Family gatherings and potlucks can be difficult for those of us who are recovering from an eating disorder. Gatherings and potlucks combine two things: eating a meal that you don’t have control over and eating in front of family and friends. Each is a stressful scenario on its own, but especially so for someone trying to avoid restriction or a binge eating relapse.

Let’s look at a few ways to make family gatherings and potlucks more enjoyable (or at least tolerable).

Be Prepared for Family Gatherings and Potlucks while in Eating Disorder Recovery

Give some thought to how you want to approach the upcoming meal. For example, if it’s a potluck, you can contribute a dish you are comfortable with. You might be able do this for a family gathering as well. If it helps your wellbeing and isn’t triggering, prepare a dish that you’d enjoy eating and sharing. On the flip side, if making a dish is triggering or uncomfortable, then don’t. Do what’s going to serve you best in your recovery.

Once you’re at the event, take your time deciding what you want to eat. Try to tune into what you really want and need to eat. And then make the best choices you can. It doesn’t have to be a “perfect” meal. We tend to put holiday meals on a pedestal, but ultimately, it’s just another meal. What makes family gatherings and potlucks special is the company. It’s a chance to enjoy people that we might not see often and reconnect with them.

Remember the HALT Acronym

HALT is an acronym often used in recovery circles. It stands for things to watch out for to prevent relapse and to take care of ourselves. HALT means that we should not get too:

  • Hungry- When we let ourselves get too hungry, it can be hard to make good decisions about food or anything else. For those of us recovering from an eating disorder, letting ourselves get hungry and stay hungry may be restrictive behavior, which leads to binging. To help prevent binge eating relapse, stick to your eating routine, even on days where you have a family gathering or potluck. Eat your regular meals and snacks and treat the event as another meal.
  • Angry- It’s okay to feel our emotions, including anger. Getting angry is natural, healthy and important to acknowledge. Those of us who identify as women may struggle with anger, as we’re socialized not to get angry, not to confront people and to always be “nice.” It’s okay to get angry, but the challenge is to move through that emotion productively. This might mean taking some time to journal about our anger. It might mean taking to our therapist or a trusted friend about our anger. It might mean doing an activity that releases some of that anger, like going for a walk or screaming into a pillow. Anger is healthy, and so is finding ways to express it.
  • Lonely. Even the most introverted people need social connections. Isolating ourselves can lead to restriction or binge eating relapse. Social interactions can be stressful too, though. A family gathering or potluck can be an excellent opportunity to reconnect with others. Think of one or two people that you might want to talk to. If it’s helpful, think of a couple of conversation starters. One of the best is genuinely asking, “How are you?” and then really listening to the answer. Most people like to talk about themselves.
  • Tired. Our culture values busyness and productivity. Sometimes we push ourselves because we have assignments to finish or work goals to meet. That can leave us feeling tired, which can also leave us feeling vulnerable. Take time to rest. It might mean taking a nap, committing to eight hours of sleep per night, or taking the time to do something restorative. There’s a lot of talk about self-care these days, and for good reason. We need to take care of ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong or selfish about taking the time to do it.

Use HALT to check in with yourself and consider what you might need to feel prepared for a family gathering.

Find Support

Facing a potluck or family gathering can be intimidating, especially early in recovery. Reach out for help. Talk to your treatment team, talk to a supportive friend, or bring a friend with you to the event who you know will be supportive and protective of your recovery. It can be hard to admit that we need help, but we all do sometimes. We can’t recover in isolation, and we deserve support. We are worthy of other people’s time, attention and love.

If you are looking for treatment, currently in treatment or have recently finished, ask your friends and family for the support you need. People want to help, but they sometimes may not know how. Reach out. You don’t have to face a food-related event alone.

Melinda Sineriz is a freelance writer and fat acceptance advocate. Read more of her thoughts on Twitter or visit her website to learn more.\

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