Are you panicking at the thought of helping your child eat at mealtimes?
Whether your child has just been diagnosed with an eating disorder or has recently returned from a treatment center, you as a parent can help your child recover. One of the best ways you can support your child or loved one during eating disorder treatment is through meal support, here are some tips to make it easier.
Meal Support Guidance for Parents
Parents often experience a multitude of emotions when a child is diagnosed with an eating disorder- worry, fear, guilt, just to name a few. You may wonder- How can I best help my child at mealtimes? How can I make mealtimes less stressful for my child in recovery? Most parents want to desperately support their loved one but are unsure how to help. Even the best intentions of helping them appropriately and adequately nourish their body can be met with resistance. This often leaves parents feeling powerless.
While this can be scary for parents, there is hope. Eating disorders are treatable illnesses. Parents are never the cause of an eating disorder but they are part of the solution. One of the best ways parents can support their child in the recovery process is through meal support.
Meals are challenging times for those with eating disorders. They tend to be fraught with anxiety and eating disorder thoughts are prominent. Yet, meals are integral to recovery. Food is medicine, and eating is non-negotiable in treatment. Parents can offer support at meals in the following ways:
What is Meal Support During Eating Disorder Treatment?
Food is medicine. This is more true than ever when recovering from an eating disorder. Just like you would monitor your child’s medicine, it is important to monitor their eating to help them recover. This step is complicated because of many factors throughout the recovery process. But that is why we are writing this blog, to help make mealtimes easier during eating disorder treatment.
You might be wondering, “How do I make sure that I am providing meal support in the right way? I don’t want to do more harm!”
That fear is understandable! Talking to your child’s treatment team (dietitian and therapist) is essential and they can help you navigate this new territory.
Here are a few other ways that you can provide support in eating disorder treatment to your loved one.
Remember what meal support is and is not.
Meal support is meant to be a time of modeling healthy food behaviors and being there with your loved one during a time of anxiety. Meal support is not taking on the role of the food police or the enforcer. I know it can be frustrating through the process, and there are probably days you want to scream! Try to remember that the calmness and compassion you provide at mealtimes is what has true value and holds the key to helping your child through recovery. You can also discuss your role in your child’s e recovery with their treatment team.
Perhaps one of the best ways to provide meal support is with your physical presence at meals. We understand that life is busy and that a family mealtime might feel impossible, but here are some reasons why being present is so crucial!
- It can help your child to feel less alone in the eating process.
- It provides accountability to prevent your child from acting on eating disorders behaviors.
- Being present at meals gives you the opportunity to model normal eating for your child.
- If it’s not possible to be in the room with your child, try using Zoom or Facetime to provide virtual support.
- Try employing the help of a family member or family friend to split responsibility. Help in this process can be invaluable.
Provide appropriate foods.
It is challenging for patients with eating disorders to appropriately nourish their bodies. The eating disorder voice and food rituals or rules are strong, making it difficult to put together balanced, nutritionally adequate meals. Parents can support by making sure that appropriate foods are available.
- In children and adolescents, this often means parents being solely responsible for food and eating decisions- including the what, when, and how of eating until the child has reached a point where they can be responsible and trusted with making eating decisions.
- Part of providing meals for your child will be including foods they liked prior to the eating disorder, instead of limiting foods to what the eating disorder deems as “okay” to eat. A dietitian can help parents understand how to feed their ill child in order to meet the goals of treatment.
- For parents of adult children, this may look more like supporting meal planning as opposed to determining what is eaten. Meal planning support can include learning your child’s prescribed meal plan or going grocery shopping with your child. A dietitian can create a structured meal plan to make sure your child is meeting their nutrition needs.
Engage in distraction.
One helpful strategy during mealtime is for parents to engage their child in distraction. Distraction is anything that helps the child to take their focus off of the food they are eating and the eating disorder thoughts running through their head. Distraction can take the form of conversation or games, meal support cards, Jenga, fun videos, and arts & crafts.
Distraction after the meal is important too. Aim to keep your child busy for 30-60 minutes once the meal is over as eating disorder thoughts often increase during this time.
Try these activities during mealtime for eating disorder treatment:
- Spending time with a pet
- Board games- Bananagrams is a favorite
- Card games
- Fresh air breaks
- Coloring books
Offer emotional support.
Having a loved one to listen to their struggles and concerns can be helpful when eating a meal. Some guidelines for providing emotional support:
- Be empathetic and compassionate
- Use non-judgmental language and tone of voice
- Validate their struggle
- “I understand that this meal is incredibly difficult for you. Eating is hard work and I imagine very emotionally draining for you. How can I best help you at this moment?”
For more recovery tips during eating disorder treatment:
- Eating Disorder Recovery Resources
- Eating disorder recovery tips
- 7 Motivational and Funny Videos to Lighten Your Day
- What is HAES?
Check out Klara’s discussion on this topic
Meal support can be emotionally challenging for parents as well. It is essential to also get support for yourself during your child’s recovery. This can be in the form of individual or family psychotherapy, parent support groups, or a dietitian for yourself in addition to your child.
Please note: All our groups are HAES© aligned and we strive to maintain a recovery-focused and positive environment, which means our group participants are always working to lift up the other members, not put them down. We’ve been so lucky and generally have amazing group members who are compassionate and encouraging.
Whether you are a novice in the kitchen, or a seasoned chef, Dietitian Klara will work with you to help you reach your nutrition goals. Co-author of Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating, Cooking with Diabetes and Cooking with Food Sensitivities Guide.