Parents and teachers of young people recovering from an eating disorder often find themselves in a situation where they want to offer support at mealtimes, but they don’t know how best to help. It will depend entirely on the individual and, as long as they are well enough, you should always be guided by the young person in question, but here are ten suggestions to help you on your way.
The school lunch hall or cafeteria can be a difficult place for a recovering anorexic to spend time in. You should never insist that their meals are taken there, even if it is your school’s usual policy. Perhaps your school has more than one lunch sitting and the pupil would feel okay in the cafeteria at a time when their peers aren’t there, or perhaps you should find somewhere different altogether such as a classroom.
Trust them to keep their own food diary
Many recovering anorexics are expected to keep a food diary. It can be very tempting to complete this on their behalf because you know what they have eaten and are keen to ensure that it is recorded accurately. However, it can be an important show of trust to allow the pupil to complete their own food diary. Of course, if you have reason to suspect it is wildly inaccurate then consider again!
Let them eat with a friend
Having a friend or a trusted adult with them whilst they eat can make a lot of young people feel more at ease. If you arrange for this, you should ask specifically whether the friend should also be eating at the same time. Some young people will not feel comfortable eating whilst their friend is not whilst others will want to focus on their meal but would like their friend just to talk to them, usually about something entirely non-food related if possible.
Provide specific meals
If it’s practical, you can agree meals ahead with the young person and their parents and have the school provide them (or they may bring their own packed lunch). This will enable them to stick with foods they feel safe with and will also add some predictability to their meals which can help them feel safe. Equally, you may find that if ‘normal’ school meals must be taken, that making the young person aware of what meal will be provided beforehand will help them to prepare themselves (though for others it will give them longer to worry, so you need to decide what is right in your situation).
Accept unusual food choices
However revolting or bizarre, if they are eating then let it pass without comment.
Let them serve themselves
Even if it is not the done thing in your school canteen, if possible let the young person serve their own food as this will help them to feel more in control of the meal. Of course, if they repeatedly serve themselves portions which are simply too small then you will have to revert to a pre-served meal. It is (unless their health provider disagrees), fine during the earlier stages of recovery for the young person to serve themselves smaller than usual portions. This can make the meal seem less daunting and they can gradually work their way up to normal servings.
Make sure that even if you are watching them, that the young person never feels like they’re being watched or spied upon. How would you like it?!
Don’t talk about how much they’ve eaten
This can be really hard, especially if they’ve done really well and you want to congratulate them, but it’s generally not a good idea to pass comment as ‘Well done for eating half a jacket potato, that’s fantastic!’ can so easily be heard as ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you ate so much you greedy fat pig.’ If they volunteer that they are pleased with what they’ve eaten, a safe reply is something along the lines of ‘Well done, I realise that must have been really difficult for you’
Don’t discuss food and weight concerns over lunch
If possible, steer the conversation as far away as possible from concerns about food and weight. This might be a good time to start watching soap operas to give yourself something meaningless to discuss until the meal is over!
After lunch matters too…
After they’ve eaten, recovering anorexics often feel really panicky, depressed or ashamed and some may try and purge themselves of the calories they’ve consumed e.g. by vomiting or exercising. For these reasons it’s really helpful to make sure that the young person is busy and not left alone with their feelings after lunch.
Perhaps you have some more ideas to add? Please do so by commenting below.