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Family Dinner Time and Disordered Eating

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC for Eating Disorder Hope


Family meals can be an incredibly important part of a person’s upbringing and life. Having a time to reunite with family members, share fellowship over a meal, and communicate among one another can be a special time of bonding within a family.

While the family meal can look different from one family to the next, the idea of coming together for camaraderie and nourishment is essentially the same no matter the traditions.

What if you have a family member who is struggling with an eating disorder? This can drastically change the tone and mood of the family dinner table.

Changes at the Table

If someone in your family is dealing with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, the family meal can become much more complex or difficult to enjoy. You may find it hard to enjoy a conversation when attention seems to be focused on food rather than relationships.

When someone struggles with an eating disorder, this may be seen in the following ways during a family meal:

  • Increased anxiety about eating or sitting at a table where there is food
  • Food rituals, such as excessive cutting of food, separating foods on a plate, eating foods in a specific sequence or pattern, or counting food items
  • Becoming emotional or distraught about having to eat a certain food. This can be due to a perceived fear of weight gain or poor body image
  • Avoiding, restricting, or hiding “fear foods”
  • Bingeing or gorging on an abnormal amount of food in a relatively short time period
  • Disappearing after meal times or spending excessive time in the restroom after meals

These signs and symptoms of an eating disorder can complicate a family meal and cause tension among all family members. How can family meals be structured in a way to best support a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder?

Consider these helpful suggestions for supporting and encouraging a family member who is dealing with an eating disorder or simply having a more difficult time during family meals:

Create a peaceful environment


With many families juggling full schedules and many activities, family meals may be an afterthought of something that happens on the rare occasion that all members are home at the same time. Find a time during the week that your family can come together for a meal and stick to it.

Make an ambiance that is inviting and relaxing for the family so that mealtime can be relaxed and unrushed. This may also help ease a family member with an eating disorder that may already have increased anxiety about mealtime.

Understand the root of the problem

It is important to understand that eating disorders are not about food, calories, dieting, or anything of the sort. Eating disorders are psychiatric illnesses that involve many complex factors. While the hyper focus may be on the food itself, these are symptoms of a more severe illness.

Eating disorders will often worsen over time, and overcoming these struggles requires professional treatment. By having a better understanding of what your loved one is facing, you might be better able to support them through their struggles.

Learn how to meal support

Family members who are able to provide meal support to an individual with an eating disorder serve an important role in their recovery process. Being able to normalize family meal time and demonstrate a healthy approach towards eating can encourage an eating disorder sufferer in their own recovery journey.

Closeup on hands of stressed young housewife

If you are unsure how to best support your family member, seek the counsel of an eating disorder specialist. Family-based treatment approaches, such as the Maudsely Method, can effectively guide families in supporting their loved one towards recovery from an eating disorder.

Family meal times can be a tremendous time of learning and growth, particularly for an eating disorder sufferer. Though these times can be challenging and confusing, there is an opportunity to be strengthened and reunited as a family through the recovery process.

Community Discussion – Share your Thoughts Here!

How do eating disorders impact family meals? How do you think family meal time can be used as an opportunity to support a loved one who is recovering from an eating disorder?

Last Updated & Reviewed by: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, on December, 11 2014. Published on

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