What to Do If Your Child with ADHD Won’t Eat

“It can take 15 to 20 times before your child may like a food.”

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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.

  1. 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.

  2. Stock healthy snacks. “Make sure your pantry is filled with healthy snacks, and fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator,” says Dr. Parikh. 

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. Include your child in the process. Kids who help with grocery shopping, menu planning, and even cooking are more likely to try new foods.

  6. 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. 

  7. 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.