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Exploring the Link Between ADHD and Picky Eating

A girl refusing to eat her vegetables with text that reads "Exploring the Link Between ADHD and Picky Eating"

Exploring the Link Between ADHD and Picky Eating was written by Laura Ugwuoke and reviewed/edited by Rivah Goldstein MScFN, RD and Jackie Silver MHSc, RD

Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine. 
Last updated: November 16, 2023

Do you ever find yourself being a bit picky about the foods you eat? Maybe certain textures or tastes just don’t sit right with you? You’re not alone! 

Picky eating is something that many people experience, but did you know that for individuals living with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), it can be even more challenging!

In this article, we’ll dive into the fascinating connection between ADHD and picky eating. To better understand this connection, let’s first explore what picky eating really means. 

A boy looking unhappy with his broccoli - ADHD and picky eating

ADHD and Picky Eating: What is Picky Eating?

Picky eating is also known as selective eating. This is when someone prefers to eat a limited variety of foods and avoids trying new or different ones. 

A picky eater might have their favorite foods they prefer to stick to, because it is familiar and provides a sense of comfort to them. They may also not like certain tastes, textures, or smells of foods

What is the Connection between ADHD and Picky Eating?

Most research on picky eating has focused on picky eating in children. The research has shown that children with ADHD are more likely to be picky eaters compared to neurotypical kids.

The connection between ADHD and picky eating has been linked to various explanations:

  • Children with ADHD might also have food sensitivities. This could cause them to feel overstimulated by certain taste, smell, or texture of the food, making them feel uncomfortable when trying new foods.
  • Additionally, individuals living with ADHD may rely on stimulant medication to help  to improve focus and attention. However, these medications can have a side effect of suppressing appetite, which can further contribute to picky eating tendencies.
A graphic showing the connection between ADHD and picky eating

ADHD and Picky Eating: Potential Risks 

Some risks associated with picky eating may include:

  • Nutritional Deficiencies: One of the most significant risks of picky eating is the risk of nutritional deficiencies. When a person restricts their diet to a limited number of foods, they may miss out on essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients crucial for growth, development, and good health (such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and more).

    Nutrient deficiencies may lead to problems like stunted growth, weakened immune systems, and delayed cognitive development.
  • Lack of Energy and Fatigue: Nutritional deficiencies caused by having a limited diet can result in low energy levels and fatigue. Without a proper balance of nutrients, our  bodies struggle to function at their best, leading to sluggishness and tiredness. 
  • Impaired Cognitive Function: Nutritional deficiencies from picky eating can lead to a deficiency of certain essential nutrients needed for optimal brain function like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Deficiencies in these nutrients can negatively affect our memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities.

ADHD and Picky Eating in Adults

Most research on picky eating has primarily focused on children, with not many studies exploring picky eating behaviors in adults. This is unfortunate because we see adults with ADHD who are picky eaters in our practice all the time! 

Some of our adult picky eater clients want to work on expanding their food choices and others prefer to maximize the nutritional quality of their diet within their current safe foods – both are great options! 

As such, there is a need for more research on picky eating in adults to better understand how picky eating manifests in adult populations, especially those with ADHD or other sensory-related challenges.

10 Tips for ADHD and Picky Eating 

Being picky with your food can be a challenge when trying to establish healthy eating habits. The following strategies can make mealtimes a more enjoyable experience for picky eaters and their caregivers:

1. Division of Responsibility: This is a feeding approach that can be beneficial for young picky eaters with ADHD. It involves creating clear roles for both the child and the caregiver during mealtimes. 

As the caregiver, your responsibility is to provide a variety of nutritious foods and to decide when and where your child eats. On the other hand, your child’s responsibility is to decide whether they eat or not, and how much they want to eat from the foods offered. 

This approach empowers your child to listen to their body’s natural hunger and fullness cues while ensuring they have access to a balanced meal and a good mealtime routine.

2. Serving Preferred Foods with New Foods: Combining a preferred food with a new food can help a picky eater feel more comfortable trying new foods. For instance, if you want to introduce vegetables and you enjoy eating pasta, you can introduce a new vegetable pasta sauce or add colorful veggies like carrots or peas to your meal. 

Combining a familiar food with a new food adds an extra level of comfort to an experience that may seem uncomfortable. Gradually, this could help a picky eater become more open to exploring different flavors and textures.

3. Get Kids Involved in Cooking: Engaging children with ADHD and picky eating in meal preparation can be a fun way to stimulate their interest in new foods. This experience can help introduce them to a variety of textures and flavors as the meal is being prepared. 

Also, the sense of accomplishment from being involved in the cooking process can make them more enthusiastic about trying the meal they helped create.

2 girls and their mom cooking together - ADHD and picky eating

4. Food Chaining: Food chaining is a step by step process for introducing new foods. You start with a food that your picky eater likes, and then slowly make small changes to help them try the food in a different way. With continued tweaks, the original food becomes a completely new food!   

For instance, starting off with fast food chicken nuggets that your picky eater already accepts, and making slow and gradual changes to the accepted food until you get to the goal of new food, which in this case could be homemade chicken breast. 

Your first tweak may be to serve store-bought baked nuggets, then homemade chicken nuggets, then to the final step of a pan fried or baked chicken breast without coating. 

To learn more about food chaining, click here and here.

See our graphic below for more food chaining examples. 

Food chaining example: chicken nuggets to chicken pieces - ADHD and picky eating
Food chaining example: strawberry yogurt tube to strawberries - ADHD and picky eating
Food chaining example: chocolate to white milk - ADHD and picky eating

5. Avoid using force, bribes, or rewards: Using tactics like force, bribes or rewards to  get a picky eater to eat certain foods could make them develop a negative association with mealtimes and increase their reluctance to try new foods. 

Instead, foster a relaxed and supportive atmosphere during meals, allowing them to explore new foods at their own pace free from stress.

6. Structured Mealtime Routines: A consistent mealtime routine can be beneficial for folks with ADHD and picky eating. The predictability of the routines can provide a sense of stability and reduce potential anxiety around food.

A fork and knife with a clock showing 1:58 - ADHD and picky eating

7. Introduce New Foods Gradually: Introducing new foods gradually can be less overwhelming for picky eaters. Encourage them to try a very small portion of a new food alongside familiar foods they enjoy. A tiny portion is much less overwhelming and gives the child confidence that they are capable of trying it!

Patience is essential, as it may take 20-30 exposures before picky eaters will accept a new food.

8. Role Model Food Habits: Children often imitate the behaviors of those around them. Being a positive role model by enjoying a variety of healthy foods yourself can encourage the picky eater to feel more confident and interested in trying new foods as well. 

9. Plant a Vegetable Garden: If you have space, consider planting a small vegetable garden together. Children with ADHD can benefit from sensory experiences in green environments like gardening.

Watching their own vegetables grow can help nurture their interest in trying the food they grow.

Check out this “Pizza Garden” growing kit for kids. 

Vegetable garden with radish and carrot - ADHD and picky eating

10. Invite friends or family over for meals: Encouraging socialization during meals can influence a picky eater’s behavior as they observe others eating different foods. 

The social interactions can create a supportive environment that would help your picky eater feel more comfortable trying different foods.

A graphic listing 10 tips for picky eating - ADHD and picky eating

ADHD and Picky Eating: Our Favourite Products for Picky Eaters

While picky eating can be challenging, finding products that cater to ADHD and picky eating can be a game-changer for both children and adults alike. Here are some of our favorite products for picky eaters:

Bento-style lunch boxes are a fun and practical way to present meals to picky eaters. These containers feature multiple compartments, making them perfect for people who prefer to keep their foods separate.

Fun food cutters and shapes can transform ordinary foods into exciting  works of art. With these tools, you can turn sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables into delightful shapes like stars, hearts, or animals, which could make them more appealing to picky eaters.

Smoothies are a fantastic way to get in essential nutrients while catering to picky eaters’ taste preferences. (Check out this blog post on smoothies for picky eaters!) This Mini Blender offers  2 blending speeds for the blending speed control. 

This blender makes single smoothie servings  and transitions from a blending cup to an on the go smoothie cup for your convenience.

Veggie spiralizers can transform vegetables into noodle-like shapes. This can create a fun alternative to traditional pasta, and make meals more engaging and enjoyable for ADHD and picky eating.

A stack of dinner cards can turn trying new foods into an exciting game for picky eaters and all alike. These cards are spill proof and durable, perfect for use around food. Make your family meal time environment fun and stress free for ADHD and picky eating! 

This interactive spinning plate, developed by parents of picky eaters, is perfect for ADHD and picky eating. It features 8 different compartments, encouraging your picky eater to try a new food by spinning the arrow. 

Picture Book Recommendations for ADHD and Picky Eating

Picture books can be a great way to introduce kids to a variety of food and get them interested in exploring different types of meals, textures, flavors, and cultural foods. 

Here are a few of our favorite book recommendations for ADHD and picky eating:

  1. Apple Cake: A Gratitude Book

In this book authored by Dawn Casey and illustrated by Genevieve Godbout, a child expresses gratitude for different ingredients that nature provides. The child’s family uses these ingredients to make a delicious apple cake! 

This unique story can build up your picky eater’s relationship with food by teaching them gratitude for the food around them. 

  1. Ramen for Everyone Book

Patricia Tanumihardja’s picture book follows Hiro’s quest to replicate his dad’s mouthwatering ramen in a delightful culinary adventure. Along the way, young readers discover valuable lessons about culture and cuisine, emphasizing that the worth of food goes beyond perfection.

  1. Kalamata’s Kitchen Book

In this book by Sarah Thomas, Kalamata and her alligator sidekick go on the first of many exciting food adventures in a charming story about facing fears and overcoming back-to-school jitters.

Perfect for ADHD and picky eating, the theme of this book is that food can provide comfort and remind us to stay curious.

  1. Big Picture Book How Food Grows 

This picture book by Emily Bone, the process of how food grows comes to life through gorgeous  illustrations of plants, grains and trees in diverse habitats.

Going along with one of our tips for ADHD and picky eating mentioned above, this book encourages children to explore the outdoors and learn more about where their food comes from.

  1. Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story 

This book beautifully illustrates a depiction of a modern Native American family, authored by Kevin Noble Maillard and vibrantly illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. 

Not only does this book celebrate cultural diversity, it also demonstrates that food is a lot more than just food! 

  1. My Food, Your Food, Our Food 

This book by Emma Bernay beautifully explores the diversity in the foods people like to eat, and explores how the ways people eat are alike and different. It encourages the exploration of diverse types of foods!

  1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

This classic children’s book by Eric Carle follows the journey of a young caterpillar as he grows up and turns into a butterfly. Throughout his development he makes some choices about the foods that he eats; some of these choices make him feel good and some of these choices give him a stomach ache. 

This book is great for kids with ADHD and picky eating because it shows the importance of eating a variety of nutritious foods to feel good.

  1. Green Eggs and Ham

This is another well-loved classic by Dr. Seuss! In this story, an unnamed man refuses to try green eggs and ham, while his friend keeps trying to convince him. Eventually the man tries the green eggs and ham and enjoys it! 

This story teaches picky eaters that you don’t know if you’ll like something until you try it! 

  1. I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato

This exciting, brightly illustrated book features a picky eater, Lola and her patient older brother Charlie. Charlie helps Lola think of her least favorite foods in a unique way, convincing her to try them!

This book is great for kids with ADHD and picky eating as it shows them how using their imaginations can lead to exploration of unacceptable foods.

  1. Too Pickley

This rhyming story book is about a little boy who doesn’t like anything on his plate. It features captivating and silly images which will be sure to capture your ADHD picky eater’s attention.

In her book, Jean Ried makes light of a struggle for kids with ADHD and picky eating as they learn to explore and introduce new foods into their diets. 

ADHD and Picky Eating: Seeking Professional Support

When picky eating becomes severe and starts significantly affecting a person’s overall health and well-being, it may be time to seek professional support. 

Some signs to look out for when recognizing severe picky eating involve:

  • Extremely limited food intake, leading to social isolation in attempt to avoid interactions with food
  • Extremely heightened sensitivity to textures, tastes, or smells of food, leading to strong aversions and avoidance of foods.
  • Nutritional deficiencies leading to suboptimal development
  • Severe weight loss 

If you notice any of these signs, please seek professional help from a Registered Dietitian or other licensed healthcare provider.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a relatively new eating disorder that is characterized by severe picky eating and avoidance of foods unrelated to body image (Learn more here). 

Here are some recommendations for dietitians who specialize in ARFID:

A little boy refusing to eat food - ADHD and picky eating

Conclusion

In a nutshell, exploring the relationship between ADHD and picky eating serves as a reminder not to be too hard on yourself if you struggle with picky eating. Starting small and being patient with yourself is key in making lasting changes.

Tips like combining new foods with the ones you already enjoy can make things feel easier and less scary. Having a routine for your meals can also help you feel empowered in trying new foods and make mealtimes less challenging.

However, if you or someone you know has severe problems with eating, talking to a healthcare practitioner is a good idea. If picky eating gets really serious and begins to affect the quality of your life, it’s important to get help.

Additionally, healthcare professionals and dietitians can help you set targeted, achievable goals as you embark on your journey to diet expansion!

Looking for more evidence based posts?
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Laura Ugwuoke is wearing a dark brown and navy striped sweater and standing in front of a beige wall

About Laura

Meet Laura Ugwuoke, a wellness advocate with a deep-rooted passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle. Armed with a BSc in Nutrition from UBC and actively working towards a degree in Dietetics and Nutrition, Laura possesses a wealth of knowledge to guide individuals on their path to wellness. Embracing the belief that wellness should be inclusive and available to all, Laura is committed to breaking down barriers and making healthy choices accessible.  Beyond the world of nutrition, you’ll often find Laura unwinding and enjoying the latest binge-worthy series on Netflix, finding joy in a well-deserved moment of relaxation.

About Jackie

Jackie is a Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.

Check out her full bio here →

Rivah is wearing a striped shirt and a blazer, smiling

About Rivah

Hello! I’m Rivah, a registered dietitian passionate about helping teens and adults with neurodivergence and mental health conditions. Additionally, I support individuals with chronic disease management, plant-based diets, and mindful eating. My counseling approach is weight inclusive, client-centered, and evidence-based where we create realistic nutrition goals, prioritizing physical, mental, and emotional health.  In my free time, I enjoy reading, cooking, and outdoor activities.

Check out her full bio here →

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