Tip Day: Surviving Thanksgiving Without Losing Your Mind

When I was actively ill with the eating disorder, Thanksgiving was effectively a Day of Torture.  A holiday all about food and eating?  Count me out.

I still don't exactly look forward to thanksgiving, but I don't dread it, either.  After many, many years, I've learned how to cope with the holidays and survive in one piece.  Some of it is the hard work of recovery, and some of it are simple tips that I've figured out over the years.

1. Lower your expectations.  Norman Rockwell may have painted portraits of a nice, happy family sitting around a table with a turkey.  I don't know about you, but my Thanksgiving dinners never looked like that.  People bickered or got drunk.  Dishes got burnt.  Or the slightly deranged second cousin shows up, all gung ho with her new religion/cult/whatever.  It's nice when families get along, but that can be the exception, not the rule.  It gets easier to deal with all those familial imperfections once you stop expecting families to be happy and nice.

2. Ask what you can bring.  Lots of food I'm not preparing was always stressful.  If I brought at least one dish, however, at least I had something I knew was safe.  It helped me make it through the meal.

3. Eat before or after. It would be nice if recovery was nice and easy and you could push through and eat normal-sized portions at dinner.  But recovery isn't nice and easy.  Sometimes, you do the best you can do.  Maybe you're too anxious to eat, or you don't feel comfortable, or you have to eat a lot and you don't want to look odd.  Whatever.  In that case, eat a little before you go and /or eat after you get home.  That way, you can participate in the whole Thanksgiving festivities (keeping in mind point #1) and still meet your nutritional requirements.

4. Find out what's being served.  This is pretty related to points number 2 and 3, but it's still something I have found to be helpful. It helps me decrease anxiety because I know what to expect.  As well, I can figure out what will fit into my meal plan, I can decide what I need to bring (or what several things I want to bring), and what to have before or after.

5. Talk to your treatment team first.  Your therapist, dietician, or whoever can help you troubleshoot any emotional or family issues that may arise, as well as help you deal with the practical aspects around the food part.  It can help to roleplay some of the comments that may arise around weight and food, or other kooky comments.

6. Create an emergency plan.  When I've been in stressful situations, I like to have a sort of safety valve.  Sometimes I've asked a friend to call at a prearranged time so I can go and get some air.  Or I'll find an empty room and do some deep breathing.  I've brought books to read, games to play with the kids, that sort of thing.  It helps to make everything less about the food and more about the crazy people you're related to.

7. 'Fess up. If you feel comfortable with the host/hostess, or at least someone else at the gathering, talk to them about your eating disorder.  They can provide support and help run interference if people make inappropriate comments, you start to get triggered, or you start to use symptoms.

What helps you make it through the holidays? Share your tips in the comments section.

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hm said...

You rock for posting this. You're incredibly busy these days, but still took the time. Thank you!

I like your emphasis on meeting meal plan goals. In the past I have "enjoyed" Thanksgiving by padding it before and after with days and days of abstinence and limiting. This year I am accountable to a treatment team that will expect to see my nutritional numbers adding up EACH day. My favorite tip is #6. Bring something to do with someone- especially the kids. What a GREAT way to get my mind off myself- as well as a great way to avoid the awkwardness of people talking to me about things I don't want to talk about. I am so going to plan some fun stuff for the little ones. Great, great idea.

Tip #1 I think I'm going to modify for myself into: "Lower your expectations for yourself." I'm already struggling with feeling like a "failure" because Thanksgiving is usually my one time a year to eat one of my favorite things- a slice of pumpkin pie- but I make up for it by limiting my intake in the days before and after, which this year I'm not "allowed" to do. I don't think I'll be able to eat dessert- I'll be too focused on meeting my food requirements, none of which include pumpkin pie. And I am not supposed to "make up for" a fun food by doing away with the necessary foods. I'm scared people will look at me funny, cajole, pressure, roll their eyes, because they don't understand that right now the best I can do is bare minimum. After days of stressing about this, I've decided- to hell with that- I just need to get healthy- if that means not eating dessert so that I can meet my nutritional needs without the extra guilty baggage of pie bogging me down, so be it. I've decided to try to see "meeting my meal plan goals" on that stressful day as a success, even if other people see the "anorexic not eating dessert" as a failure. I'm going to cut myself some slack and just do what I need to do.

Charlotte UK said...


This is a particularly apt post for me as my whole family is off to Paris to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday.

My brothers and I get on very well - over the phone and via email - but put all three of us in a room with my mother and it is like baby birds in the nest - who can make the loudest noise and get mum's attention?

Throw into the mix two sister-in-laws and seven teenagers - Yikes

I am not so worried about the food - we are in Paris! - but am going to take your tips on time out, lowering expectations and planning ahead.

What a star!

Unknown said...

i definitely need to lower my expectations going into the holiday.

great advice. as always!

the letting go said...

When people start talking about weight/dieting, as they're wont to do around the holidays, I leave the room. I pretend I'm getting a call or a text or I just stand up to fix myself a cup of coffee or a glass of water or something. It also helps that my immediate family is aware of my eating disorder, so they help to change the topic. Removing yourself from toxic situations does a world of good.

Danielle said...

Thanks so much for posting this(: I'm getting stressed out because of thanksgiving. This will probably help me a lot.

Emily said...

You got it right...Thanksgiving might as well be a day of torture. Since everyone in my family knows I have ED, I feel it's an opportunity for them to stare at me as I pick away at the small amount of food on my plate.

This year, my aunt Jeanne is coming to Thanksgiving, and I just feel like she gets me. We planned some dishes that we are both going to like, like harvest rolls and roasted sweet potatoes, and I could not be more grateful for her help and her voice.

I know that I will have freak-out moments throughout the day because it will undoubtedly be stressful, but I'm going to focus on the small successes.

Thank you so much for your tips, Carrie!


Renee said...

to HM: if you really love pumpkin pie (as I d0), but it doesn't fit into your dinner requirements, couldn't you wait an hour so after dinner, and sub in the pie for your PM snack?

I hope you have a slice of pie. You can't eat pumpkin pie in August. So it's a nice thing to enjoy because it's special.

Maddi said...

Thankyou for these tips, I have been kind of freaking out about the whole eating thing for thanksgiving, i will be away from my immediate family and with my uncles family instead. what i am afraid of is having food forced on me when they see how thin i am and how little i might feel comfortable eating-how should i deal with that? with my family its easy because they know about ED so they dont push things, but this family doesnt know! D:

Boston Femme said...

Thanks so much Carrie!!!

hm said...

To Renee: I'm just starting out w/recovery. The way my dietitian is going about things for now is by requiring specific servings of grains, proteins, and calciums each day (plus fruits and veggies which I do well enough on my own). Just meeting the numbers on her list fills me up till I feel like there is literally no more room in my stomach (or head) for anything extra. I already feel sick like I'm overeating. :( But your suggestion has given me a thought- perhaps I could call her up and ask her if I could substitute the pie for one or two of her requirements just for the one day. I think I might. Maybe she is not as rigid as I tend to be!

Anonymous said...

Great post!

One strategy I plan to use is to have a "plan B." Instead of going straight home after being with my family, I'm going to hang out with my best friend and her family for awhile. It will allow me to be around people and keep from isolating, and also provide an avenue to become more grounded, if needed (and knowing my family, it will be needed.)

Little Riverr said...

Hey just found your site- it's fantastic!! THANK YOU!!!


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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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