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The coronavirus has been changing the way we live for more than a year now. The rise of social distancing to counteract the virus has had a great effect on how we work, how we socialize, how we relax – and how we eat. Whether a person is recovering from an eating disorder or not, chances are their eating habits have been changed in the past year. Now that the vaccines have been widely distributed and eating in public is coming back, we’re all also going to have to adjust back to going to restaurants, having picnics and barbeques, visiting food trucks, and having dinner with friends and family.

For people with eating disorders, this return can bring even more stress.

Even after eating disorder treatment ends and a person returns to “daily life,” they might still struggle with urges to use disordered eating behaviors, or even with feeling comfortable enough to eat intuitively. After this extended period of social isolation and eating alone, these feelings about food might be more pronounced – and the realities of maintaining recovery during a global pandemic mean that transitioning to “normal” life will be doubly difficult.

However, people in recovery have shown their strength and adaptability time and time again. Although social isolation has caused changes in eating patterns, especially as they relate to social eating, the easing of restrictions is another opportunity to assess how we eat. Read on for a few tips about how to return to social eating while managing your recovered life.

How Social Distancing and Lockdowns Have Changed Eating Habits

For some people with eating disorders, eating in public or with other people brings a sense of discomfort, anxiety, or judgment. Many people with eating disorders also experience social anxiety disorder, which complicates these feelings. In social eating situations, they might feel that their companions are feeling critical of the kinds or amounts of foods they’re eating. This might be more pronounced when eating with acquaintances or colleagues rather than close friends or family since perceived judgments are easier to imagine in people you don’t know as well. During the quarantine, many restaurants closed down and indoor eating in groups was largely shut down. Eating alone has become the new normal.

For people who feel anxious or uncomfortable in social eating situations, the quarantine provided a built-in “excuse” for avoiding eating with others. Many eating disorder therapists encourage their clients to eat with others; eating disorder treatment centers almost always organize group restaurant outings to “normalize” eating in public. This, of course, became impossible during the height of quarantine. For people without disordered eating behaviors, this felt like a loss of an enjoyable pastime. For people in the eating disorder community, however, it was a dangerous precedent that allowed disordered attitudes to slip by unnoticed.

Regular eating in restaurants and group settings is also a part of many graduates from eating disorder treatment programs. It’s common for recovered people to schedule frequent and consistent restaurant excursions and dinner parties as part of their ongoing recovery. For this group, the social distancing rules caused a different kind of stress. These tentpoles of a balanced and intuitive eating plan were suddenly not available; many people shifted to shared Zoom meals and other ways to socialize virtually, but the lack of face-to-face contact at an actual restaurant can pose a threat to maintaining that meal planning schedule.

Whether the quarantine restrictions on social gatherings affected a person’s desire to avoid public eating or interfered with their recovery-based plans for it, COVD-19 has had its effect on their eating habits. Now that the restrictions are being lifted and the world is slowly returning to “normal,” many people in recovery will have to readjust to the changes quarantine caused. It may not be easy, but there are a few things that anyone in recovery can do to get back on track when it comes to public eating.

What Kind of Things Can Help When Going Back to a Public Eating Situation?

If it’s become easier to avoid oftentimes crucial group eating settings, an eating disorder patient may have to revisit some of the lessons they’ve learned in eating disorder treatment to reestablish their comfort. Many of these techniques are part of a standard recovery plan – they might need a few tweaks to apply in a post-quarantine setting, but they are proven to work in many situations over time. All of them are centered on mindfulness, intuitive eating, and the joy and satisfaction a good meal provides. Here are a few ways to ease the return to eating in public:

  • Try to find a therapist or day treatment that can provide CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a form of talk therapy between an individual and a therapist, which uses mindfulness to identify disordered thoughts and behaviors and gradually replace them with healthier actions. This form of cognitive retraining is used in a variety of mental health treatment plans, and it is especially useful in behavior modifications. In a situation where quarantine has emboldened urges to avoid eating in public, a few CBT sessions can help a person in recovery objectively understand that their hesitance to eat in front of other people is driven by their disorder. It can also help promote the understand that their eating companions aren’t judging them.

  • Ignore thoughts that you have to “justify” eating at a restaurant

Many people with eating disorders, especially if body image and body weight concerns are causative factors, feel an irrational need to justify eating in public, or eating certain kinds of food. When you’re ready to go back to a restaurant, keep that in mind and put away any thoughts that you need to make excuses for eating at all. Instead, look at each restaurant visit as another chance to further your recovery, and try new foods, textures, and flavors as well as the life-enriching sense of being satiated.

  • Share your experience with someone else in recovery

Most eating disorder treatment programs include an alumni program for graduates of both residential and day treatment programs. Ironically, the virtual sessions on Zoom or another platform are ideal for alumni groups where the members are in disparate locations. If there are local co-graduates, or if you can locate a nearby eating disorder recovery support group, a great way to go back to public eating is to share that experience with someone who’s in the same boat. Knowing how the other person is feeling will help you feel comfortable eating in public again, and you can provide support for them.

  • Plan a party where food is central, and let everyone know

A barbeque is ideal for this, especially as the springtime moves into the summer and people are more comfortable being in groups outside. If you’re hosting the event, and people know about it, there’s more pressure on you to follow through. Be sure to have someone to provide emotional support if you get cold feet – a great way to bond is to plan the menu and cooking with a friend or friends, so it becomes a group effort.

  • Remember to eat what you want to eat and until you’re satisfied

They’re not judging you. It can be hard to internalize that when you have an eating disorder, but it’s true. Intuitive eating is central to recovery – so when you’re at a restaurant, just eat as much as you want, and eat what you want to. Cobb salad? Go for it. Bacon double cheeseburger? Why not? The important thing is to eat intuitively and in a way that brings you joy.

Alumni Groups and Behavioral Therapy Are important to Re-establishing Comfort in Public Eating

As we mentioned, support and techniques designed to retrain disordered behavior as essential to a long-term eating disorder recovery. As quarantine comes to an end, you’ll want to find an eating disorder treatment program that includes these elements, or if you’ve finished treatment, try to find an alumni group or step-down therapist that can provide these services. If the end of quarantine is causing anxiety or hesitation to go back to public eating, please reach out. There is always help and hope available.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.