Part Two: Cultivating Recovery Around the Kitchen

Director of Nutrition Services Mary Dye, MPH, RD, CEDRD, LD/N and Director of Food Services Lissa Garcia, RD, LD/N  share part two of their series for cultivating recovery around the kitchen. Mary and Lissa continue to discuss ways to ensure that the family is providing a safe space around mealtime for eating disorder recovery. 

As families well know, kitchens and dining areas can become a battle zone when an eating disorder is present. Since they are so often such places of conflict, we need to prep them for the fragile early stage of returning home from treatment, when things as simple as the color of the placemats, type of milk and shape of the bowls can serve to increase urges to engage in maladaptive patterns or reinforce recovery oriented behaviors.

This is the second part of a two-part series (PART ONE) that discusses different facets related recovery around the kitchen.

Sensory overhaul

For some, the small change of accent colors such as pot holders and dish towels can make the space feel new and less familiar – this a good thing when you consider how pre-treatment the eating disorder felt at home. Burning a new candle scent, re-doing shelf paper, replacing drawer liners and re-arranging the cabinets are few simple ways to give a new sensory experience that demands observation and promotes awareness, helping us to develop new patterns and create fresh memories.

Reclaim the table as a place for peace

Promote calm at the table as much as possible. Some clients learn that busy patterns and bold colors put them on edge while others thrive on such aesthetic. Some find soft music helps them focus. Help to create a space that lessens tension and promotes a mindful experiences. This could mean removing clutter, using a favorite color or making a little place card that serves as a reminder of short term and long term recovery goals. It may mean investing in a flower arrangement or putting out placemats made by a cherished family member as an act of grounding and connection.

Change the view

When I ask clients about eating at home many can describe in great detail the view from “their seat”. Think of that seat and the view from it as the one the eating disorder grew accustomed to and sit somewhere different. Perhaps looking out a window as opposed to a mirror is less activating if body image is a struggle. Perhaps facing a different piece of artwork would serve as a welcome distraction when needed instead of looking to the one that is known so well. Perhaps sitting next to the family member who is of strongest support and farther from plate view of any who might spark comparison thoughts or judgements. This is often the toughest request of clients, as it means asking for others to change their positions, but it can make a significant difference at meal times.

Stock recovery-oriented food

Create a space for your loved one in recovery, not for their eating disorder. So often, well meaning family members stock the kitchen with foods they saw their loved one consume prior to leaving for treatment, thinking that it must be a favorite item. While this is well intentioned it can risk the loss of momentum built in treatment of broadening the diet and gaining insight into intentions behind food choices. In treatment we do a lot of work to explore and weed out preferences of the eating disorder from those of the client’s authentic self. A common conclusion many reach is that their eating disorder led them to believe they liked or disliked various things when their authentic self actually craves satiety, full nourishment and variety. Access to foods chosen by the eating disorder can lead to clients questioning their new found food freedom and flexibility; increasing urges to fall back into old patterns.

Remove items with overt diet messages. Honor new foods enjoyed by your loved one and try to avoid comparative talk such as “I’ve never known you to like meat”.  Keep in mind your loved one has an identity completely separate from their past or present food choices. Talk with your loved one and their dietitian to gain an understanding of what foods belong in the recovery oriented kitchen and what foods need to stay out, at least in the the early days back home.

Break the rules.

Not the food safety ones: those are very important. But do break the eating disorder’s rules. Have fun with food. Try breakfast for dinner. Pack a picnic in the yard with finger foods. Eat cake for breakfast. Charge head on at whatever food rules allowed the disorder to thrive. What was once a battleground can become a place of experimentation, joy, corrective memories and connection. Dance in the kitchen. Make a mess. Laugh and turn up the music. There is nothing the eating disorder hates more than the reclaiming of its territory. Take it back in supporting your loved one in the breaking of rules to protect that precious process of recovery.


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