Thanksgiving has traditionally been a food-based holiday, but there are good reasons to take the focus off food at Thanksgiving. Whether you’re serving people who have limited food choices, disordered eating or eating disorders, Thanksgiving can quickly become fraught.
What this means is that we need to make some changes to Thanksgiving, possibly the most heavily food-based holiday on the calendar.
Three reasons to take the focus off food at Thanksgiving
It makes sense to shift the focus of Thanksgiving away from food. Here are three reasons why it’s important to take the focus off food this Thanksgiving:
1. It’s stressful for people who have eating disorders
Being surrounded by food on Thanksgiving creates a great deal of anxiety and stress for anyone who is in recovery for an eating disorder. For someone who has an eating disorder, food equals stress, so it makes good sense to remove the focus on food while building a sense of community and belonging. This doesn’t mean you don’t serve food, but it does mean food is not considered the centerpiece of the holiday.
2. It’s stressful for people who are paleo/vegetarian/vegan/clean/carb-free/gluten-free, etc.
Whatever your personal opinion of these dietary restrictions, you’re likely to have guests who follow them. When you have removed entire categories of food from your diet, it is very stressful to be presented with options that you cannot eat. Even someone who is completely committed to their lifestyle can’t ignore the feeling of slight rejection when there is not “safe” food available for them at an event.
3. It’s stressful for the host
Hosts have found their Thanksgiving preparations exhausting now that they must accommodate their own tastes as well as those of their guests’ varied preferences. Thinking about a menu that accommodates everyone’s needs is very stressful, more expensive, and more time-consuming than the “traditional” Thanksgiving meal.
However you look at it, a food-based Thanksgiving means that everyone feels more stress, and we can all agree (regardless of our food preferences) that stress is not conducive to a pleasant and meaningful holiday.
Three ways to take the focus off food this Thanksgiving
This doesn’t mean that you don’t serve food at Thanksgiving, it just means that you approach the food with less anxiety and stress, focusing your energy instead on meaningful connection and belonging. Here are three ways to take the focus off food this Thanksgiving:
1. Ask people to bring a dish
Instead of asking people how you can accommodate their food preferences and planning a menu that meets each person’s individual needs, tell people exactly what you are making, and invite them to bring a dish to share with everyone that meets their unique dietary needs and preferences.
This way you can limit your menu to a reasonable level and still cook your personal favorite dishes for Thanksgiving, and you can encourage people who have special diets to share their recipes with everyone. This may feel impossible, but, really, it is absolutely an option! Remember that the story of Thanksgiving was about sharing food, and it is a wonderful idea to have everyone bring their own contribution to the Thanksgiving table.
If you think that you should be solely responsible for cooking the entire Thanksgiving meal (and that you have to meet each person’s unique dietary restrictions), then perhaps you have an unrealistic idea of what it means to be a modern woman.
Come on – we’re not 1950s housewives, and we can stop acting like we are! Food is not how we show our love … we have many, many other ways to share love, and it can have nothing to do with food.
And, of course, even if you don’t have an image of a 1950s housewife in your head, you may have Martha Stewart in there. Get rid of that image, too! We are way beyond needing to prove our feminine power through perfectly, carefully, painstakingly prepared food. Let it go.
2. Do something together before you eat
Since Thanksgiving is a food-centric holiday, most hosts think primarily about planning the menu for Thanksgiving. But when we take the focus off the food and look instead at building connection and belonging, we have so many other options.
Instead of worrying about the perfect food, think about an activity that will bring your guests together in non-food ways. Here are some ideas:
- Play board/card games
- Play a sport like baseball, football, etc.
- Go for a hike
- Volunteer for a few hours
- Visit an elderly neighbor who may be lonely
- Plant a tree or do some gardening
- Go to a beach, hiking trail or other state park land and pick up trash
- Do an art project
- Learn something new together
Spending time together before sitting down at the table is important to building connection and belonging. It allows the group to loosen up and enjoy each other’s company in a non-food setting. This will make the moment when everyone sits down to eat the meal much less stressful.
3. Take the food off the table
Every magazine and blog shows a table laden with food. Your vision of a good Thanksgiving is probably something like this:
Yes, it’s lovely, but having food on the table means that people who have dietary restrictions are faced with many things they cannot eat. At the same time, people who have eating disorders feel much more anxiety and stress when food serving platters are directly in front of them during a meal.
Most importantly, having the food platters on the table literally puts the food “front and center” of the event. Instead, set up a buffet table off to the side so that everyone can serve themselves the food choices they prefer at quantities they desire.
If you are used to a more formal “food on the table” setting, this may feel like a stretch to you, but remember that food preferences are varied, and we don’t live in a society in which everyone eats the same food at a meal. When you allow people to serve themselves from a buffet, you will likely see that each plate has its own unique contents.
And, of course, once everyone has enjoyed food they enjoy, and you have all enjoyed each other’s company, it may be time to turn on football and chill out while basking in the pleasant glow of belonging and connection.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.