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Meal Planning with ADHD

Woman planning meals in supermarket
Getty Images / Peopleimages

As a busy working mother with ADHD, the idea of getting dinner on the table every night was a major source of stress for Terry Matlen. In this piece, Terry offers practical advice for planning out healthy, balanced meals specifically tailored to people with ADHD.

My mother was a gourmet cooking teacher. She’d lead her twice weekly in-home “sit around the counter” classes by starting with at least two appetizers, throwing in a main dish that I couldn’t pronounce — let alone spell — and ending with a fancy dessert.

Yes, I’d occasionally — and begrudgingly — attend one of her popular classes to make her happy. Of course, I attended for free, though I’d always offer to wash the dishes and pots and pans. All 100 of them.

What I liked far better was being one of her cooking experiment subjects when she’d practice her dishes on us every Sunday.

This was about 30 years ago, around 10 years before I learned of my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) through an intensive and very thorough evaluation.

Watching my mother stride confidently from one part of the kitchen to the other, mixing this, cooking that, all while talking to her enthusiastic audience seemed more like a magic show than a cooking class.

How does she DO that? I’d think, as I mentally planned my family’s dinner for that night — grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread.

Knowing my difficulties getting around the kitchen, my mother, bless her little gourmet heart, never asked that much of me when she had major family gatherings that required everyone to bring some sort of dish.

She always asked me to bring the same thing: a relish tray. She knew I could manage cutting two tomatoes and half of a red onion and creating a cornucopia of vegetables, complete with radishes and succulent, fat black olives.

Sometimes, to her and my surprise, I’d even remember to lay a thin slab of romaine lettuce on the bottom as garnish to make the masterpiece complete.

I wish my children had my mother’s empathy when it came to my cooking. Throwing together a relish tray soaked up a ton of my energy. Pulling together dinners seven days a week for my family was just beyond the beyond.

Add in five days of school lunches and I was certainly no “Mother of the Year” since most of our meals were macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and my signature dish: takeout from the Stage Deli.

It wasn’t until I got a diagnosis of ADHD and began reading everything about it that I realized how difficult meal planning is for many with ADHD. It became a huge thorn in my side in those early days of trying to accept my diagnosis, because it was a daily reminder of how incompetent I felt.

I mean, if you have kids, you basically have to cook. All the time. Gone were the days before children when my husband and I could live almost exclusively on takeout. You can (sort of) get away with that when you live in New York City, like we did briefly.

But now I’m in Michigan. The Midwest. Apple pie from scratch, roast chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and sometimes even in that order. At least in my house.

I understand the struggles many adults with ADHD have when it comes to meal planning — I live it every day. But over the years, I’ve found solutions, workarounds, shortcuts, and learned the value of plain old faking it. I’d like to share some of these tips with you.

Make a plan

Isn’t that funny? You know how hard it is to plan ahead, whether it’s making dinner or planning a vacation. But since we’re talking about meals, not Rome, here’s a trick that can really help. It’s called POS: Plan or Starve.

First, you’ll need to find 10 index cards. On the front of each card, write out one full dinner menu. One example could be roast chicken, broccoli, and rice. On the back of the card, list the ingredients you’ll need.

Now, you may not have 10 meals in your repertoire, so feel free to start with five or so. You’ll be adding bonus cards anyway. Bonus means eating out, ordering food in, or eating leftovers (or starving).

Make sure you add a few cards marked with a red “X” or something similar to designate those bonus options for days you’ll have little time for cooking: after hockey practice, ballet lessons, late night at work, etc.

Once you’ve pulled together your meals, carry them with you in your purse or wallet, or stick them in your glove compartment. Then, when you’re at the market, you can pull out a card and focus on just getting the ingredients you need.

This can save you about three hours of walking around in a daze, staring at the zillions of cereal boxes and other eye-popping items that give you a migraine or panic attack.

If you happen to be a decent planner, you can shop for a week’s worth of meals using your cards.

Make it simple

Since when is there a rule that all meals need to be cooked from scratch? This is the 21st century, people! Most of you are struggling to get through an eight-hour day at work, two hours of helping your kids with their homework, throwing laundry in the machine (and often rewashing towels because you forget to move them to the dryer), walking the dog, getting kids into the bathtub, and everything else.

You can simplify meal planning and still keep your meals healthy by:

  • buying a rotisserie chicken instead of cooking one
  • using bagged lettuce and other precut vegetables
  • doubling your recipes for leftovers or freezing for a future meal
  • using a slow cooker

The slow cooker has become my very best friend: Just throw in ingredients first thing in the morning and come home to a fully cooked dinner.

Shopping tips

Part of my phobia of planning dinners is directly related to my hatred for grocery shopping. I can easily spend over two hours for a planned dash to the market for dinner supplies.

Having ADHD means being easily distracted, and how can you not be when you’re dealing with aisles and aisles of brightly colored food items, blasting Muzak from the ’80s, children running wild — or worse — screaming, and horrific florescent lighting? Your brain caves and you rush to the cookie section to calm yourself down.

All those choices! All that stimuli! Here are some tips for getting through the aisles of your local supermarket:

  • Shop at smaller markets. You’ll get out much quicker. Yes, you’ll generally pay more but saving time — and sanity — might be worth it.
  • Shop at times with fewer people. Think early morning or later in the evening.
  • Make a shopping list. It’s easier said than done, but there are tools to help you. You can use shopping list apps or the Notes app on your smartphone.
  • Shop online. This is my favorite: Let someone else deal with the store. More and more cities offer these services. You can find them by searching online for home delivery grocery services.
  • Have ready-made meals delivered to you. Not great for the budget conscious, but if you tend to eat out a lot because planning and cooking are difficult, this may actually save you money.

Use online resources

Those of us with ADHD get bored easily. And though making the same things repeatedly takes away a lot of decision-making, it also makes for a boring routine.

There are tons of websites and apps that can help you with your boredom and trouble making decisions — both common traits of ADHD. Here are a few websites that can help:

I also like to check out Pinterest for recipes and meal-planning tips. And don’t forget YouTube! There are tons of videos you can add to your repertoire that’ll capture your attention.

Check out these apps, too:

Congratulations! You’ve graduated from fast-food frenzy to healthy, quick, and easy meal planning. By using the tips above, you can manage the challenges many of us face with ADHD. Bon appétit!

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 

NPS-ALL-NP-01022 JUL 2023

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