Meal planning can be a challenge for anyone, but it’s especially daunting for adults with ADHD. This guide for Meal Planning with ADHD includes tips from a Dietitian/Nutritionist and a free downloadable PDF to help get you started!
We don’t do much in life without a plan – from work projects to social events. And whether or not you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), our brains tend to thrive on structure.
So why do we think we get away without a plan for our daily meals? This is one of the mysteries of life.
Meal planning can make our lives SO much easier by removing any unnecessary midweek decision making and associated overwhelm. In my opinion, it’s the ultimate form of self care.
In this article, we’ll cover what meal planning is, why it can be so difficult to do for adults with ADHD, and the steps to make it easier. Then you can download your very own ADHD meal planning guide and put your knowledge into action!
All ADHDers have different motivators and require different supports. Please find what works for you!
What is meal planning?
Meal planning is asking yourself “what should I eat?” once a week rather than three times a day – every. single. day. It can include brainstorming, finding recipes, grocery shopping, and sometimes (but not always) preparing the ingredients or recipes ahead of time.
These efforts really fall on a spectrum – from simply jotting down what you want for breakfast, lunch and dinner, to batch cooking and freezing pre-prepared food for future meals.
Don’t let this overwhelm you…if you’re interested in meal planning, we’ll start small, and possibly stay small, depending on what strategy works best for you. No one way is better than the other.
Why is meal planning so hard with ADHD?
Making meals requires decision making, planning, budgeting, prioritizing, following directions, and organization – all skills that fall under the umbrella of executive function. And for those of us with ADHD, executive functioning may not be our strong suit.
What this means is that our internal self-management systems are a bit wonky. This may make it incredibly difficult to complete certain tasks, especially those we find boring or those with multiple steps.
If you’re interested in learning more about executive function, ADDitude magazine has a great article written by Russell Barkley, Ph.D on their website.
Additionally, if you take any medications for your ADHD symptoms, their benefits may start to wear off around dinner time (depending on when you take them during the day). This may leave you feeling unmotivated, uninspired or simply just tired. And resorting to takeout is the natural next step.
Benefits of having a meal plan
Planning and cooking with ADHD can be tough, and getting started is often the hardest part. If you’re struggling to find the motivation, it may benefit you to think of all the ways that this will ultimately help you.
Here are the benefits of meal planning:
- Saves time & energy. Go to the grocery store with a plan and you’ll avoid multiple trips throughout the week. This means fewer lines and fewer dollars spent on reusable grocery bags when you inevitably forget yours in the car.
- Saves money. A meal plan can help you stay within your food budget by helping you reduce impulse purchases and takeout costs.
- Reduces food waste. Have you ever heard of the ADHD tax? It’s the unexpected costs associated with certain behaviours related to ADHD symptoms, like forgetting about food in the fridge. One way to reduce this tax and associated food waste is to plan out your meals.
- Promotes nourishing meals at home. Meal planning pushes you to make informed food decisions before you’re hungry. It allows you to incorporate a variety of colourful and fun foods into your diet.
- Reduces overwhelm. Think less about food throughout the week and use that energy on the other things that matter.
The basic steps of meal planning
1. Create a list of 8-10 recipes.
This step is likely to take the longest, but once you have your list you will be set up for meal prep success. The idea here is that you will come up with eight or more recipes that you can refer back to when you go to plan your food for the week.
In my opinion, the best ADHD-friendly recipes or meals are easy, freezable and share common ingredients. Some of my favorites are sheet pan, Instant Pot and non-cook meals.
Freezable foods are key if you get bored of foods quickly. If something seems unappetizing a day or two after you prep it, you can simply pop it in the freezer to defrost at another time. I will even preemptively freeze individual portions of food in preparation for this.
When creating your recipe list, make sure you include recipes that you enjoy for both lunch and dinner. Also include ones for breakfast if you prefer more elaborate morning meals.
Regardless of how you organize your recipes, keep them all in one place. You can bookmark them in a “recipe” folder on your internet browser; print them and make your own personalized cookbook; or jot them down on recipe cards and store them in the kitchen.
Having your favorite recipes in a single location will save you any extra mental effort needed on meal planning day. This may even mean keeping your recipes in your purse or in your glove compartment for when you are on the go.
Still don’t have 8 recipes?
No worries! Having eight recipes isn’t a hard and fast rule. But if you are interested in following this process, this is a great time to experiment with some new recipes.
For inspiration, ask your friends or family for their go-to dishes. If you have children, I’m sure they will be more than happy to tell you what they don’t like…
You can also look in cookbooks, on Google, Pinterest, or on your favorite food blogs. If you do use an internet source, check out the star rating for each meal. This is usually a pretty good indicator of overall success and satisfaction.
And with that you have your very own ADHD diet menu – congrats!
2. Do inventory
Check your fridge, freezer and pantry before you start to plan. If you don’t already have a recipe in mind, this might give you some inspiration. Or at least give you an idea of the foods you already have, as well as any perishables you should cook up.
Check for any ingredients or staples you might be out of. Make note.
3. Make a plan & write it down
Use your ADHD Meal Plan PDF templates for this part. Feel free to laminate them and stick them up on the fridge.
Alternatively, you can use a bullet journal, notes app, chalk or dry erase board. There are also a few highly regarded ADHD meal planning apps out there. But I personally prefer a hardcopy plan that I can scribble on.
Start by making note of any meals you will be having away from the home. Also note the days that you will be the busiest, as you may want to rely on something quick or pre-prepared.
This should give you a pretty good idea of how much time you have to dedicate to meal preparation during the week and when you should plan for leftovers or takeout.
Use the time that you have available, your recipe list, inventory stock and any cravings to guide your plan. You can even create a recipe rotation if you really want to simplify things.
But be warned. If you’re someone who gets bored of foods quickly, a recipe rotation is likely not the best strategy for you.
Write down the foods that you will have each day (make sure you factor in leftovers) and you’re off to the races!
Next, plan your meal prep session(s). Set aside time for when you are able to prepare your meals – whether it’s 2-3 hours on Sundays or 30 minutes each night. Figure out what works best for you.
FYI – I break down my weekly process in the Meal Planner.
Plan for some flexibility & implement shortcuts
This whole process can be as rigid or flexible as you’d like. Nevertheless, you should try to have some back-up options on hand should you change your mind about a meal, such as non-perishable or frozen foods that you love. Some of my favorites include frozen leftovers from previous meal prep sessions, canned soups and frozen burritos.
You can always save the ingredients from the original recipe for the next day, or cut & freeze them if they have a more immediate expiry.
Plan for leftovers
One of the best efficiency hacks is batching freezable foods. This is when you double or triple a recipe with the intention of freezing some for a later date.
For example, if you are making quinoa or shredded chicken, make extra and freeze it for a day when you have less motivation to cook. When hunger strikes, defrost and mix these with some pre-packaged lettuce and dressing. Voilà, you have yourself a satisfying salad.
Some of the best freezer meals:
- Animal proteins, including shredded chicken, ground meat, burgers, meatballs and meatloaf
- Soups, stews, chilis and curries
- Stir fries
- Rice, quinoa and other grains
- Lasagne or casseroles (I prefer to freeze these uncooked)
- Banana bread, muffins and other baked goods
Even if frozen food isn’t your thing, leftovers may be your saving grace throughout the week. If you get bored of food easily, you can repurpose leftovers in different ways.
Using the shredded chicken example, you can use it to top a pizza, make a chicken salad sandwich or mix it in with pasta.
Be sure to include these repurposed meals in your meal plan to prevent food waste.
More on batch meal prepping below!
4. Make your grocery list
Go through each recipe and write down ALL the ingredients needed in the following buckets:
- Bread & Baked Goods
- Meat & Seafood
- Pantry (inner aisles)
- Frozen Foods
Every time I go shopping I stick to the same two stores since I know the layouts like the back of my hand. I add the food items to my list in these buckets, which also happens to be order in which I travel through the grocery store. This makes the whole experience much less overwhelming and discouraging.
Double check your inventory if you don’t remember what you have in stock and highlight or cross off any of the items you don’t need to buy. You can always rewrite your list with only the items you need, but my hyperactive mind doesn’t have the patience for that.
5. Grocery Shop
Some people prefer to do smaller trips multiple times a week. Others prefer to do one big trip once a week. I prefer the latter as I have found it to be a huge time, money and stress saver overall. However, storage space may be a factor in the frequency of shopping.
I always keep a highlighter or pen in my purse and highlight or cross things off as I get them. Trying to shop off of a list with no indication of what I already have in my cart is a big no-go for me.
If you have a tendency to dawdle, set an alarm for the amount of time you want to allot to shopping. Just knowing an alarm will go off in 30-45 minutes might get you moving.
If grocery shopping is one of those tasks that you dread – order for pick-up or delivery! Do whatever floats your grocery boat.
6. Batch Meal Prep (optional)
Batch meal prepping is a great option for those who want to spend less time in the kitchen. This is when we create extra food for future meals. What works well for some ADHDers is a Friday planning session, Saturday grocery shop, and Sunday meal prep session.
A few meal prep tips:
- Clear your workspace and empty the dishwasher before you get started. A clean kitchen is much easier to work in.
- Get all your ingredients out first. If you are missing something, you’ll know before it’s too late.
- Use a compost bowl. This way you aren’t reaching beneath the sink every few minutes.
- Binge a TV show or podcast while you work. This may very well activate your hyperfocus, or at least make the cooking process a little less dull.
- Tidy as things cook (rather than as you go). This is a much more efficient use of time.
- Ask for help. Share the responsibility of meals with members of your household.
I wouldn’t recommend preparing food for more than three to five days at a time (and even less for certain items like seafood). That is, unless you plan to freeze it. Most recipes will have storage instructions to guide you.
If you’re interested in a more comprehensive post on ADHD meal prep, let me know in the comments below! I plan my content around what you want to read.
Meal planning with ADHD
It might not be easy at first, but meal planning will ultimately save you time and energy once you have the right processes and systems in place. Promise.
The key is to make it a habit. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn to love it like I do!
Find what works for you and don’t forget to download your weekly ADHD meal plan for adults like YOU.