Eating with Our Clients: The Therapeutic Meal
By Lisa Diers, Director of Nutrition, The Emily Program
At The Emily Program, our registered dietitian nutritionists work with clients to help them heal their relationships to food and physical selves. Incorporating the proper mix of nourishment into their daily lives helps their bodies and minds begin to recover and function the way they are naturally meant to.
One way we begin to repair our clients' relationships with food is to eat meals with them – at all levels of care from outpatient to 24/7 residential. In fact, we have a food philosophy: At The Emily Program we endorse a philosophy of food that aims to support the greatest level of personal choice and understanding possible in order to appropriately nourish ones' body. We understand that this may look different for individuals at different times in their recovery but that ultimately, it provides a sense of freedom and true choice in finding ways to purchase, prepare, and consume food in a manner that is comfortable and enjoyable, meets the body's physical needs, and enhances one's overall quality of life.
Our experiential or therapeutic meals are an active approach from both client and clinician which increases awareness of table behaviors while helping them work through the feelings behind the action in real time, helping them practice skill building for increased awareness of symptom triggers and building positive coping skills as they move through their recovery process.
We choose to eat with our clients because that's when we can start to address their relationship with food during the actual experience of eating, provide support and model healthy and realistic eating situations. Getting "on the plate" allows us to teach ownership and build their knowledge of self and the eating disorder. This experience provides:
- Talking about challenges in 'real time'
- Idea of meals/food being much more than something to 'get through'
- Encouraging presence at the table
- Opportunity for clients to practice assertiveness
- Help to decipher likes/dislikes from eating disorder preferences
Each meal becomes a therapeutic opportunity to help our clients become aware of and build skills that will transfer to their lives outside of treatment. Through repeated practice, we are able to help client develop skills that they can use throughout their lifetime; not just short-term.
Experiences throughout a meal can and will vary. Because eating disorder thoughts have been listened to for a duration of time, it can be difficult for someone to sit at a meal and "just eat." Emotions can run high, and staff will help clients identify the "why" of what they are experiencing. With practice, identifying why something is a struggle can aid in moving past the issue. Our goal is to help clients cope and build the skills they need to establish a relationship with food that is non-judgmental and free of shame or fear. Using meal time, we're able to help clients recognize, reflect, and progress toward recovery from an eating disorder. Sitting together at a meal, working through the emotions and eating disorder thoughts and/or behaviors, provides a level of support unique to The Emily Program services. We truly do believe people can recover. And we'll be there every step of the way.