1. Know your plate ahead of time.
To ease some of the 'fear of the unknown', consider reaching out to the family members or friends that are hosting the meal. Ask them exactly what dishes will be provided, and begin to imagine each item sitting on your plate in front of you. We're not forcing ourselves to eat everything on this imagined plate; we're just noticing what it might look or feel like to see these foods.
Mashed potatoes always stressed me out when I was in my eating disorder, so it was hard to imagine them sitting on my plate next to my turkey, which was also scary. Once you've pictured each dish on your plate, begin to plan what you will eat at the meal. I suggest doing this exercise with a dietitian, therapist, or loved one. Pick things you like the taste of, and if you forgot what you like, think back to what you used to like as a kid. Consider including each food group one at a time: protein, vegetable, fruit, grain/starch, fat, etc. And, of course, dessert!!
2. Have someone make your plate for you.
Maybe you've made up your plate in your mind, and it comes time for the actual meal. Everyone is in line to make their plates, people are conversing, Grandma asks you what's new, music is playing, and all you can think about is how overwhelming it'll be to eat these foods that you haven't allowed yourself to eat in a long time. This is how I felt on Thanksgiving. But luckily, I had a plan, and I wasn't alone.
Having a loved one make your plate for you takes away the overwhelming feeling that comes when you deliberately scoop each item onto your own plate. Be real with yourself...if you're filling your own plate, are you really going to include those scary mashed potatoes? Or that apple pie? If the answer is "probably not," then it's time to pass the plate to someone else...literally. My mom made my Thanksgiving plate for me, and the best part was that no one even noticed or asked questions.
3. Escape to breathe right before the meal.
Something about the moment right before the big feast makes it the most stressful part of this whole Thanksgiving ordeal for people with eating disorders. Once we get started with the meal, it gets a little bit easier. But what do we do to manage the stress that comes right before we sit down to eat? Have a quick escape. Find a bathroom, a private room, or even a space outside where you can easily navigate.
My breathing space was my bedroom. I even had my yoga mat set up so that I could lay on it and breathe for just a minute while everyone began gathering around the table downstairs. It doesn't have to be long and methodically planned out...just BREATHE. My favorite calming breath is a 3-part breath: place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. With one inhale, send oxygen into the belly, then into the ribs, then into the chest. On the exhale, breathe out of the chest, out of the ribs, then out of the belly. Complete this series as many times as you'd like, and go conquer that meal!
4. Sit next to someone comforting.
Now it's time to sit down in front of our plates. This is a big step, but we can handle it. Consider finding someone who makes you feel calm. This person doesn't even need to know what you're going through, although that can be helpful. If you have time before you sit down, find that comforting person and ask them if you can sit next to them at meal time. When they say yes, you can relax, knowing you won't be doing this alone. I sat across from my Grandma, because even though she didn't know I had an eating disorder, she was a calming presence.
5. Celebrate fullness.
We've made it through the meal, but the stress might not be over yet. Feeling our bellies expand from the delicious meal can be overwhelming. Some of us try our hardest everyday to avoid the specific feeling of fullness, and yet, here we are, letting it happen. Our first thought might be to purge, or to suck in our bellies. Acknowledge those thoughts, rather than ignoring them. Then, when you're ready to respond to those thoughts, say, "Thank you for trying to protect me, but I've got this."
You are allowed to be full. You are allowed to unbutton your jeans after the meal. And you are allowed to be stressed. This moment is a chance to take a step forward into a more beautiful life. A life where holidays and gatherings will become less stressful with each occasion. I'm rooting for you!