“It can take 15 to 20 times before your child may like a food.”
Picky eating is one of the most common phases in young children, but for children with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), picky eating might be even more prevalent.
Additionally, some kids with ADHD may go hours without eating. “They may have skipped meals because their attention isn’t there to actually sit down and eat,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, chief medical officer at HealthiNation and pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital. Then, because they are starving, they may binge eat on unhealthy foods—especially sugar foods.
Research of the brain suggests this may be due to low dopamine levels among children with ADHD. “They may crave more sugary foods because that can also increase the release of dopamine,” says Dr. Parikh.
“Children with ADHD also may have texture or sensory issues with certain foods,” says Dr. Parikh. They may have something called sensory defensiveness—the belief that certain foods and textures are actually harmful. This can make it especially difficult to get your child to eat healthier foods, which tend to have unique or noticeable textures and more bitter flavors.
Obviously, such erratic eating patterns can be destructive to both physical and emotional health. Irregular eating can also worsen attentiveness, thus exacerbating symptoms of ADHD.
Tips to Help Your Child with ADHD Eat a Healthy Diet
Despite these challenges, it can be helpful to prioritize a healthy diet. Here are tips to encourage regular and healthful eating for your child with ADHD, according to Dr. Parikh.
Stick to a meal schedule. Planning meals and sticking to a schedule can help keep kids with ADHD from eating sporadically. Learn more routines to manage childhood ADHD here.
Stock healthy snacks. “Make sure your pantry is filled with healthy snacks, and fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator,” says Dr. Parikh.
Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. “Keep away all the sugary drinks. If they don’t see it, they’re not going to crave it or want it.” Encourage water or milk instead.
Hide vegetables sparingly. It’s okay to hide veggies in meals—but not all the time. “I always still encourage to put [the vegetables] on the plate and let them try it,” says Dr. Parikh, “because if they don’t see it, they’re never going to know that they like it.”
Include your child in the process. Kids who help with grocery shopping, menu planning, and even cooking are more likely to try new foods.
Encourage experimentation. “They don’t need to finish [a food] necessarily, but take a couple bites,” says Dr. Parikh. They might not like it on the first try—or even the tenth try.
Be persistent. “The most important thing is not to give up,” says Dr. Parikh. “It can take 15 to 20 times before your child may like a food, so the key is persistence.”
It’s important to remember that your child may be dealing with several factors that are fueling their picky eating, such as low dopamine, sensory defensiveness, or even side effects from their ADHD medication. Learn more about how ADHD affects children here.
Dr. Parikh, a board-certified pediatrician affiliated with The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, is HealthiNation's chief medical editor.
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The best diet for all children is eating
more fruits and vegetables, fresh-cooked
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meals, not processed, and trying not to
eat a lot of sugary foods and drinks.
00:00:13,709 --> 00:00:19,098
00:00:19,098 --> 00:00:21,579
Trying to get your child to
eat healthy is difficult, but
00:00:21,579 --> 00:00:24,281
there are some things that you
can do to help with the process.
00:00:24,281 --> 00:00:28,073
For children with ADHD,
schedules are really important and
00:00:28,073 --> 00:00:30,908
it comes alongside also
with meal planning.
00:00:30,908 --> 00:00:34,219
Because if they don't have a schedule and
they eat sporadically and
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they're distracted and they miss meals,
they end up binge eating,
00:00:37,589 --> 00:00:39,291
which actually is worse for them.
00:00:39,291 --> 00:00:44,020
Low dopamine may also be the reason
why children with ADHD may crave
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more sugary items.
00:00:45,461 --> 00:00:49,227
Make sure your pantry is filled
with healthy snacks and fruits and
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vegetables in the refrigerator.
00:00:51,217 --> 00:00:53,001
And keep away all the sugary drinks.
00:00:53,001 --> 00:00:55,571
If it's not around,
they're not gonna go for it.
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Sensory defensiveness may also happen with
children with ADHD, where they feel that
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certain foods that have certain smells and
textures may actually be hurting them.
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There's a lot of debate about if you
should hide the nutritious food.
00:01:09,191 --> 00:01:12,052
It's okay to put a little
spinach in the spaghetti sauce.
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But I always still encourage to put
it on the plate and let them try it,
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because if they don't see it, they're
never gonna know that they like it.
00:01:20,106 --> 00:01:23,836
So ways to get your children to get
engaged in terms of eating healthy is
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actually involving them.
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There's a lot of research that shows if
the child is actually involved in helping
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to prepare the food,
they're more likely to try it.
00:01:32,140 --> 00:01:36,124
Get them involved in the menu making for
the week, take them grocery shopping,
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go to a farmers market or
a grocery store, and
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then getting them to cook and
actually be part of the food preparation.
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They're more likely to try the food and
get more excited about it.
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But the key is not to force it.
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A couple bites, and then that's it.
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We want to foster an environment
where trying foods is okay and
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they don't have to always finish it.
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The most important thing
is not to give up.
00:01:56,745 --> 00:02:00,802
It could take 15 to 20 times before
your child may like a food, so
00:02:00,802 --> 00:02:02,307
the key is persistence.
00:02:02,307 --> 00:02:04,620
If they are already being treated for
00:02:04,620 --> 00:02:07,568
they may have issues with
eating due to the medication.
00:02:07,568 --> 00:02:10,458
There are other options out there and
ways to help.
00:02:10,458 --> 00:02:15,604
Talking to your doctor and your
psychiatrist, keep that dialogue open to
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find the right medication, if that's what
is needed for your child to be treated.
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ADHD parenting tips. Santa Monica, CA: HelpGuide. (Accessed on August 29, 2019 at https://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/when-your-child-has-attention-deficit-disorder-adhd.htm.)
Johnson RJ, Gold MS, Johnson DR, Ishimoto T, Lanaspa MA, Zahniser NR, Avena NM. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: is it time to reappraise the role of sugar consumption? Postgrad Med. 2011 Sep;123(5):39-49.
Leung AKC, Marchand V, Sauve RS, Canadian Paediatric Society, Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee. The ‘picky eater’: the toddler or preschooler who does not eat. Paediatr Child Health. 2012 Oct;17(8):455-7.
What should I feed my child with ADHD? CHADD. (Accessed on August 29, 2019 at https://chadd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ATTN_06_12_GLANZMAN.pdf.)