Thanksgiving Survival Guide

Tips from the Eating Disorder Dietitian 

Holidays can be both a time of joy and a time of stress. My clients often begin to worry about the holidays for the food that they will be faced with. Of course, it’s typically about much more than the food. However, as a dietitian recovered from her own ED, I’ve learned that it is helpful to have a guide on how to manage the food so that at least some of the stressors can be eliminated.


Here I will share what has helped me and my clients over the years to have successful Thanksgivings.  

Have a plan

You might find yourself feeling tempted to eat less during the day. This typically does not go well. Most clients who have been in treatment for an eating disorder are equipped with a meal plan. This should be an individualized plan tailored for your particular lifestyle and preferences. This plan typically outlines a meal pattern as well as portions of foods. An example of a pattern is three meals and two snacks at relatively specific times. The tendency during holidays is to deviate from the meal plan pattern in anticipation of eating more than usual. However, unless you are comfortably and confidently in the stage of eating intuitively, I do not recommend large deviations from your regular meal plan. Chances are that by eating less in the earlier part of the day (or days leading up to the event) you will set yourself up for either over or under eating later in the day. It always catches up at some point.

Let’s say that Thanksgiving dinner is scheduled for 3 PM in your family. Continue with your meal pattern of breakfast and lunch consisting of your normal prescribed portions. The early Thanksgiving dinner can then fulfill your afternoon snack and dinner requirements. This means you eat more at that meal (as everyone typically does) and “assign” it to cover your PM snack and dinner. The larger portion should include some dessert. Your nighttime snack can then be another small nighttime meal, something we often do in my family. A dinner roll with some more turkey for example or a slice of pumpkin pie. 

If you are still in a place of weight restoration or a fragile stage in your recovery, you may need to find out what’s being served ahead of time. Then plan your plate. For example, serve yourself at least a palm-sized portion of turkey or other protein. Then, if there are many sides, consider taking a smaller portion such as a ½ cup each of stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, etc. Take more of what you like and less of what you don’t.

While you are eating, notice what is going on for you. Do you feel nervous? Are you enjoying the conversation? Put your fork down every so often and take a deep breath. How is the food feeling in your body? Does it taste good? What critical thoughts are present? Can you “talk back” with the truth? This is a skill worth practicing daily for everyone not just those recovering from eating disorders so that we don’t fall victim to our own inner bully. Here are some examples of the internal dialogue that might happen:

Critical Voice/ED: “This is way too much food. You are going to gain weight. You are letting yourself go.”

True Self: “This is a Thanksgiving celebration. I am doing nothing wrong by partaking. I served myself appropriately and can enjoy what’s in front of me. One meal does not make a difference. I have permission to eat.”

If you have graduated to intuitive eating you have already experienced the freedom and joy that comes from this. Holiday meals can offer the valuable opportunity to practice listening and connecting to your body on an even deeper level. It also allows us to experience the variety of flavors and textures and how they might be linked to childhood memories and associations. If you are practicing intuitive eating, it’s still important that you do not unconsciously fall into restriction earlier in the day in anticipation of compensating for what’s coming later. It is equally as important not to fall into black and white thinking if you do feel overly full. Again, watch for thoughts such as “I blew it. I’ve gone this far already, might as well keep eating.” 

If you do keep eating and feel like you overdid it, let it go. Start the next day with recovery intentions in mind. All we have is one day at a time. Letting our Thanksgiving eating affect us the next day or days after is not appropriate. We get back to normal eating and practice love and self-acceptance.

Some additional things to remember: 

If you feel fuller than usual, don’t get scared. You haven’t blown it. Feeling full is good practice. Full does not equal “fat”. Don’t let shame push you into behaviors. One day or one meal does not change your weight or health.

Thanksgiving dinner is a meal that naturally contains more carbohydrates and fats than you might normally consume. Don’t worry about it! Yams, potatoes and green beans are all vegetables. My clients can get into so much unnecessary fear about carbohydrates. Be reminded that our bodies are perfectly capable of burning carbohydrates for energy. 

Permission to eat is key for recovery from an eating disorder regardless of what your weight is. Deprivation does not work physically or emotionally in the long run.

Be aware of your emotional triggers. Are there particular family members or situations that trigger you? Take your toolbox of skills with you. Who do you call or text if you are struggling? Take your journal in case you need to sit for a while and process. Remember to breathe and ground yourself.

My Thanksgiving Tree 2017

My Thanksgiving Tree 2017

Reflect on at least one thing you truly enjoy about this holiday and incorporate it into the day. Is it playing with the kids? Is it a walk outside in the changing leaves? Is it connecting with a family member you have’t seen in a while? 

Rememember what it’s really about. Make a list of all the things you are grateful for. I have created a custom of making an annual Thanksgiving tree in my traditional Swiss-German art of Scherenschnitte. My family and I then write down all the things we are grateful for on the leaves and it creates a lovely holiday gift.

Include your body on your gratitude list. Fake it if you have to. It is an amazing vessel that continues to work for us under what is at times excruciating  conditions. It may not look the way you want it to, but it is faithfully there and regenerating constantly. As one of my clients recently stated after getting her period back “my body is a Rockstar”. Yes. Your body is a Rockstar. Happy Thanksgiving to all!




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