How I Share a Table with Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder (& My Own Recovery)

November 17, 2016

As a person who struggled with an eating disorder for 13 years—the entirety of my adolescence and much of my young adult life—I also know the business of sharing a meal is not always straightforward.

When I look back over my history of shared meals—not only the big ones, like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but also dinner parties, work lunches, birthday parties, dates, and a host of other gatherings that transpired at the table—I have more memories of anxiety and aloneness than of festivity or cheer.

Years from now, this won’t be the case. I’ll have amassed countless memories of good times that were had with food and friends. Right now, in spite of having settled into a solid recovery, I still feel close to those memories of isolation and anxiety and I can identify with others who feel it, especially at this time of the year.

Photo by James Ransom

I’m often asked how to navigate the holiday season, with its many gatherings and food-centric occasions, if you’re caring for or supporting someone with an eating disorder. I don’t have an easy answer, and I hesitate to generalize because I know that eating disorders vary dramatically from person to person. Gestures that might disarm one person could alienate the next. But I do remember what helped me, and it feels like a good time to share.

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If you’ve always regarded food and eating as means of communion, then it may be difficult to understand them as anything but. Even now, nearly a decade into my recovery, I sometimes forget what it was like to greet shared meals with resistance and dread. When I sit at a table with another person who is clearly struggling with disordered eating, and even as my empathy comes up, so does my frustration. Why can’t he or she just eat, along with the rest of us?

For many years I was the object of such speculation, so it’s pretty incredible I can feel this kind of exasperation. But I do, and it makes me aware of how many family members and friends of people with eating disorders must also feel: mystified, frustrated, worried.

If someone you love is struggling with disordered eating, know that the fear and anxiety you see is probably much worse than it looks—and that there are ways to help, handle, and think about having dinner with someone who struggles with their relationship with food.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

They say eating disorders are family diseases, which implies that the healing process is a family matter, too. This extends to chosen family—friends and loved ones—as much as it does to biological family. Taking the first step is hard, but it begins with small moments of empathy and shared understanding.

When I was sick, I was often challenged on why I couldn’t simply get over myself and eat this-or-that: “It’s just one bite,” or “A little bit won’t kill you.” Looking back, I know how ridiculous my paralysis surrounding food must have seemed. I can understand the bafflement of friends who urged me to get over myself and eat something. But what they didn’t understand at the time—and what people sometimes don’t understand about eating disorders in general—is that one bite really does feel like a life or death matter. That’s the disease. It’s a struggle for survival, both real and imagined, and most of the time it does seem as though one tiny misstep or “wrong” choice will be the end of the world.

If you’re struggling to stay connected to someone who is in the throes of an eating disorder, this is the place to start. Know that, no matter how unfathomable or absurd the fears seem to you, they don’t feel at all ludicrous to someone who’s in the thick of it. Your loved one’s behaviors may come across as alienating, destructive, and self-centered, but what underlies them is a very vivid and real struggle, from which escape feels impossible.

Have a plan.

If your loved one is working with a care team—a physician, mental health professional, and dietitian—you should use that team as a resource. Ask your loved one if you can talk to the dietitian or therapist in charge, especially if the task of meal planning falls to you. The dietitian can make you aware of the current treatment plan and help you to select some appropriate meal options.

If care hasn’t been put into place yet, do your best to have a conversation in which you and your loved one map out a few meal options. Unknowns are particularly terrifying for people with eating disorders. While freedom and flexibility may be the long-term goal, creating some mutually agreed-upon boundaries and structure will help to make the holidays smoother for everyone (including you).

It’s not you (or your food), it’s the eating disorder.

When someone in a family develops an eating disorder, food is transformed from a source of shared pleasure into a something fraught and divisive. Everyone suffers. I’ll never forget how hurt my Greek grandmother was when I habitually refused her luscious cooking, or how greatly I mourned the loss of food I’d once loved, even as I rejected it. No matter how it seems, people who restrict food usually feel its absence profoundly.

Whether the meal is a success or a struggle, know that your offerings haven’t gone unnoticed, and your cooking isn’t being rejected. It might feel this way—it probably will feel this way—and it’s natural for you to experience hurt. But it’s important to remember that eating disorders change people, and the experience they create is not one in which it’s possible to enjoy food in the usual way. This is every bit as painful and baffling for people with eating disorders as it is for those who care about them.

Set an example.

When I was sick, I experienced a sense of superiority at my abstinence and felt disdain for the act of eating. At the same time, I missed food desperately, never stopped being hungry, and I knew I had lost touch with one of life’s greatest pleasures. It was a conflict, a knot I couldn’t untangle.

For a while, I witnessed people eating with a sense of pride, a feeling of power that emerged from having seemingly outsmarted one of my basic human needs. Over time, the feeling started to wane, giving way to sadness at my own estrangement from appetite and pleasure.

I think many people who’ve had eating disorders experience this. To witness others savoring food can be a reminder that something important has been lost. While it’s not fair to suggest that everyone at a holiday table act so as to influence a single person, I do think that it can be helpful for the group to model excitement about and enjoyment of food.

One of the most difficult parts of eating disorder recovery is that, just as you’re trying to respect and cultivate your own hunger, you continue to live in a society that condones restriction, self-policing, and guilt around food. It’s everywhere, including the interior of many family homes. If you’re hoping to encourage a person who is recovering, it can be helpful to take a good look at how food is spoken about at your table. Is dieting a common topic of conversation? Is it normal for people to express guilt or shame about what they’ve eaten?

If so, can you approach this holiday season as an opportunity to shift the language you use to talk about food in your home? Can you find words that reinforce the importance of nourishment and self-care? Can you celebrate food as a source of pleasure and sustenance? Everyone—your loved one included—will benefit from this kind of positive dialog.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Don’t make one person the center of attention.

As helpful as it can be for you to reach out privately to your loved one in the hopes of creating a positive mealtime experience, it almost certainly won’t be helpful if the eating disorder becomes a topic of conversation or a point of focus over dinner. Do your best to keep conversation neutral and respectful, for everyone’s sake.

As you move forward...

Putting aside the challenges of shared meals and the holiday season, it can be difficult to know how to act around people with eating disorders. This is true for family as well as for friends, mentors, teachers, peers, and colleagues.

When I was sick, I was not only fiercely defensive, but also in profound denial, which gave added fuel to my refusals of help. Still, I can remember vividly a few moments when words and gestures really did reach me.

I recall sitting at a lunch table with a good friend in college, watching her intently as she ate her lunch (I was picking deliberately at mine). She sighed and said with genuine sadness: “Why do you always pretend you’re not hungry when it’s so clear that you are?”

I was stunned at first, but she delivered her words gently, which allowed me to hear them. It was one of the first moments in which I realized my yearning for food was visible to everyone else. It didn’t spur an immediate recovery, but it did help me to understand that my behavior had an impact on the people around me.

Years later, I sometimes wish more friends spoke up. My defensiveness, secrecy, and proficiency in hiding the degree of my illness prevented them, but as soon as I entered recovery, it became clear to me how much they all knew and saw.

If someone you love is struggling, find a way to let them know that you’re there and you know something is wrong. You don’t have to directly challenge the disease or behaviors, especially if you’re not sure how. But you can say something simple, like, “I’ve noticed lately you seem to be anxious around food. If I can ever listen or help, I’m here.” Your expression of concern might trigger some immediate resistance, but it will probably resonate over time.

It’s all too easy to avoid speaking up about eating disorders; there’s still so much shame, discomfort, and confusion that pervades our dialog about them. The impulse is to ignore and speak about them in hushed tones, or to hope the problem will go away on its own.

Chances are, it won’t. And as natural as it is to try to smooth things over, honest dialog and open communication are often what’s needed for someone—for everyone—to begin healing. The holiday table may not be the right place for such a dialog, but it is a space in which small gestures toward mutual respect and understanding might catch hold.

Gena Hamshaw is a vegan chef and nutritionist—and the author of our Vegan cookbook! You can read more of her writing here.

Tell us: Do you have any thoughts about helping a loved one struggling with an eating disorder at the holiday table—and beyond?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


drbabs November 29, 2016
Gena, how generous of you to share your story with the Food52 community. Sending hugs and love.
Gena H. December 2, 2016
Much peace and love back to you, Barbara!
Deb A. November 21, 2016
Gena thank you for such a compassionate article. As a recovering person who lived in the world of food obsession for much of my life, but now gratefully have lived 25 years or so in a state of recovery, I really appreciated you article. So many dynamics come into play, especially at the holidays, with emotions, and so much food tied in with family traditions etc. it can be a minefield. I feel grateful for a supportive family who lets me be me, but I know everyone is not so lucky. Your article brought up many feelings. I hope that I can be the one to reach out to anyone still suffering. There are a lot of us trying to hide our pain.
Hannah P. November 20, 2016
Gena, you are amazing and this is incredibly moving. I hope you have a wonderful festive season xxxxx
MarieGlobetrotter November 19, 2016
Thank you for putting words on my feelings. As a 32 year old suffering from anorexia, the approaching festive season is a dreadful moment and you managed to explain it in simple manner.
I've had anorexia for 5 years and EVERY day is a struggle. Every hour is spent battling constant hunger. So imagine what it feels like when there is so much food around you, when all people talk about in the media and on the street is good. Considering that I see my family only once or twice a year due to long distances between us, I want to make moments linke Christmas precious and memorable. Unfortunately, meals are a nightmare for me. I suffer from the fact that I can't taste the delicious food cooked by my brother who adores to cook and has been extremely supportive. By now my parents and siblings seem to understand the fact that, in my mind, "one bite feels like a matter of life and death", that eating a single bite ignites a fear that only people with anorexia can understand.
So thank you, for explaining it so well to those who know people who suffer from an eating disorder.I can't imagine what it feels like for parents, siblings and friends to see one of their loved ones battle with anorexia. The feeling of helpless must be terrible. Yet their presence, support and understanding helps me every day.
Denise L. November 18, 2016
Thank you for this article. This awareness is so timely. Im the mother of 2 daughters with ED and it is so difficult to know how to do what is right. Thank you thank you thank you.
Denise L. November 18, 2016
Thank younso much for thos article.
Nina K. November 17, 2016
Thank you for writing this Gina. I am very familiar with these struggles, the anxiety, the need to plan, the aggravated responses from friends and outright exasperation from family members. To the point where I much preferred spending holidays alone! I hope this gets shared. Thanks again.
melissa November 17, 2016
Thank you for sharing this, Gena. I have been reading your recipes for a while now (even before food52) and they always inspire me. I want to bookmark this in case I ever need it in the future. I hope this gets shared far and wide around the internet!
Gena H. November 18, 2016
Thanks so much, Melissa!
Chuck B. November 17, 2016
This waa all very well put. I think it's important to break down the walls of eating disorders.

Please remember that eating disorders come in many forms. Someone doesn't have to "look hungry" to struggle around food. For me, I would (and still sometimes do) get anxious eating in front of others, then binge later when no one was looking. A lot of this stemmed from (good intentioned) conversation about dieting and spreading negatively about food being a constant in our family. I would sometimes even be praised for my restraint around food. It was only recently that I realized that this could be classified under eating disorders. Since I was always overweight before "recovering", that idea never crossed my mind, and, as far as I know, was never considered by those around me.
At least personally, I feel as though recovery is an ongoing part of life. I love food and I love making food, but my relationship with food is not always the best. Please remember this around your friends and family...especially around kids/teenagers, even if they don't seem at risk at all. Those comments stick!
Gena H. November 18, 2016
This is such an important comment, Chuck, thank you. Yes, disordered eating may show up as restriction, but it can also show up with a ton of different behaviors, and what's being modeled publicly is not always indicative of the whole struggle. By "looking hungry," I actually meant the clear longing that I'm sure I conveyed around food when I was struggling -- not shape or size. My experience has been that many EDs go unnoticed because people on the outside have drawn incorrect assumptions based on body shape; sadly, even healthcare practitioners sometimes miss or fail to screen properly for this reason. We have a lot of work to do.
Hannah P. November 20, 2016
yes, the 'longing' is in the eyes more than anything else and the hunger is not just for food but for love and life and joy and freedom
VeganWithaYoYo November 17, 2016
This was a wonderful article. I'm a psychiatrist who doesn't focus on eating disorders, but has of course treated them and will do so in the future. One thing I've seen time and again (and you touched on it so beautifully here) is that the people who eat with my patient (often their parents) spend enormous amounts of time talking about how healthy their food is, and will even talk about overweight people in a negative way IN FRONT OF THEIR CHILD WITH AN EATING DISORDER! While of course there are many factors at play, and everyone is different, it's so important that people not constantly reinforce that food is bad and eating is shameful.

So yeah. I'm very very glad that you wrote this, and I think that just before Thanksgiving is the perfect time to do so!
anon November 17, 2016
Thank you for writing this! My mother in law became anorexic 27 years ago, and while she claims she is "cured," she is super, super restrictive about what she eats. Basically nothing with any fat, no carbs- chicken, vegetables, salmon. I love to cook and host parties, and I LOVE food, and truthfully it's really hard for me to understand where she's coming from. I feel angry towards her because of it, actually, so thank you for writing something that might help me be a little more empathetic- I've been trying to work on that.
And if you're checking comments, wondering what your thoughts are on this- I make basically a separate meal or second entrée for her every time she comes if we're all having baked ziti, I also have to make grilled chicken and a vegetable for her. I never know if that's a good or bad idea, like am I helping or hurting her by doing that? It drives me nuts to have to do, but the few times I didn't make an extra dinner and she had to live on salad, I felt really bad...
Cecilia November 18, 2016
From the perspective of someone who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with an eating disorder, I would offer respect and admiration for your continued patience and support of your mother-in-law, particularly by making sure that there is "safe food" available for her--you're enabling her to participate in the company and social activity of the meal, even if she is eating something different. While preparing and eating a specific meal is certainly part of the social gathering, it is not the only part of it--simply sitting down together at a table is a large part of it. Your preparation of a separate meal for her is not likely to have any effect on her eating disorder, good or bad--however, what it is doing is enabling her to participate in a joint activity that would otherwise be painful and scary for her, and I'm sure she is very grateful for that; I know that, to me, such an act would be a blessed gift. I think that, if you are able, continuing to offer her this gesture, along with some comment acknowledging that she is, of course, welcome to partake in the main dish as well, would be the best course of action.

Gena H. November 18, 2016
Hi Anon. I echo Cecilia's thoughts (and Cecilia, thank you for sharing so bravely and beautifully). I'm not sure what a treatment provider or a professional would say, but my instinct as someone who has dwelt within disordered eating is that your offering of special food options is probably a deeply appreciated gesture that helps to make family gatherings more cohesive. I know that it might feel like a form of enabling, or a validation of restrictive behaviors. And I think there can be space to gently challenge someone you love on those, but I'm not sure that space is a holiday table or a family gathering -- especially since your mother in law will probably not eat whatever is being served if she doesn't have the special option. In my mind, that's a far more alienating and divisive option than creating a special meal -- even though I realize it's extra work for you, and it must feel like an imperfect solution for everyone. And I do agree with Cecilia that taking a stand, as it were, and not preparing something for her would probably not have the effect of changing the course of her eating disorder -- while offering her something she feels safe eating is at least likely to make the holiday more pleasurable for her (and by extension, for you).
sarah November 18, 2016
hello anon, you are a wonderful person for trying and reflecting so much. I agree with Cecilia very much, as I have struggled/am struggling too. As to what Gena said (you wrote a fantastic, very well put article, by the way!), I don't think you should (at least in my case that wouldn't have been good) 'gently challenge' someone with an ED.
My example: My boyfriend and I began dating 3 years ago. In their household it is tradition to party into a birthday, so everyone can congratulate at 00.00am. There is always a HUGE pizza for the 6-10 people, but also salad. It was stressing me out to think I had to eat pizza, too. But my boyfriend explained my illness to his mother (the on 'in charge' for these kinds of parties) and I could eat salad. Everyone knew about it and it was okay. No one judged openly and this created a safe space for me over the years.
That being said, for me, the therapist was the only one to correct my behavior, the only one qualified. Please never forget that trying to positively change a mentally ill person without training is dangerous for all parties!
And at last I just have to tell everyone: a few days ago was my birthday, and for the first time I ate a piece of cake with my boyfriends family! I'm so proud!
anon November 18, 2016
thank you both for responding!! I feel a lot better about prepping additional stuff for her knowing it isn't really setting her back. I usually do think that meals are about family and inclusiveness, not showing off in the kitchen, so helping her to feel welcome and included is the most important. Thank you.
Gena H. November 18, 2016
Sarah: congratulations on enjoying the cake. I know what those moments mean in the course of recovery, and I'm so glad for you!