The Holiday Meal Nightmare, “Is She Going to Eat That?”

Eating Disorder Holiday Dinner Tips

Have you ever been to a big holiday dinner and wonder if a family member has an eating disorder? It’s awkward. You start staring at their clothing, you question their weight. You turn into a watchdog.

Be careful to try and solve the case of the Holiday Eating Disorder.

We’ve all done it. We sit there, staring at them wondering, “are they ever going to eat?” or “Should I say something to Aunt Jackie?” or even “Is my nephew really going to refuse all the food on the table?”

In fact, Aunt Jackie looks sick. Her skin is off. Something is not right.

This happens to me all the time. In fact, as the mental health provider in the family you’d be surprised by the concerns that come my way. Sometimes people will pull me aside and ask what they should do.  It’s a tough spot to be in.  You don’t want to make an issue of a serious problem at the same time you don’t want to ignore the situation.

Here is a list of what you should NOT do:

  1. Don’t Panic – By escalating your concern to everyone around you, the theme of the holiday dinner just changed to “What’s wrong with her!?” The holiday eating disorder mystery begins and you just possibly redirected everyone’s mood.
  2. Don’t Obsess – the more you stare, the worse it becomes. You won’t be able to take part in the holiday event. You are just gonna sit there monitoring ever move your Aunt Jackie is going to make. She’s gonna find out – Aunt Jackie Always finds out…
  3. Don’t Hover – This is tempting. What if for a brief second you heard them comment on their weight?! What if you actually heard them state how they do it? It’s inconsiderate. You’re just validating your own fears.
  4. Don’t Serve Them Food – Your fantasy of grabbing the spoon and shoveling an extra portion of that big sweet potato dish just dances in your mind. That pretty much makes you into a mean-y. You probably wouldn’t eat that amount yourself!
  5. Don’t Make Jokes – There is nothing more uncomfortable then cracking some eating disordered jokes to someone who may be struggling WHILE you are eating. It’s kinda like asking someone if they feel the heat as they put their hand on the stove.
  6. Don’t talk about food the entire meal – this only compounds the problem and makes the relative want to hide further and further away from the only support he or she may possibly have.

What You Should Do?

  1. Focus on the year – DO your best to identify pleasant events and milestones that took place throughout the year. Maybe Aunt Jackie got a promotion. Maybe she finally bought that Tesla she’s been waiting to rock out.
  2. Don’t talk about the food – Yes, I write this again because of the power someone with an eating disorder gives to food.  It’s important you understand that Aunt Jackie is more aware of what is about to happen at the family meal than you. She’s already freaking out in her mind.
  3. Find a common topic – You’re probably feeling awkward already and your mind is screaming at you. Just take a deep breath and find a commonality that you both enjoy.  This will help Aunt Jackie feel welcomed in a place where she feels fear.

Who to tell?

  1. The Figurehead in the Family – Depending on who is the matriarch or patriarch of the family, ask to speak to them after the meal or day is over.  Try to put off your concerns until the next day and have a conversation, expressing your concerns.
  2. The Eating Disorder Sufferer – If you have a close relationship with Aunt Jackie, the holiday meal IS NOT the place ot have a heart to heart. You can set up a time during the dinner witrh Aunt Jackie to connect either on the phone or in person.


  1. Describe your concern – This can be difficult but keeping it fact based is the key. If you have a clear understanding of what you are seeing and want to make sure that your concern is heard describing facts always helps frame what you are trying to say.
  2. Express your concern – First and Foremost you want to offer understanding and empathy. Explain you see the difficulty from Aunt Jackie’s perspective and you wanted to express how uneasy it may be for the both of you. This will help you state you concern with more care.
  3. Assert your point of view – There is a fine line between aggressive pushing for a cause and asserting your care for a cause. Maybe offering a plan or action or teamwork to approach the issue could help.
  4. Reinforce – There is no doubt the listener is going to try to deny or avoid. Just keep with it, keep asserting yourself until something concrete is agreed upon.

Most importantly:

  1. Stay Mindful – Nothing gets done when people lose themselves in passionate concern. It’s a bad idea to demand that someone do something immediately. It never helps and it only makes you look like the bad person.

When a person you care about is hiding within their poor eating, they are doing it out of fear. They are anxious about the world around them and can’t handle the big crowds of people. They don’t know how to reach out for help.

You can really make an incredible impact by just  offering solid support and care at the right time.

Best of luck and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m always available to discuss via email.