to feed their family.
Think about the complexities of feeding one’s family:
- What are everyone’s food preferences? This includes the individual with the eating disorder. What is he/she able or willing to eat?
- Age-appropriateness of the foods if there are kids.
- The family food budget.
- Who plans and cooks the meals.
- Does the food taste good? Is it satisfying? (This is often hard for the person with the eating disorder.)
- Balance, variety, nutrition.
- Busy schedules. Timing of meals.
- Family dynamics at the table. Conflict at the dinner table can create what is called “table trauma” for children.
You see what I’m saying? This list could go on and on. There are SO many factors that go into our food decisions. And imagine a person with an eating disorder trying to make these decisions not only for themselves but also for their family.
Why family meals matter
Whenever I have questions about feeding family or kids, I turn to the work of the great Ellyn Satter. She is THE child and family feeding guru, and her stuff is rock solid.
What Ellyn says about the importance of family meals:
- Meals help adults and children learn to like a variety of food.
- Meals let everyone go to the table hungry and eat until they get enough.
- Family meals help both adults and children eat the amount they need to weigh what is right for them.
- Meals give a time and place to do the work of the family: Keep up with what is going on with everyone; help each other out, tell family stories.
- Meals keep food in its place as only one of life’s great pleasures. You pay attention and enjoy it when it is time to eat, forget about it between times.
Now that we’re in agreement that this is important stuff, let’s figure out how to make it easier during the recovery process.
Where to begin?
This is where it can get overwhelming, so we’re going to break it down into 4 easy steps.
Step 1: Set up a dinner schedule
This is the most common dilemma for families - what and when to have dinner.
It’s even more complicated by the way our current society keeps families so busy with work and children’s activities. Many people don’t wrap up their day until late in the evening, and dinner ends up being something that happens on the fly.
There’s nothing wrong with having meals from restaurants. It still counts as feeding your family, regardless of where the food comes from. The point of this step is to have a planned time and place for the meal.
Take a look at the family calendar for the week ahead and map out who is eating dinner where, and try to get everyone to eat together when possible.
If your family schedule/structure doesn’t allow for dinners to happen together, try breakfasts. It’s a great way to kick off the day. And it doesn’t have to be fancy - everyone can pour themselves a bowl of cereal.
Most of us tend to be on our own for lunches during the week if we are at work/school - but if you have kiddos at home, then you’ll want to have a set lunch time too.
Step 2: Start with your usual (and enjoyable!) foods
Like Ellyn says, “Eat what you are eating now, just have it at regular meal and snack times.” How’s that for easy?
Now, the caveat is that for a person with an eating disorder, what they are eating may not be conducive to recovery, so if you have a meal plan follow that and have your dietitian help you plan out some example meals that include the foods you are currently comfortable eating.
Frozen pizza or canned soups totally work for a meal. Just pair it with some sides and a glass of milk and you’re good to go! No real cooking skills necessary.
Step 3: Add in variety
As you get comfortable with the structure of having scheduled meals, you can start to play around with the content of the meal.
Children and adults learn to like a wide variety of foods over time if they are exposed to them.
This can be scary for someone with an eating disorder, as it might challenge your eating disorder’s rules about what foods are acceptable. Again, here’s where your dietitian can help you challenge these rules and come up with ways to work in new foods.
Step 4: Follow Ellyn’s “Division of Responsibility”
This is typically used in a parent-child feeding relationship, but I’m going to expand it to apply to the entire family. This is because people with eating disorders are often uncomfortable with the way others around them are eating, and they will sometimes try to manage others’ eating habits.
The planner’s responsibility:
So, typically Ellyn says that the parent chooses and prepares the food. And they serve it at planned and predictable meal/snack times. In our framework, this applies to whoever in the household is the planner and preparer.
Both parents or spouses must ensure that meal times are enjoyable. This means no conflict at the table. Save heated or confrontational conversations for later. And this is NOT the time to talk about the person’s eating disorder.
The eaters’ responsibility:
Each person at the table is allowed to choose what and how much they want to eat from what is served. There should be absolutely ZERO talk about who is eating what and how much at the meal. This is where each person gets to take responsibility for themselves. (Hence the name “Division of Responsibility.”)
This might mean that some family members at the table are eating a lot, and others aren’t eating much. Some might just be chowing down on potatoes and nothing else, while another is mainly eating meat. We must trust that their bodies know what is best for them in that moment.
The person with the eating disorder may need to “choose” what and how much they want to eat based on their meal plan.
Reaping the rewards
This is a lot to take in, especially if it is drastically different from the way you are currently handling meals. So be gentle with yourself, and go slowly with it.
The investment in this process is well worth it - because it is like building the foundation of a house. You want a sturdy structure to start with. And you can decorate it with flavor and variety later.
You and your family’s bodies will thrive on the predictability of regular and planned meal times. And the time spent together can be very rewarding.
Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.