Top ADHD-Friendly Meal Prep Tips

Reduce Decision Fatigue With Simplified Systems

Reduce Decision Fatigue With Simplified Systems
Reduce Decision Fatigue With Simplified Systems

For something so crucial to survival, eating can be a landmine for people with ADHD.

And yet, nutrition is extra important for neurospicy folks. For example, Dopamine - one of the key ingredients our brains need in order to perform all those executive functions we struggle with - requires protein. If we don’t have enough protein, the brain can’t make enough dopamine.

So, how do we make sure our brains have all the nutrients they need, when eating requires cooking, which requires many of those executive functions we struggle with in the first place?

What Is ADHD Meal Planning?

Meal planning is the process of planning and preparing meals in advance. Typically, this will be a few days to a week’s worth of meals. But many traditional meal planning strategies aren’t ADHD-friendly. An ADHD-friendly meal plan is one that is quick and easy to follow, and minimizes the cognitive overload and overwhelm many ADHDers tend to experience when it comes to food, cooking, and eating.

Benefits of ADHD Meal Planning

  1. Reduces overwhelm. Every step of the eating process - decision-making, planning, preparation, cooking meals, and consuming them - involves a ton of executive function challenges, can provoke sensory sensitivities, and other roadblocks that contribute to overwhelm. Planning ahead means we can side-step many of those issues.
  2. Supports healthy nutrition. If you’re trying to eat healthily, planning ahead ensures you are prepared to make the decisions you want to be making around food, rather than waiting until hunger strikes - because we’re much more likely to make impulsive decisions when we’re hungry.
  3. Saves time. Adult ADHD already involves challenges with time. Meal planning can help you avoid extra trips to the store, and can shorten the time between ‘I’m hungry’ and eating by reducing cooking & prep time.
  4. Reduces (some) ADHD tax. Ever forget you had an ingrediant, and accidentally buy too much? End up eating out more than your wallet can handle because you’re too overwhelmed or tired to cook? Meal planning can help avoid impulse buys and duplicate purchases.

Low-effort, ADHD-friendly meals tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Minimal steps. To me, this is fewer than 6 steps. Depending on your level of cooking comfort, energy levels, etc, this number may vary.
  • Use few ingredients.
  • Quick to prepare and cook. For example, when I search for recipes, I rule out anything that takes more than 30 minutes total.
  • Require minimal cleanup. This is about making life simple after you eat. Dishes are a nightmare for me, for a number of reasons. And, many of my clients struggle with dishes, too. Recipes that use minimal utensils or appliances, like slow-cooker recipes, ‘dump meals,’ or sheet-pan recipes, are perfect for this.

Top ADHD Meal Planning Tips

If you weren’t already on board for trying meal planning, hopefully the above meal planning benefits caught your eye. Ready to give it a shot? Take a look at our favorite tips and give them a try!

#1: Know Thyself

It’s tempting to dive right into choosing recipes to try, but before you can choose the right meals to plan - the ones you’re most likely to actually be able and willing to follow through on when the time comes - there are a few things you should know about yourself. Take a few minutes now, if possible, to jot down some notes on the following:

  • What are the foods/ingredients you really dislike? What about the ones that you absolutely love?
  • What are the qualities of those foods? Do you notice any similarities between the foods on the ‘Don’t Like’ list? The ‘Like’ list? Jot down any similarities, categories, or themes you notice.
  • Are there any types of foods, ingredients, or nutrients that you’re wanting to eat more of, or less of? What has gotten in the way, thus far, of eating more/less of those foods?
  • What are your energy levels throughout the day? Are there any common patterns? For example, are you a morning person or do you get a burst of energy in the evening? Do you notice an energy slump around mid-day? Are there any activities or tasks you do throughout the day that you know in advance are going to be draining for you, whether mentally or physically?
  • Do you have any sensory preferences or dislikes that might get in the way? Not only around specific foods (texture, taste, smell), but around the appliances you might need to use? (Loud things like blenders, etc?)
  • What other barriers do you tend to struggle with around eating? Are you super busy, and struggle to find time? Do you have other mental/physical health conditions, like pain or fatigue, that make prep and cooking more difficult?
  • How often/how many meals and snacks per day do you prefer to eat? Are you a 3 meal per day person? Do you graze throughout the day?
  • Are you a person who really prefers following a recipe, or are you the kind of cook who likes to just grab ingredients and throw things together?

#2: Create a Meal Planning Master List

This does involve some extra up-front work. But that’s where the power of meal planning comes from - investing extra time up front, so that you reduce the time, effort, and mental overload later. Creating your master list of recipes may not be a ‘do it all at once’ kind of thing; you may want to set aside 15-20 minutes over the course of a few days to work on it.

As you work on your master list, consider the following:

  • This doesn’t have to be a million recipes long. Instead, try to include maybe 15-20 recipes, max. You can always look up more, when you need to try something new. But this master list should be your favorite go-to meals.
  • Depending on how often you eat/how many meals per day you eat, you can divide your master list into categories. For example, you might divide them into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Or if you prefer lots of smaller meals throughout the day, you can divide it up that way. We’re just trying to make it easy for you to open this recipe book and find what you’re looking for as quickly and easily as possible.
  • If energy level, pain management, or time/schedule committments are barriers for you, you may also decide to divide up your master list based on those things. For example, having sections for low, medium, and high pain or energy days, or sections based on how much time you have for prep and cooking.
  • If you prefer the building block method (see next tip) you might divide your master list into sections for each block.

#3: Try the Building Block Method

This tip can be great for those who don’t really like following recipes, or otherwise prefer more flexibility. There are a couple different building block structures you can use, depending on your preferences and experience. Both methods involve putting together meals based on key building blocks which, if you include all in your meals, will ensure you’re getting a decently balanced nutritional profile. Using this structure also helps prevent overwhelm by giving you a structured guideline, while still providing some flexibility and room for fun.

Building Blocks

  • Base (High-fiber carbs (whole wheat bread, rice, quinoa, pasta, pizza crust, salad greens, etc.)
  • Protein (chicken, beef, fish, eggs, cheese, tofu, etc.)
  • Produce (fruits & veggies, or salad if that wasn’t your base)
  • Sauce (salad dressings, pesto, teriyaki, etc)
  • Toppings (shredded cheese, nuts, berries, sour cream, etc)

To implement this method, you’ll want to make a list of ingredients that fall into each category/building block. (Focus your list on the ingredients you really like; if you hate chicken, don’t include it in your protein list just because it’s a good source of protein). Once you have this list, you can use it in a lot of different ways! In addition to just planning your meals, you can use it as an inventory and/or shopping list. Write down your list for each category on a separate note card or piece of paper, on a white board, etc. Keep it handy and visible, like on the refrigerator. Or, keep it on a list in your phone. Make note of how much of each ingredient you have in the kitchen. Each time you use one, edit the inventory, so you know which of these staples to grab next time you go shopping.

#4: Buy Pre-Prepped Meals/Ingredients

Pre-made meals get a bad rap, because so many of them are unhealthy. But there may be healthier options. For example, there are a few local grocery store chains where I live that make pre-prepared or pre-cooked meals that you can take home and toss in the oven or microwave, and they’re fresh, not frozen, so they don’t have a bunch of added salt or other preservatives.

And, yes, often pre-cooked or prepared meals and ingredients are often more expensive. For example, at my local Wal-Mart, a single onion currently costs $1.30. An 8 oz. container of pre-diced onion is $2.88. Depending on what it is, and how much you need, the difference may be bigger. But when it comes down to it, the chances of me cooking a meal instead of buying one skyrockets if I don’t need to chop veggies; so, to me, it’s worth it.

#5: Bulk Prep

Tip number three in this article has some great ideas for bulk prep, like starting the week by cooking 2-3 different protein sources at the beginning of the week. They’ll last 4-5 days in the fridge, a little longer when frozen. You can cut these up and package them in individual, portion-sized baggies or tupperware, making it super easy to either pull them out and add to another recipe, or just reheat and eat. Other meals that are easy to bulk prep include lasagna, chili, casseroles, and soups.

Our Favorite Resources for ADHD Meal Planning

The Nutrition Junky

Cookbook for Busy Minds, by CHADD

A Simple Guide to Meal Preparation: Assisting Older Adults with Executive Functioning Difficulties in the Kitchen

The Real-Life Executive Functioning Meal Plan

Meal prep can be hard when you have ADHD. Here are 5 hacks that worked for me.

ADHD Meal Planning Help

If you don’t see a tip that works for you, or if you’re struggling to start (or continue) a regular meal-planning routine, you’re not alone. There’s not always a magic hack that’s going to make a difference overnight. ADHD coaching can help you identify road blocks to starting or staying consistent not only with meal planning and prep, but with any routine or habit.

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