In this second post in a two-part series, guest author Holly Stallcup offers practical advice for practicing hospitality with those who battle eating disorders. Read Part 1 here.
Part 2 — Welcoming to the Table
Most days my relationship with food is contentious at best, and similarly, there are more than a few days a month that contentious would be an appropriate word to describe my relationship with God. Yet the intersection of food and God, food and faith, has in recent years become a place of hope, excitement, peace, and solace.
The solution to my complicated relationship with food is not to avoid the table but rather to be welcomed to it over and over again, letting the healing come one bite, one smile, one story at a time. To offer the gift of hospitality to your friends with eating disorders is to offer healing and redemption. In fact, the eating disorder community may be one of the most important groups of people to which you will ever offer hospitality.
So how do we do this? How do we offer hospitality to those with eating disorders and disordered eating, especially when food is such a central component of hospitality?
— The Prep —
If you have a friend in recovery, don’t tiptoe around how hard a dinner or party may be. Eating disorders grow in the darkness of secrecy and shame. Be brave enough to be a light. Text your recovering friend before a gathering, “So glad you are coming. I know group dinners can be hard for you. I’m so proud of the work you are doing, and I’ll be there to support you. Is there any specific support I can give tonight?”
Ask and Involve
In that same vein, invite your recovering friend(s) to be involved in the planning process of events where food will be present. Ask if a seated dinner versus a grazing dinner would be better for them. For some the seated dinner may be too pressure-filled; others might say a grazing dinner feels like a binging trap or an easy way to not eat at all.
Ask about food sensitivities and trigger foods. I go as far as to ask every attendee of a dinner about food preferences/dislikes, sensitivities, and triggers. You never know who finds shared meals isolating or anxiety-fueling, and the whole idea of hospitality is a generous and accommodating welcome, not a begrudging “you will eat whatever I give you” welcome. You can also ask about safe foods and beverages to have on hand for your recovering friend to enjoy.
For example, one of my dear friends binged on peanut butter for years while battling bulimia. I work hard not to serve peanut butter cookies or other similar foods if she is going to be present, as peanut butter will always be a trigger for her. The same friend cried in the Thanksgiving buffet line a couple of years ago when she realized there was gluten-free stuffing. She spent so much of her life hating food and avoiding social situations involving food that this little accommodation was an incredible act of hospitality, inclusion and welcome to her.
Unless a friend in recovery has specifically communicated the need, please do not “keep it healthy” as you plan the food for your event. Not having sweets or chips at a party only reinforces the idea that some foods are good and some are bad. For many in recovery having dessert is a healthy choice.
When I plan parties, I have three categories: savory (veggies, meats, cheeses), salty (nuts, chips, pretzels, popcorn) and sweet (fruits, desserts). Every person in recovery (and every person in general) has a different diet that is best for their body, so variety is good in most cases because it allows each person to fill their plate with what is best for them.
After you have received feedback from your guests and set a menu accordingly, communicate that menu beforehand, especially to those with eating disorders. It may also be a healthy, comfortable choice for someone to bring their own food. But for others, it may be that bringing their own food plays into their disease. This is why building real relationships with those in the eating disorder community matters because no two recovery journeys are alike.
If your friend expresses a desire to just come for company and fellowship, it may be good to affirm their choice. But in my personal experience, most of us in recovery need to stretch ourselves and eat with others even if our meal needs to be specially tailored to us. Again, as you build relationships you will be able to better help a recovering friend make healthy choices, even when those choices are challenging.
— The Party —
If you are doing a seated dinner, let everyone plate their own food via buffet line or have them watch as you serve, asking something to the effect of, “Is that a good amount?” This allows each person to control their own proportions. It is incredibly shame-inducing when I am not able to eat half the food on the plate that was made for me. And on the flip side people in recovery may need double portions of things to intake the nutrition they need.
If you are going to do a grazing dinner, put the buffet table off to the side versus in the center of the action. If you have rooms that connect, create party spaces away from the food so a person in recovery can make a plate and then move away from the food.
Be sure to watch your words. We should not avoid discussing food or offering it to others. It is fine to say, “Mmm, this cookie is delicious! Would you like one?” But we should also be quick to respect a “no,” when offering something to someone as they may be allergic or find it triggering.
What we should avoid is commenting on what others are eating or negatively commenting on what we are eating. Do not say, “No wonder you are so skinny” when you see the small portion on my plate. Do not refer to items as “cheat food.” Do not talk about how you earned these calories because you went to spin class this morning. Do not talk about the diet you are on or are planning to start in the new year.
Additionally, avoid commenting on your own or other’s appearances. When you call yourself “fat” in a derogatory manner rather than a neutral or positive tone, others in the room who are bigger than you begin to wonder what you think about them if that is how you feel about yourself. When a friend comes in who has lost weight, your well-intentioned comment about how good she looks may be reinforcing unhealthy behavior she has engaged in to lose that weight, or the weight loss may be the result of other physical or mental health problems.
During an event, just as in the preparation, do not ignore your recovering friend’s reality out of fear of awkwardness or saying the wrong thing. Grab your friend’s hand in the middle of the party. Lean over and offer a simple “You doing OK?” Create a moment for your friend to be conscious and mindful about how they are doing.
Distracting from food with other things like a movie playing in the background is not an agreed-upon practice in the recovery community. Some professionals believe that purposeful distractions when food is present is simply another coping mechanism allowing those of us in recovery to avoid addressing the feelings we are having around food.
So don’t plan your party with the mindset of “Oh, we need to make sure so-and-so doesn’t think about that delicious cookie she is eating!” Instead, focus on a mindset of knowing that food is a gift and so are many other things—that mindset helps all of us not to idolize food.
Planning an activity besides eating at a get-together doesn’t have to be about distracting from food—it can just be good party planning! Dinner and games are fun. Snacks and karaoke are great. Desserts, warm drinks, and crafts is a winner!
Good hospitality for those with eating disorders includes lighthearted spaces that don’t play into stress and perfectionism, avoids media, conversations and activities that focus on bodies, and yes, does have room for food done in intentional and thoughtful ways with the input of those in recovery.
— The Postgame —
It is important to note that most of the recommendations I have shared are for people who have personally identified their illness and are seeking recovery at some level. In short, a social event is not the place to address, help and/or serve someone who has not owned their addiction, illness and/or trauma around food.
After an event, reach out to your friend. Something simple like: “How did tonight feel? Remember that your presence with us was a gift. I am so grateful you chose to be brave and join us.” Remind your loved one that while you care deeply about their disease, they are not their disease. Share specific things about who they are that you enjoyed being around during your time together. Affirmation like this helps a person differentiate between their eating disorder and their identity.
And then long after your planned event, continue to support and love your friends in the eating disorder community by doing your own work. Educate yourself about eating disorders and disordered eating. Start by perusing the National Eating Disorder Association website, and then order a copy of Regaining Your Self by Ira Slacker and Fat and Faithful by J. Nicole Morgan. As you learn you will most certainly identify places where you can and should work on your own mindset around food and bodies which will then positively impact your entire community, especially those struggling with eating disorders.
— The Gift of Hospitality —
I couldn’t close with any better words than these from my friend Lindsay, “People with disordered eating just want to be invited and made to feel welcome, as all humans do. The gift of hospitality is far more about inclusion than food. Do my guests feel comfortable? Free to be themselves? Safe? That is what truly matters.”
Guest Author — Holly Stallcup
Holly is the founder & Executive Director of Rise, an organization committed to seeing the Church be the best place to be a woman. People are her passion. Rest for her is hot tea, good books, painted nails & delicious food shared with good people. She lives with her beloved dog Jack in Fort Worth, Texas. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.