Our family, with two boys diagnosed with ADHD, has found some pretty great results while following an ADHD diet.
I talk about the benefits of eating healthy, while avoiding foods high in sugar on my blog all the time. I’ve gathered a bunch of information, tips and tried and true advice about an ADHD diet here in this one massive post!
Whether you are just starting an ADHD Diet or have been on the road awhile, you are sure to find something new to think about. So let’s get started!
Be sure to scroll all the way down for my best ideas for staying on a budget – and see how I went from spending $1100.00 a month down to $600.00!
What is an ADHD Diet?
An ADHD Diet is an elimination diet meant to ease or even erase the symptoms of ADHD. Foods known to be common allergens are eliminated as well as food dyes and artificial colorings. The most common foods to avoid on the ADHD Diet are gluten, dairy, corn soy, as well as artificial flavorings and dyes.
After eliminating foods for a period of time(from a few weeks to 3 months, the longer the better!), you can add them back in to see if they have an effect on your kids behavior. Or, like us, just leave them out for good – most of the foods are not worth adding back in, anyway!
Why follow an ADHD diet?
After a lot of experimenting and trial and error over the past 5 years, I find that my kids are much more focused and less likely to have an emotional meltdown when we are following an ADHD diet free from gluten, dairy, corn(and all its byproducts) and soy. I have talked before about how this is not a miracle cure, but it gives my kids such a stable foundation that helps everything else.
But, an ADHD diet is good for any child with ADHD, whether they are taking medication or not.
What research says about an ADHD Diet
Mounting research shows that kids who follow an adhd diet find relief from their symptoms – some kids find their symptoms of ADHD almost going away completely.
Symptoms like fidgetiness, emotional disregulation, and impulsivity can be greatly reduced when certain foods are eliminated completely from your child’s diet.
Changing your kiddos diet may also be a really great option if prescription meds don’t work – or cause symptoms to worsen – as in our case.
Related: Our ADHD Story Part One and Two
Tips for Starting an ADHD Diet
Starting an ADHD Diet does not have to be overwhelming.
Eliminating processed foods, sugar, and pesky chemicals can only have a positive effect on your family. And you might just see remarkable changes in your kid’s behavior!
Eliminate the easiest things first
At its very basic level, an ADHD diet is an elimination diet – you avoid foods that can be extremely disruptive to your system. Gluten, dairy, corn, soy, food dyes and certain preservatives are all on the list of things to avoid.
Eliminating all of these things at one time is really difficult and I don’t recommend it. You want to ease yourself and your family into it in order for it to not be so disruptive that you give up after 2 days!
The easiest, for us, was to eliminate gluten and corn(and its byproducts, like high fructose corn syrup). There are so many gluten free foods available now and corn can be avoided by reading labels and just staying away from most processed foods.
Another option is to start with artificial (synthetic) food dyes, artificial (synthetic) flavorings & fragrances, certain preservatives(BHT, TBHQ, and BHA), and artificial sweeteners. This is known as the Feingold Diet, which in and of itself can have a huge positive effect on your ADHD kids.
While these artificial substances are naturally avoided on a primarily whole foods diet, I have just begun looking further into food dyes and flavorings. Even some of the packaged snacks I thought were healthy have some artificial ingredients we are now steering clear of.
Check your cabinets
Once you have decided what you are going to eliminate first, check your cabinets for any offenders. You may be surprised and what is lurking in the foods you eat on a regular basis.
I am still shocked at the ingredients in some foods that I think are “healthy”, let alone the awful stuff in all that junk food that is so readily available!
You have two options – throw out the foods with unwanted ingredients or just note to not buy those foods again on your next trip to the grocery store.
Start reading labels for an ADHD Diet
Trips to the grocery store will now involve reading labels(the Feingold Association has a nice downloadable list to purchase if you are cutting out dyes and preservatives, as well as gluten and casein).
If your kids are old enough, have them start reading labels. I let my kids pick snacks only if they meet our tough standards of gluten free, corn free, soy free, dye free and harmful sweeteners. They do a lot of label reading!
Focus on what you are adding
Now, I never advocate being sneaky, but I have found the less I talk about what we are getting rid of the better.
I focus on the food we are going to be adding and making it taste really good. My kids didn’t really notice I took out dairy because I make sure I have food that they love.
While you are taking out the processed food, start adding in more fresh, whole food. Have your kids pick out a new vegetable or grain to try. Make a yummy fruit salad to keep in the fridge when hunger strikes.
Thinking of this as a new adventure will go a long with you and your family!
Keep it simple
Following an ADHD Diet is not about making fancy meals.
On the contrary, many of the meals I prepare for my family are super simple. With just a few pantry staples and fresh ingredients, you can put together a whole host of meals.
Our favorites include:
- Ground Beef and sauteed onions and mushrooms over roasted sweet potatos
- G-free pasta with pesto and frozen broccoli
- Fried egg sandwiches (cold in lunches, too)
- Oatmeal Casserole and fresh fruit
- Roasted sweet potatoes topped with lettuce, salsa and ground beef (Potacos)
- Brown rice with ground beef or chicken sausage and cooked apples
- Sweet potatoes cooked in a skillet with sausage and apples
- Open faced tuna sandwiches heated under the broiler
I almost always have a simple plate of chopped fruit and veg on the side, as well.(this is a great thing for kids to prepare, too).
Limit processed foods
All sorts of stuff is lurking in processed foods – even the “better” ones. By sticking primarily to a whole foods diet, you’ll automatically be on the right track.
My kids get one packaged item in their lunches and we’ll bring protein bars on hikes or to the movies. Otherwise the main stays of our diet are organic fruit and vegetables, grass fed beef, lots of beans, rice and gluten free pastas.
Our food journey started about 5 years ago when, very innocently, I began watching food documentaries. I was simply curious and wanted to know more about food.
Boy, what I began to learn shocked me!!!
I had no idea, the food that we were eating on a daily basis, could actually be harming my kids and causing some of their ADHD symptoms.
Being informed is really empowering and it’s shaped much of our current lifestyle. If you’re up for some learning, and have access to Netflix, I highly encourage you to watch one of these documentaries:
Let me know which one shocked you the most!
Get a few new meals under your belt.
Look for meals that fit an ADHD diet and are similar to your kid’s favorites and family standbys.
Troll Pinterest, check out some new cookbooks from the library, look at our list of favorite, ADHD Diet approved meals (like the African Stew pictured above) Try a new recipe each week until you get an arsenal of favorites.
Once you find a few things your kids love, you can serve those several times a week/month and slowly expand from there. We have about 10 meals that we keep on rotation all the time. My kids like them, they’re healthy, so variety is not what I am after.
Get On Board Yourself
Kids learn the most from what you do, not what you say – or force them to do. Follow along as a whole family to support your kiddos with ADHD. Everyone can benefit from eating super healthy foods.
Making separate meals is silly and time consuming, anyway.
Learn to meal prep – a bit
I do two very unmiraculous things to meal prep.
First I sit with my favorite cookbooks (Katie Kimball’s are my number one go-tos – I have all 7! and Stacy Toth’s Paleo cookbooks are downloadable!) and pick one or two meals I can double or triple. We’ll have it for at least two nights and I can bring what’s left for lunch for a few days.
Second, I cook a few batches of staples to use for the rest of the meals. Things like brown rice, black beans, sweet potatoes, roasted veggies can be made in big quantities and then used as a base for so many meals.
Get Kids to Help With the Prep
Without the convenience of a drive-thru or a bag to open and microwave, an ADHD Diet may involve more time in the kitchen than you are used to.
With fruit and vegetables to cut up and cook(we love these knives for kids!) rice to soak, baked goods to make, you will have some prep to do. Start your kids helping no matter what age they are – they can take some of the load off of you and learn some great skills in the meantime.
Here are some of the ways my kids help:
- Picking out a few meals for the week
- Planning and packing their lunches.
- Reading labels at the store
- Carrying groceries
- Washing and peeling fruits and vegetables.
- Stirring a pan of pasta
- Cooking eggs
- Making sandwiches.
- Setting the table.
- Clearing the table
- Sweeping the floor
- Putting away groceries
Letting them choose a few from the list may make the whole chore thing go a bit smoother.
Give yourself some grace
This is not about perfection. While it can take 3 months for allergens to completely leave the body, you often see a difference in a few days.
The overall effort you are putting into this will be worth it. I speak from experience when I say that the food kids eat has a huge effect on their behavior.
Budgeting for an Adhd Diet
Americans spend, on average, way less on food proportionally than we did 50 years ago. In the 60’s families spent about 18% of their monthly budget on food and today it hovers around 10%.
Most of that accounts for the cheap prices of lots of the processed food we, as a nation, consume. When you cut out the junk be prepared to pay a bit more.
But, don’t let that discourage you, there are definitely things you can do!
I am all about action! I have included a call to action question after each idea. I challenge you to answer as many as you can to get the ball rolling for you.
Determine your budget
If you are like me, a few years ago, you may have no idea how much you spend on food each month. I kept receipts for three months and then averaged out how much I was spending on food.
I was blown away.
And I felt really stupid!
I thought I was spending about $600.00 a month. Turns out it was well over $1100.00 a month, on average.
This may or may not be a big number for you, but, for our income, that was just too much.
I see lots of people on the internet who claim to spend $300.00 per month on a large family. While I certainly don’t doubt them, that is just not realistic for us. So much about budget is determined by where you live, what deals are available close by and how much food you eat.
We now aim to spend 10% of our monthly take home budget(which varies), but hovers around $500.00 to $600.00.
What is your monthly budget for food? You may have to save receipts for awhile to figure it out. But having a goal in mind, really helps!
What follows are the ways I have managed to make sure we stay in that window on a consistent basis, all while sticking to an ADHD Diet for the whole family.
Find money from other “budgets”
You can scrimp on other costs to allow for a few more dollars in your food budget. We “find” money in many ways.
We rarely eat out. This is a big one for lots of people. Eating out once a week can add up to hundreds of dollars a month.
I buy a lot of our clothes and shoes second hand at thrift stores, on eBay and Thredup. I’ve been doing this since my boys were little and I first started my vintage Etsy shop. While scouring for vintage treasures , I saw so much GREAT clothing for pennies on the dollar. You have to love the hunt, but you can really save a ton of money this way.
We keep our cars for a long, long time. My favorite car is the one without a monthly payment.
We find family activities that are free! Hiking local trails, scouring second hand book stores, and hanging out with friends are some of our favorite activities.
Can you think of one area of your budget that you can minimize?
Use Imperfect Foods
I love Imperfect Foods!!! You might have heard about them – they started out selling “ugly” produce that did not meet the ridiculous standards of supermarkets.
They have since expanded to offer more super healthy foods, often at a deep discount. I order from them on a weekly basis — the haul above was under $45.00, including delivery. All of the produce I order is organic for so much less than I can get it locally.
Now that you have created a budget for yourself, how do you know you are going to stick to it?
Do you have a buddy you can call on? Is your husband good at supporting a goal like this? It might help you to get someone else in on your plan to save money on food.
For me it was posting on Instagram. I knew people would be watching and I am someone who can not tell a lie — to others.
Try the old envelope method where you take a certain amount of cash out for the month and once it’s gone its gone!
Compete with a friend to see who can spend the least – send each other pictures of your reciepts.
Do you need support for this part of the adventure? Only you can answer that question.
Come Up With Some Cheap Meals
I have a few standby meals that are super cheap and they make up about 30% of our monthly menu. Rice and beans, gluten free pasta and frozen veggies, and egg sandwiches are served just about every week in our house.
What are your family’s favorites that cost the least to prepare?
Related: 75 Meals for an ADHD Diet
I check the sales flyers on a weekly basis to see the best sales and usually base our menu of the best deals.
Don’t be afraid of discounted food.
I visit stores that deeply discount foods that are getting close to their expiration date.
Homegoods has a great clearance section with all sorts of healthy, gourmet food. I have only ever had one bad experience of finding mold when I opened the container and they refunded my money, no problem.
I also stock up on super cheap items when I see a great sale.
How do become aware of what’s on sale at your local grocery stores?
Visit Multiple Grocery Stores
We have three stores within a mile of each other, so its easy to stop by all three, if needed. The competition is often super for local customers as stores try to be the ones with the best deals.
I shop online a lot for some of our favorite snacks and also buy those in bulk when we see them deeply discounted.
Where can you get the best deals? Name your three top spots to buy food on the cheap.
Stop Wasting Food
The average American family wastes $640.00 worth of food a year.
This one is huge for us…I think we save $40.00 to $50.00 a month from making sure we do not waste our produce or leftovers.
I keep leftovers in the front of the fridge so I see them. I also make a plan for them right away. They may become lunch the next day or two or part of dinner the next evening.
Fruit and vegetables get frozen before they go bad, to be used in smoothies at a later date. In my freezer bag you will find: bananas, avocados, pineapple cores, broccoli stems, and kale, among other things.
This may be the one area that makes me save the most each month!
How can you make sure you are eating all of the food you purchase?
Eat From Your Freezer and Pantry
This kinda goes with the whole waste thing: I shop my pantry and freezer before I plan the week, making sure nothing hangs around too long.
Make a list before you start your menu planning or shop the sales flyers for the week to see what can used up.
I usually always have some dried pasta or rice to start things off or some eggs or carrots for those first few meals of the week.
What’s in your cabinet right now that can be put towards next weeks meals?
Make Your Own Cleaning Products
Standard cleaning products are filled with so many toxins. Why clean up your food if you don’t look at other things that you bring into your home?
We make our own products out of simple household ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and essential oils. I’ve got an entire Pinterest board filled our favorite ideas.
Not only is this better for all of us, it saves A TON of money. “Green” cleaning products are very costly. I spend less than $5.00 a month on supplies to make my own cleaning products, seriously!
Start saving your spray bottles as you finish your current products. Then look for recipes to fill them up on your own.
Stockpile sale items
When you find a great sale, stock up! Often, I come across 50% off meat, or clearance snacks items, like bars or nut mixes.
Meat can go in the freezer, and snack items are usually well within their expiration date. Taking advantage of deep discounts is a big reason I am able to stay within our budget.
When you are trying to tighten budget undoubtedly there will be things you just can’t purchase. Saying “No” to things can be hard, but usually these things are extras, anyway.
There is a lesson in this for everyone. What a great time to have a conversation with your kids about needs vs. wants!
I do without my sparkling water, convenience foods, and fancy skin care products, to name a few.
I know, get the violin out.
We are very lucky to live in a world where our basic food needs are very likely to be met. It’s not hard at all to give up most of the extras.
What items can you do without this month?
WHOA!!!! This is a huge post!! I am overwhelmed.
Our family, with two boys diagnosed with ADHD, have found some pretty great results while following an ADHD diet. We did not do all of these things at once, but changed our eating habits slowly to fit an ADHD Diet over time.
Find a few things that resonate with you and just give ’em a try. Then just keep coming back and add one new thing when you have the space. Remember starting and following an ADHD Diet is a huge process. Do not expect it to be easy overnight.