Many parents are surprised to find out that there is an association between ADHD and picky eating. It turns out that it is quite common for kids with ADHD to be picky eaters. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do about it. Many of the tips that we recommend for neurotypical kids work well for kids with ADHD as well!
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Reasons for Picky Eating
In addition to the usual reasons for picky eating, there are some additional factors with ADHD that can increase the chances of picky eating.
Many kids with ADHD also have sensory processing differences. This means that they may be more or less sensitive to different inputs. It turns out that eating and mealtime use a lot of our senses, so if your child is hypo or hyper sensitive to any of them, it can impact mealtime.
- Visual: We see our food before we eat it. Some kids may find all this visual input to be overstimulating and may become dysregulated before the meal even begins. Family style meals may not work for them. Big portions may be overwhelming and they may benefit from small portions served on their plate prior to sitting down.
- Auditory: Eating can be loud. Kids who are sensitive to the sounds others make may find eating with others to be extremely uncomfortable. They may do better eating alone or with headphones/ear protectors.
- Touch: Some kids are sensitive to different textures and feelings. This can be very obvious when they don’t want to touch things, but it can also happen with different textures of their food. Other kids may need their food to be more textured so that they can be more aware of it in their mouth. These kids may do well with really chewy or crunchy foods.
- Smell: If your child is really sensitive to smells, they may prefer that their food is served cold or room temperature where the smell is not as strong. They may also enjoy having a smell cleanser like a lemon wedge or coffee beans that they can smell to give their nose a break from other aromas at the meal.
- Taste: This is the sense we most often think of with eating. Many kids are sensitive to the bitter flavor and do better with foods that are sweeter. Other kids may prefer foods with bold flavors and may like spicier foods so that they can get more input.
- Interoception: This is the sense that tells us what’s going on in our body (1). Kids with ADHD may struggle with interoception and may not recognize when they feel hungry, full, thirsty, hot, cold, etc. They may not recognize hunger by a feeling in the stomach, but by feeling grumpy, tired, having a headache, or another symptom. If they don’t realize they are hungry, they may be unwilling to eat.
- Proprioception: This sense tells us where our body and limbs are (2). It’s required for balance and motor control. We use it when we are sitting at the table or in our high chair. Kids who seek extra input may crash into things or spin in circles. They may do well sitting on a wiggle cushion or with a weighted lap blanket.
Many ADHD medications can affect appetite. If your child doesn’t feel hungry, they may be unwilling to try new foods. To help combat this, you can make sure to offer bigger meals prior to giving medication and then again once the medication wears off.
Tips for Picky Eating and ADHD
Work with Your Child’s Sensory Needs
This is usually best done with the help of an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory needs. However, I realize it’s not always possible to find one covered by insurance and even if you can, the waiting list can be extremely long. I recommend following OTButterfly on Instagram for a lot of tips and tricks.
- Try minimizing visual input, if possible. This can mean lowering the lights, clearing out clutter, taking things off the walls. The more input can be overwhelming for people sensitive to visual input.
- While I love family style meals for a lot of families, they don’t work for everyone. If your child is sensitive to the smell of the food, the look of it, or any part of the experience, serve plated meals instead. If you want your child to be able to serve themselves, you can have them plate their food in the kitchen and then bring their food to the table.
- Use tools that help. If your child benefits from noise cancelling headphones, fidgets, a wiggle seat, a weighted lap blanket, heavier utensils, or any other accommodation, don’t be afraid to use them! Often families get so focused on how meals “should” look that we miss the big picture of what’s actually best for OUR family.
- Figure out a sensory diet. This means incorporating activities throughout the day to help keep your child regulated. If they are a sensory seeker, you may need to incorporate activities that help them meet those needs throughout the day. Again, this is best done with the help of a trained occupational therapist.
Just like with any picky eater, more exposures means more opportunities for your child to try a food. Focus on food play and getting your child in the kitchen. Find activities that play to their strengths. They may enjoy being outside and in the garden. Or they may prefer being in charge of ripping up lettuce leaves and getting to be a bit destructive.
Continue to offer foods at mealtime too. Don’t pressure them to eat foods, just make them available. Make mealtime fun for everyone.
Keep Safe Foods Available
With the Division of Responsibility, you are in charge of what food is offered, but I always recommend to serve at least 1 food that your child usually eats. Continue to make safe/preferred foods available to your child.
Come Up with a Meal Schedule
This doesn’t need to be rigid, but plan a meal schedule with meals/snacks every 2-3 hours. If your child is on medication, plan to make breakfast a big meal. This may be your best chance for new foods, because your child may be hungriest.
It’s ok to think outside the box. If your child prefers to eat dinner foods for breakfast, serve dinner foods for breakfast (assuming you have the time to make them). There’s no reason we have to serve certain foods at certain meals. Many kids eat best at breakfast, but we don’t often offer new foods at breakfast because they’re not “breakfast foods.”
Set an Example
Eat the foods that you want your child to eat. You don’t need to make a big deal out of it, but just be the example for your child. They are always watching us. You can also model how you would like your child to politely reject a food if you serve yourself a food you don’t care for. This can be very helpful for when your child eats outside the house.
Ask for Help
If you need it, ask for help. Whether this is someone helping out at mealtimes, getting a meal delivery service, or seeking out a dietitian to help you, get any help that you need.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.