How to Plan Meals With ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 11, 2022

Meal planning requires making choices, budgeting, organizing, prioritizing, remembering specific needs, managing time – and shopping. For lots of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that might as well be a recipe for disaster.

ADHD can hamper your executive functioning, which controls many of the skills you need for complex, multi-step tasks like planning meals. There's good news, though. Smart tips, savvy shortcuts, and snazzy apps can help streamline the process and cut the angst.

Card Your Meals

As prices rise, cooking at home is cheaper than eating out or grabbing takeout. It’s usually the more healthy option, too. When you shop for yourself or your family, you know what’s going in each dish. Plus, you can rein in ingredients that rile your ADHD symptoms, such as sugar, salt, or other additives.

Where should you start? Before all the recipe choices and ideas start to overwhelm you, take meals one by one.

  • Write recipes for tried-and-true meals, family faves, and others you’d like to try on index cards, one per card.
  • On the same card, jot down easy, tasty sides to serve with, like rice, salad, or garlic bread. Tip: When looking over new recipes, stick to those with easy, clearly written instructions and few ingredients.
  • Tap an app to not only plan meals, but create your shopping lists. A few to check out:

List It

The items listed on your cards become your grocery list. When some ingredients appear over and over, they’ll begin to form your pantry basics.

Either on a hard-copy version on the fridge or within an app, keep a current list of things you need from the store. Note staples you’re running low on, too. Include several meals at once to cut down shopping trips and time.

Stock Up

You can find basic or master pantry lists in many places, from websites like The Spruce Eats to Martha Stewart, to an ADHD-oriented one from Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or CHADD (which also has a cookbook). Don’t forget to include frozen and refrigerated foods to keep on hand, like eggs and frozen proteins for meal bases. You should also rotate favorite perishable fruits and veggies often.

When your pantry is well stocked, you won’t have to shop as much. It will also:

  • Give you flexibility in meal choices.
  • Help avoid last-minute grocery store grab-and-gos (and impulse shopping).
  • Let you be impulsive in a good way, to make a special dish or snack you crave.

Sneaky Shopping

Grocery stores try to manipulate each step you take. Sample booths tempt and try to distract. Flashy product displays in “surprise” places seek to throw your menu a curve. Too many choices can make your head swim – and forget what you came for. You can beat the store at its own game.

  • After you’ve reviewed your cards, pantry, apps, or other tools, take your list and aim to go to the store once. Shop your list, no more, no less. Tip: Don’t shop when you’re hungry or you’ll be tempted to stray.
  • Don’t try to keep a mental track of your shopping. Carry a pen along to tick off your items or do it electronically.
  • Shop when the store’s crowd is low. You’ll get in and out faster.
  • Go to a store you know. It’s easier to find things – and sidestep attention traps in the aisles – when you know where everything is.
  • Or, don’t go at all. Especially since COVID 19-appeared, stores have gotten great at gathering groceries for you (though you still have to foot the bill). Electronic shopping sites like Instacart allow you to shop remotely and choose at your own pace, saving you time, expense, and impulse buys. Whether you’re able to have groceries delivered or pick them up, opting out of in-store shopping can be a great gift if you have ADHD.

Prepare Like a Pro

Food prep is where you can really get ahead in the planning-to-meal cycle.

  • Cook dinner twice – at one time. That is, prepare the dish, but make twice as much to reheat and serve a night or two later.
  • When you have time off, or in a lull in the week, prep ahead. You can slice veggies or fruits, put together stews or soups for freezing, or do some baking. When it’s dinnertime, tossing your ingredients together without having to prep first will seem like a snap. Pre-prepped fresh veggies in the store are a great shortcut.
  • Freezing ahead multiple meals, often a week ahead, has become its own industry. Entire books share the authors’ best secrets. Many websites are devoted to the practice as well. You choose a “food prep day” to assemble your entire menu for the week, freezing food in batches according to the number of people in your household. When it’s almost time to eat, you’ll just pop the meal in the skillet, slow cooker, pressure cooker, stove, or what have you.

A search for “freezer meals” will bring up scads of options. Some might have master shopping lists, but it’s not hard to break it down according to the meals you choose. A meal/shopping app will do the job neatly for you, too.

In a Pinch

No energy to decide? Pick recipe cards. Select some of your go-to recipes on index cards at stores or in your app to create your list. The deal is done, with no thought required.

Show Sources


CHADD: “Overview,” “What’s for Dinner? Tips for Healthy Meal Planning,” “Ask the Specialist: Make the Most of Grocery Shopping.”

Duke University: “Diet and ADHD.”

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