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November 23, 2022

Navigating the Thanksgiving Table: A Letter for Those in Eating Disorder Recovery

A note upfront: you will get through Thanksgiving this year.

You will get through this day supercharged with expectations of gratitude, joy, and togetherness. This day when seemingly everyone is eager to take to the kitchen and prepare their assigned dish, presenting it to a table of revelers ready to express their thankfulness over an abundant feast.

You will get through this day that marks the first in a series of seasonal holiday gatherings in which family dynamics and food compete for the center stage–for better or for worse.

Thanksgiving can push the limits of eating disorder recovery in so many ways. It is fraught with the potential for triggers, whether you are well-established in your healing journey or are in the throes of an eating disorder.

Know the lessons from this day will be abundant. Moments that challenge your recovery may be abundant. Ultimately, your growth will be the most abundant. You can and will get through this.

You Are Not Alone

Anticipation is a key part of the Thanksgiving Day arc. The fuss surrounding the day and all its traditions may give you the impression that you are alone in feeling hesitant about pulling up a seat at the table.

You are not alone in feeling anxious, vulnerable, and self-conscious about Thanksgiving. Many others share your fears tied to the unknowns of what will be served at mealtime, the extra eyes seemingly on your plate, and the potential to be subjected to critical comments about food and body.

It’s easy to feel confused, upset, and drained over the tension present at mealtime. In one moment, your company may praise the stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and candied sweet potatoes lovingly prepared over days of cooking. Cut to a few minutes later when that just-lauded food may be vilified as “fattening,” inspiring disordered conversations about its effects on the waistline.

It’s perfectly okay not to be excited about Thanksgiving. Rather than not listening to your emotions, or contorting yourself into pretending like everything is okay, try to anticipate what might come up during the day, and bring intentional awareness to your Thanksgiving limits and needs.

Despite what convention or etiquette might tell you, there is no ‘perfect’ way to approach Thanksgiving. In fact, simply getting through it this year is just fine. Your eating disorder does not concern itself with your social calendar, and sometimes it’s better to observe your complicated emotions rather than a holiday. The right way to approach Thanksgiving is whatever makes sense for you and your recovery.

Others’ Comments Reveal More About Them, Not You

When did Thanksgiving become a day of Turkey Trots and guilt over a second helping of mashed potatoes? Diet culture tends to up its game around the holiday, and the diet talk at the Thanksgiving table can be relentless. Food demonization and self-deprecating body talk are normalized as chitchat, often without a second thought of how misguided or triggering these comments can be.

Reconnection with family members may feel more like forced, claustrophobic proximity during these table conversations. Such comments, coupled with discomfort eating around others, and deep insecurity related to food and body scrutiny, can make for an incredibly daunting meal environment—one that may draw your attention to your own eating habits and potentially spark a shame spiral. In a setting like this, even an offhand comment made about another’s plate can feed into your own harsh inner critic.

As tricky as it might be in practice, remember that these comments are reflections of those who say them and likely have nothing to do with you. Statements like these telegraph the weight stigma and bias all around us.

Anticipating potential comments about food, body, and your recovery and thinking of canned responses beforehand can make them easier to manage in the moment. We recommend setting boundaries ahead of time, such as asking loved ones not to comment on what you or anyone else at the table is eating. It’s up to you to choose how much you want to reveal to your company in regard to your recovery and your personal boundaries. Know that expressing your discomfort or excusing yourself from the table is okay, especially when your boundaries are not respected.

Take Solace in Your Meal Plan

Try to remember that under all the hype, Thanksgiving is just another meal. This isn’t meant to minimize the challenges of the day, but rather to remind you that your body expects the same from this meal as it would any other. Let your meal plan be the anchor to your day. Remember to eat for your recovery prior to the meal—”pre-toxing” has no place on this day and will increase the likelihood of eating disorder behaviors and thoughts once the Thanksgiving meal rolls around.

Think about the food that may be served and discuss what challenges might arise with your treatment team. There is ample room for Thanksgiving foods in your meal plan. All foods fit–from Brussels sprouts and roast turkey to cornbread and pumpkin pie. What old favorites or new additions would you like to incorporate? Your treatment team is here to help you build a Thanksgiving menu that honors your recovery and gives you the opportunity to enjoy the classic foods of the holiday.

In addition to making a plan for your plate, consider establishing an after-meal plan. Distractions are a good way to ride out any urges, anxieties, or intense emotions that might come up. Pack a deck of cards, turn on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, or step out for a walk with a supportive relative. If it helps you, it is vital that you make time for it.

Establish a Person With Whom You Feel Safe

Who will be attending Thanksgiving festivities with you? Identify a support person for the meal ahead of time and ask them to help when you are feeling overwhelmed. Maybe it’s Mom, who can change the subject to upcoming travel plans when Uncle Fred starts quizzing the table about the calorie contents of the meal. Perhaps your cousin knows you’re feeling uneasy after eating and can pull you over to share pictures of his new puppy.

If your support people won’t be physically present at Thanksgiving, ask if they can be accessible by phone. A quick ‘SOS’ text can signal to them that you’re in need of some reassurance from an ally.

Practice Self-Compassion and Gratitude

The most important thing you can do to help ease Thanksgiving anxiety is to practice self-compassion. Validate your own feelings and know that there is nothing wrong with you if your eating disorder makes you dread a holiday.

Our hope is that wherever you find yourself this Thanksgiving, you can identify sources of gratitude. Perhaps it can be discovered in the following:

  • Gratitude for your recovery
  • Gratitude for all that your body does for you
  • Gratitude for the food that nourishes you
  • Gratitude for your recovery team
  • Gratitude for those who are receptive to your struggles

Or maybe, it’s preemptive gratitude for what’s to come.

Gratitude for the other side of recovery—for the countless Thanksgivings ahead that aren’t defined by the pangs and mental anguish of an eating disorder. For the chance to view the Thanksgiving meal through renewed eyes that can recognize and enjoy the deliciousness of the holiday spread. For the chance to roll your eyes and brush off Aunt Sue’s remark that her “diet starts tomorrow,” rather than internalize the message. Gratitude for the relief of hearing your own voice in your head instead of the eating disorder’s when preparing your own festive dish to bring to the gathering—perhaps even one you previously deemed to be a “fear food.” Gratitude for discovering a world outside of the one you may have previously conceded to living in forever. Gratitude for your immense courage and strength in facing this holiday, and the ones to come.

We are so proud of you for navigating this tough time. For opting to share a meal with loved ones who might not understand the enduring grip of your eating disorder. For keeping your own needs at the forefront and your eyes on your own plate. For taking breaks as you see fit to recenter yourself. With your recovery as your guiding North Star, you will get through this day.

If your eating disorder is interfering with your enjoyment of this season – or any season – Veritas Collaborative is here for you. Give us a call at 612-402-3061 or complete our online form.