6 Ways to Set Boundaries Around Food With Your Family

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For many families, food is the centerpiece of get-togethers. Cooking and eating are activities that bring people together to enjoy a shared experience. But in some cases, the experience can be triggering—especially if you have a complex relationship with food. If you find yourself walking away from mealtime with family feeling upset, anxious, resentful, or otherwise not-so-great, it may mean it’s time to set some boundaries around food.

“Most people who are looking to set up some boundaries around food with their family are usually doing so because they’re trying to make some sort of a change for themselves,” Monica Kelly, L.C.S.W., in Round Rock, Texas, tells SELF. Whether they are seeking to improve their relationship with food or their body, or changing their diet for whatever reason, it can be hard to implement a food-related change when food traditions run deep.

One reason is because for many families, food isn’t just food.

“Food represents culture and history, and it can be a way that people build community, find comfort, and feel like they belong,” Mishay Butler-Ozore, L.M.F.T., in southern California, tells SELF. This can make for a messy situation when someone wants to break the mold. “Family members can feel like you’re rejecting them—like you’re not just resisting a food or recipe, but resisting generations and history,” Butler-Ozore says. “It can become very personal for some families.”

Setting boundaries allows you to be open and honest about your needs. Ideally, it can keep you from feeling disrespected by your loved ones and harboring feelings of resentment; and vice versa. And, if necessary, it can open the door to finding other, mutually enjoyable ways to connect and build your relationships, Butler-Ozore says.

Even if your family gatherings are limited (or nonexistent) right now, family tension probably isn’t going to magically go away (sorry). For some people, it may even be looming in their minds as an unwelcome part of getting back to “normal” life. Having a plan ahead of time can make it a lot easier—and get you looking forward to the next big family gathering, whenever that may be.

Here’s how experts recommend setting boundaries around food that both you and your family members can feel good about.

1. Do the internal work first.

“The number one thing I tell clients is that you have to internally be clear about what your boundaries are and grant yourself permission to have those boundaries,” Danielle Locklear, L.M.F.T., in Austin, tells SELF. “When we’re not clear about our boundaries and have not internally reconciled them and given ourselves energetic permission to have them, that’s when we can sort of get bulldozed by people.”

Simply put: If you want other people to accept and respect your boundaries, you have to accept and respect them first.

So, how do you do that? Butler-Ozore suggests asking yourself some questions: What is the change you’re trying to make? Why do you want to make it? Why is it so important to you? Maybe it’s that you’d like to ban certain body-related comments or diet talk from the dinner table, or maybe your boundary is related to a specific dietary change you’re making and you know your family is going to push back. Whatever it is, it’s important to define it in your mind first. “If you’re not sure why you even feel the way you do, it’s harder to set a boundary,” she says. You may end up setting a boundary based on what’s comfortable for everyone else, not based on what you need.

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