National Eating Disorders Association

Strategies for Enjoying the Holidays: Tips from Fellow Readers

NEDA Staff & Contributors

At NEDA we know that holidays can be a stressful time for families and individuals struggling with, or pursuing recovery from, an eating disorder. So, we asked the NEDA community to share their strategies for navigating the holidays in the face of such challenges. A few themes emerged, and we’ve put them together here to offer helpful perspectives and steps you can take to maximize the enjoyment of your holiday gatherings. If you have a friend or family member affected, take a few minutes to share these tips and discuss how you can be a part of their planning and support. 

Work your support system.

Check in with a counselor, support group or friend before and after a holiday event. Staying connected to your support system can be very helpful. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

Invite a friend to your holiday events. This makes you feel supported while you are around family who may not understand what you are going through. They can help through just being there and giving you a certain look at the table to encourage you to participate in the meal and enjoy it. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

Talk over your triggers and stressors with your family. A family member could communicate with extended family and other guests to be mindful of the types of comments and questions that may be triggering or difficult. For example, a well-meaning family member may comment on weight to indicate that they are happy treatment has been working, which may be triggering. Ask that comments such as “You look great. You’ve put on/lost some weight,” be framed as, “You look so happy. I’m glad you are doing well.” – A Family Member

When I was struggling, I made a meal plan and goal to challenge myself and had a support help me through it during meal time. It proved itself to be very helpful to have one other person know what I was going through and support me to reach my goal. I felt like a winner at the end of the meal and the rest of the holiday was a celebration of the good work I had done. I think we forget sometimes that the holidays are a time to celebrate our accomplishments, not beat ourselves up over what we haven't done yet. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

Cross generational boundaries.

Be mindful of the different support each generation of your family can offer. Hanging out with siblings, cousins and others of a similar age to you can be a nice way to connect around common developments and gives you a chance to get support/empathy on specific life stage issues like being away at college, parenting stress, job hunting, retirement, etc. On the other hand, reaching out to older generations, like grandparents, is an opportunity to get outside of your own concerns, to see how priorities can shift throughout life and also to collect some family history. Even the youngest generations have something to offer you in your recovery-focused holiday. Spending time with the young children in your family during large family gatherings could be a good distraction from “grownup conversation” that might often be triggering for you. Hang out with the kids, play games with them and ask them about themselves. – A Treatment Provider

Take a lesson from children. Children have such an innocent view on the world that it can sometimes help me remember the true purpose of food. With each bite you take enjoy the taste like a small child would. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

Consider making it your goal to sit down with an older relative you don’t see very often and asking him/her open-ended questions about past memorable holidays. – A Treatment Provider

Find ways to create distractions and stay engaged with loved ones.

Be the family photographer.  Grab your camera and put yourself in charge of documenting the day. Many extended families only have rare opportunities to spend time together. Catching family memories on film will not only keep you focused on something other than the ED, it will give people around you a reason to smile and be mindful of the special moments throughout the day. – A Treatment Provider

When I find myself at functions without my best friend, I gravitate towards the groups of people who talk the most. As I mingle with these people, I, or the group, will move towards the food and grab some things as the conversation continues. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

Focus on important non-food-related aspects of your holiday observances.

Create a holiday goal that is not about recovery. It’s important to plan ahead and to prioritize recovery but try not to get so wrapped up in recovery goals that you miss out on other meaningful experiences. We often encourage patients to come up with a fun or interesting goal for the holiday that will not only help to distract from ED thoughts but may also provide lasting feelings of hope and connection to others. You might try to get a quote from everyone at the party about what they’re grateful for this year. You could also consider organizing a toy donation with your friends and family to donate to charity. When you have something positive you’re working towards, you’re less likely to get caught up in the negative thoughts about food or body image. – A Treatment Provider

Practice mindfulness. The whole holiday season can be stressful for someone in recovery with every store, restaurant and coffee shop bringing out their latest holiday foods. Don't let the onslaught of marketing get to you. Be aware of its presence, make a conscious choice not to let it cause you anxiety and bring your focus back to yourself and your health. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

Challenge predictable or triggering thoughts before a holiday. 

If you notice you have predictable patterns of negative thinking pop up at family gatherings or the same triggering thoughts sneak up on you during a specific holiday observance, take time to identify them in advance. Write them down and work on challenging the thoughts ahead of time (on your own or with a therapist) so you’re better prepared to defend against these specific negative/irrational thoughts on the actual day. You might even consider keeping a list of your positive affirmations or challenge statements with you on Thanksgiving for easy access. (If you know you’ll have your phone handy, you could even send a text to yourself the day before.) – A Treatment Provider

Allow yourself to enjoy the food.

Give yourself permission to enjoy your favorite holiday food. Keep reminding yourself that you are taking care of your body by giving it the nourishment it needs and that is OK. – A Reader Pursuing Recovery

When I was stuck in my eating disorder, holidays were the worst times for me because they center around food and my anxiety was on HIGH. My biggest tip is to practice MINDFUL EATING. That means to be aware of each bite. Eat slowly. Savor the taste & textures. Enjoy the foods and allow your body to use the food as it's meant to. – An Athlete in Recovery

Give yourself breaks, and plan to leave when you need to.

RSVP with a time limit. For example, “Thanks so much for inviting me. I’ll be able to be there from 3:00 to 5:00.” This provides you with some boundaries and an opportunity to leave the situation if it’s becoming detrimental to your recovery. However, if things are going better than expected (which often happens) and you want to stay longer, then you can. – A Treatment Provider

Develop signals and strategies for self-care. Plan cues/signals for the person struggling to let someone know they need an escape from the conversation or situation. – A Family Member