Meal support is a benefit of receiving care at an eating disorder treatment center or program. While the idea of meal support may seem foreign to many caregivers, it is not a skill only earned in a school, internship, or program setting. In fact, meal support skills may come more natural to a caregiver than a professional in relation to the loved one because there is a bond between a caregiver and a loved one that will never be duplicated by a professional.
Practicing meal support is not a replacement for seeking professional help and guidance in the presence of an eating disorder, but it can most definitely be used by caregivers to aid the recovery process. In today’s blog, we discuss five steps to include during meal or snack time with someone in recovery.
One of the biggest parts of meal support is holding your loved one accountable for meal and snack times. Those suffering from an eating disorder do not usually feel hunger cues, so they can go a whole day without receiving a signal from their body to eat. Setting routine times for meals and snacks with external reminders will train the body for regular eating patterns. For example, if your loved one is at home and you are at work, it may help to set alarms for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks and to FaceTime each other to ensure the meal happens.
If your loved one prepares their own meal, they may need guidance on portioning, variety, and balance. This provides a great opportunity to discuss the importance of including adequate amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fat, veggies, and fruit. A quick bit of education on the food groups as energy sources and why your body needs energy can be the encouraging words a loved one needs to hear as they sit down to a full plated meal. This simple piece of education can trigger thoughts of what was discussed in earlier nutrition appointments with the dietitian, which boosts the healthy-self part of the brain.
Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at meals is often identified by those with eating disorders. Sitting down with your loved one at the meal and participating in conversation while eating can provide comfort and needed distraction to overcome the meal that is in front of them. Caregivers are often afraid they will say something wrong at meal time. If conversation seems difficult to initiate, pick a conversation game from the list provided here.
You may notice that your loved one refuses food or uses an eating disorder behavior (moving food around the plate, cutting food into small pieces, hiding food, slow paced eating, etc.). At this point in meal support, it is time to coach your loved one to take the next bite or re-direct your loved one from using the eating disorder behavior. You may find yourself saying, “before we play the next game, you need to take another bite of food,” or “Let’s try eating the rest of the sandwich in 4 bites.”
It is normal for your loved one to experience strong emotions at mealtime. This calls for putting yourself in your loved ones shoes and understanding where those emotions are coming from. Using validation helps bring your loved one’s emotion down to a place where a logical decision can be made. When emotions are high, your loved one may not hear when you ask them to take the next bite; however, letting your loved one know that you understand why they are feeling that way because of reason “a,” “b,” and “c,” then guides your loved one to make the logical decision. To learn more about validation, visit https://www.emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org/steps-of-emotion-coaching/
If you are just now seeking treatment with a loved one or if you have been supporting a loved one with recovery for years, meal support techniques are important to practice. You may find yourself pulling out all the meal support resources during one meal and then experiencing a very normal meal the next day. Recovery has ups and downs, and you will see this pattern with meals and snacks as well. One of the best things to implement during the ups and downs of recovery is consistent practice of caregiving skills like meal support.