The Best Lunches for ADHD
Navigating a healthy lunch – that your kids will actually eat – can be difficult for any kid. But for kids with ADHD, what you pack in a lunch can make or break their afternoon.
If you are like me and have realized how much food can effect your ADHD kid, you may be trying to prepare a lunch free of gluten, artificial dyes, corn, soy, processed sugar – the list feels endless. After 6 years of packing lunches with these stringent rules in mind, I have really found a system for making the best lunches for ADHD.
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Ground rules for the Best ADHD lunches:
Pack what your kids will eat
Kids can be picky eaters – especially if you are serving them foods on the healthier side. Make sure to pack what your kids will eat. The lunch box is not the time to introduce a new food.
Be predictable: ADHD kids thrive on routine.
Don’t worry if you pack the same things, over and over. ADHD Kids thrive on knowing what to expect. You can save the variety for meals at home when things are calmer and free of social expectations.
I want my kids to be fully nourished for an afternoon of school and whatever comes after.
Appeal to social fears, make their lunch look “normal”
On the social note, kids with ADHD can also have a whole host of anxieties – the last thing they need is a weird looking lunch.
You know if your kid is in this camp (one of mine is!). Limit strange or uber-healthy options if this is the case. I try to have at least one “packaged” item to make things look more “normal”.
Don’t pressure them to finish everything
We have a rule that whatever is not eaten comes back home. I do not make a big deal out of uneaten food(It’s usually the fruit and veg.)
Whatever is left becomes part of their after school snack. This works for us.
Kids’ appetites vary from day to day and I know their chatty selves may not use the time wisely, either.
Make it simple.
No one wants to stress out about packing lunches. My kids are old enough to pack their own lunches(mostly) so I have a drawer dedicated to the non-perishables and give them a few options for their fruit and veg.
Let’s start with what not to include: Sugar
I work hard to avoid(or drastically minimize) putting sugar in my kids’ lunch. Sugar causes a roller coaster of highs and lows which can really effect a kid’s level of focus. (This post on sugar is a MUST READ)
ADHD kids will spiral from a greater inability to focus to an even greater level of hyperactivity.
I know, I know – sugar is in everything!
But avoiding sugar in school lunches can be done!
Start by avoiding the following: juice, sports drinks, fruit snacks and roll ups, candy, cookies, processed carbs, like crackers , goldfish crackers, white bread, prepackaged lunches, and all the other obvious offenders.
Don’t go cold turkey
You can slowly ramp your kids down if they are used to daily sugary treats. There will be so much other good stuff in their lunch they won’t even miss the sugar!
Go slowly with this…it could take weeks to slowly wean kids off processed carbs and sugar, but it will be so much easier for everyone’s mental health (mostly yours!)
When it comes to school lunches I have to weigh healthy with convenient.
In this season of my life, I need a bit of convenience. I do include one packaged,minimally processed item in my kids’ lunches.
It helps them to “fit in” with all the other processed lunches.
My choices are head and shoulders above the majority of convenience “lunchbox”foods out there.
Here’s the convenience foods we are loving now:
- Epic bars
- Vermont beef sticks
- Rx Bars
- Guacamole Cups
- Orgain protein shakes
- Munk Pack Protein cookies Our absolute favorite at the moment!!
- Hummus Cups from Costco
- Bare Snacks Apple Chips and Banana Chips
- Rhythm Foods Beet Chips
Yes, these healthy convenience items are expensive. But they often make up the main part of the meal and can be found on sale(see my money saving tricks below). Honestly, they are about the same price as those pre-made little processed lunches that shall remain nameless!
The first thing I pack: Protein
A protein packed food is the first item I put in their lunch. Protein and the fat that can come along with it, are the most important components of a great ADHD lunch.
Protein promotes alertness in the brain and fuels my kids for a long, long time. (See my best ADHD breakfasts, here) Protein also prevents surges in blood sugar, which will quell hyperactivity.
Good fats are essential for the optimal function of the brain. Don’t be afraid of fat – nuts, grass fed beef and full fat dairy can be great sources for the lunch box. (We also take a fish oil supplement daily.)
I aim to get about 20 grams of protein in every lunch.
Along with some of the convenience foods listed above, my kids love nuts(cashews, almonds and pistachios are the most nutritious), egg salad, tuna salad, Nutbutter Energy Balls( Yes, a recipe but super easy) and a good ol’ fashioned nut butter sandwich on gluten free bread.
Related: Protein for an ADHD Diet
The brain is 80 to 85% water, so staying hydrated throughout the day keeps your brain functioning at its best. When the body becomes dehydrated it can cause brain fog and a general decrease in alertness and short term memory.
Drinking half your weight in ounces is recommended. I don’t measure it, I just always push it!
What works for us is a the 12 ounce reusable water bottle that fits in their lunch bag. It helps to have something that is not separate from their bag – or it will get easily lost! I like this one and this one.
It’s not my best move for the environment, and I’m not crazy about plastic, but I make up for it in other areas.
****This year, I am trying to steer away from plastic and will pack a small aluminum water bottle that fits into my kids’ lunchboxes. Hopefully they’ll be able to keep them!***
Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and veggies provide the ADHD body and brain with vital nutrients and fiber, not to mention some additional hydration. I try to include at least two sources in each lunch. I only pack what I am sure my boys will eat and keep lots of veggies chopped in the fridge for easy lunch packing.
I’m heavy on the veg to keep sugar at bay (even natural sugar is sugar!) My kids are on a carrot, cucumber and red pepper kick now, so they get that every day.
I also tend not to send mushy things that won’t last, like bananas or berries. Bananas pretty much always come back uneaten and completely black.
Organic fruit and veg. is expensive, so it’s Imperfect Produce to the rescue!! I get a box of organic fruit and veggies (along with eggs and grassfed beef!!) delivered to my door every week. See below for more information.
Our favorite ADHD Lunch resources
Imperfect produce – I can’t say enough about this company!! Getting their weekly organic produce box is keeping me under our usual grocery budget! I spend about 35 dollars a week on organic produce and supplement a bit at our local grocery store. They also have a great selection of healthy “dry goods” that fit our ADHD diet. Use this code to get their latest deal – currently $20.00 off your order, and we’ll get $20.00, too.
Katie Kimball cookbooks – these have been a staple for my cooking for years! She has great, simple ideas and recipes, most of which are gluten and/or dairy free. I have 7 of them!
Homegoods – don’t be scared of the food they sell. I have never bought anything but products that are still within the expiration date. The real healthy stuff is often on sale because people tend to shy away from it.
Amazon Subscribe and Save – I have a regular order that ships every two months, but I can change the date if I don’t need to replenish. I get some of the packaged items listed above for much less than my local store.
Pinterest(I have this board and this board)
Money saving tips for ADHD lunches
Eating healthier costs more, there is no way around it. I do spend a good chunk of our monthly budget on food. But, I save on doctor bills, medications, and sick days. Eating out is a BIG treat for our family – it happens about once a month – and usually for lunch – cause it’s cheaper than dinner.
That said, I do work hard to save on what we do purchase.
- I use Amazon’s subscribe and save program for our bars, meat sticks, and protein shakes. I can just cancel a month if I find alternatives on sale, locally.
- Imperfect Produce allows me to eat organic produce almost exclusively!! I know how harmful pesticides are for my kids and this has been a real money saver for us.
- Strangely enough, Homegoods often has name brand food for deep discounts. I find the Orgain shakes and Almond milk there, individual nut packs, as well as some really healthy bars.
- Whole Foods always has pretty good sales for Prime members.
- Some weeks my kids get a peanut butter sandwich everyday!
- I plan around what’s on sale and what is in season. I read the sale flyers that come each Wednesday.
- I also visit the clearance rack at our local grocery store each week and know that Sunday is when they put a lot of things on clearance.(I asked!)
Make Lunches for ADHD Fun!!!
Including a few fun things in lunches can go a long way. These special items are great for kids 5 to 10, but honestly, my teens still love these!!
Cute toothpicks — these are great for fruit chunks, soft granola bars and cooked veggies. These vehicles are fun and so are these animals!
Lego containers – My lego enthusiasts still love these containers!! They come in small and mini!! Theses are not leak proof, so we use them for dry snacks, like nuts or grain free pretzels.
Hope my tips help. Go slow if you are making a transition from processed items to more healthy items. Let me know what your faves are!
***Affiliate Links are provided for your convenience. Shop local when you can***
Want more on ADHD?
Read about how amazing a weighted blanket is for sleep, here.
Find 75 meal ideas for an ADHD Diet HERE.
WE have a great bedtime routine. Read about it here.
Have a reluctant reader with ADHD? Here’s how to help.
Pin for safe keeping!
This was a good read! It is a good reminder to get the water in. Kids are so busy in the school day so they need it when they can get it!
Hi Vanessa! I need to remember this for myself too! : )
Thanks for reading!
I have a challenge with school lunches- I like my son to eat nuts like almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts… but his school strictly bans any nuts being brought into school- that includes peanut butter anything!
I know granola bars are the worst but, like you, I work full time and don’t have time to make things in the morning.
I don’t like the taste of most “ healthfood” bars and he probably wouldn’t either.
Hi Alecia! You do have a predicament – most of the bars out there have nuts – the healthier ones, at least. I have recently started to eat on the Autoimmune Protocol – which means no nuts or seeds. I have found some great energy ball recipes on Pinterest. You do have to make them, but you can do a huge batch and freeze them to eat for the week. Also if you can do sunflower seeds, I’ve mixed sunflower seeds and raisins in the food processor and formed them into balls that are super yummy!! Hope that helps!
What kind of bread do you use for sandwiches? And is there a “good” jam to put on sandwiches? Thanks
Hi Jami! We use Gluten Free Bread – I try to find one on sale. Trader Joe’s has a pretty good one. My kids love rice cakes and Wasa “bread”, too. They are super crunchy, but good for sensory seekers! : ) Have you ever tried Chia Jam? Check Pinterest for a recipe. Yummy, easy to make and not so sweet.
What kind of bread do you use for your peanut butter sandwiches? It’s SO hard to find a good bread that’s also not horrible. I did just buy a bread maker to start making my own but I know that isn’t gonna work some weeks!
HI Lexie, I hear ya! We get Udi’s from Costco and it’s not great. We also just started trying BFree, also from Costco-much better!
This is the first time I read this article and it was great! I would like to put my two cents in on the bread. We use Ezekiel bread, my boy loves it! This bread has no preservatives in them so they are found in the refrigerated area. It does have nuts on the side so for some it may not work.
Hi Patti!! Thanks, I love to hear what’s working for people! Is that bread gluten free? I know it has all sorts of good sprouted stuff, right?
What about nut free options for nut free schools?
Hi Jessica!! Yes! Sorry not to mention any, perhaps I will do a whole post on nut free options. My boys used to go to a nut free school and it can be hard to find good options. We loved RISE bars sunflower cinnamon flavor, Hippeas, Epic Bars, Vermont Beef Jerky Sticks, roasted chick peas….do you have a favorite?
Thank you! I often read some posts that say here’s what to eat, and never say what it should be. Now I at least have somewhere to start.
Thanks Lois, let me know if you try any of these.
Unfortunately my ADHD 10 yr old is a very picky eater! Peanut butter sandwiches are great but he isn’t a fan of any cold veggies. He does like fruit. He isn’t a fan of nuts either. He does like Premier Protein Shakes but I don’t like him to have them every day. Guess it is time to get creative and see what I can get him to eat! Our “normal” lunch is a PB or Turkey sandwich, chips, fruit and water.
Shannon, Sounds like you are doing great! Veggies can be tough. Does your son like hummus or dips? My kids eat more veggies at home than away, for sure. I think if you are avoiding all the sugar and dyes, you are doing great! Have you tried almond butter?(we love Jason’s maple almond butter packs) Thanks for sharing – I’m working on a “getting older kids to eat veggies” post – so stay tuned.
Just found your breakfast and lunch adhd posts and so glad i did!! Thank you for sharing. I really needed some guidance.
Thanks Barb! Glad you found them! Let me know which are your favorites.
I have an son who has sensory processing disorder and is super picky.
He likes cheese and crackers.
Lacks serious protein.
Hates protein shakes.
Can you help us?
HI Michele, The protein sources that work for us are eggs(scrambled eggs, quiche, egg salad), nuts and nut butters, beans(beans and rice, bean brownies), energy balls(check Pinterest for tons of ideas), peanut butter smoothies, yogurt mixed with peanut butter, hemp seeds mixed in oatmeal and yogurt, and ground beef(only kind of meat my oldest eats). Oh, and grass fed hotdogs. I make a lot of the cowboy cookies I have in my breakfast post, too. Let me know if any of these spark his interest. Thanks for reading, Beth
I LOVE you PAGE!!!!! Everything is wonderful. My son has had “quirks” for years and we have a new diag of ADHD and PYROLLES. So we are doing gluten free and trying No sugar (harder then you think..LOL).
I also have four kids so everything takes longer and its interesting seeing what kids can adapt to and how quickly. The routine thing is totally a must and i have also found my son gets very cranky when he is rushed so we are learning that as well. I cant understand why schools don`t provide water to the kids????? It is not sold or offered at lunch, unless you get it from the awkward drinking fountains around school and again with the whole hoping they don`t lose the expensive re usable water bottle. I sent disposable ones but it seems they lose them just as fast.. lol … or they forget to take them to lunch… Any thoughts on that as water is obviously so important for everyone especially our kiddos… Also with all the new vitamins its even more so important to get them through them properly.
Thanks for the time you have put into this page for all us parents…
Hi Leah!! Thanks for your comments. Sounds like you are doing a great job and yes, it does take time. I have a hard time getting water in my kids, too. They have lost so many water bottles over the years, I send disposable for lunch, but they often come back unopened. : ( They love bubbly water, but that gets expensive, too.) I have tried a vitamin water powder, but then there’s the fake sugars in that. So I am still working on water!Check back in and let me know how it’s going.
Loved the very helpful information. I am new to the ADHD family with my 5year old grandson. So Im desperate for all information from parents that either are or have gone thru this with a child. I e read the books now looking for real life experience anything at all. I feel so helpless right now …??️?
Hi Tracey, So sorry you are going thru this. What is the biggest issue you are having at the moment? I know it can be overwhelming, but taking baby steps with one issue can really help.
Thank YOU for reading…let me know what your favorite lunch tip is – what’s working for you right now?
My kids are homeschooled, so it’s a little easier to feed them a healthy lunch. There are days, though, when they participate in a field trip or class away from home and need to pack a lunch. I agree whole-heartedly that familiar foods are best for lunches away from home. My boys love Think Thin bars, which are high in protein and low in sugar; many flavors are sugar-free. I also try to push the fruits and veggies- carrot sticks, applesauce cups, grapes, whole apples are all staples in our house. We avoid juice boxes and pack water (in reusable water bottles- thankfully, my guys manage to hang onto them).
Hi Jenny, Sounds like you are doing a great job!! My kids like ThinkThin, too – al though sometimes they react to the alcohol sugars they use. I dream of homeschooling my kids – have you always done this?
Great article. My 8 yr old son is SUPER picky. Certain yogurts, cheeses, almost any crackers (nothing too healthy, like Mary’s Gone), scrambled eggs, bread, pancakes, chicken nuggets, buttered noodles, most mac n cheese, most apple go-go squeez (not the fruit-veggie or fruit yogurt ones), most chips, some fruit snacks, sometimes fish sticks, fries (not sweet potato) a few cereals= ok.
No nuts, meat, nutbutters, chocolate, etc.
Hi Stephanie, Thanks for your comment. Have you tried smoothies? or soups? I have an immersion blender and make blended veggie soups that my kids will eat – as long as it comes with buttered toast!Have you tried the baked oatmeal on my site? I pack that with chia and hemp seeds for an extra punch – and add chocolate chips(dairy free, soy free) to entice my kids a bit more. Without know your son, I can only guess, but have you ever seen an OT? Perhaps there is a sensitivity issue underlying it all?? Let me know how it goes!
I just began my journey on the ADHD diet for my six year old. I agree its so much more expensive to shop for foods that are actually healthy for our kids. I wanted to add another tip for military families: your commissary *should* have a gluten free/health food section. This is where I get my deep discounts on Larabars, Enjoy Life products, and other GF/SF/DF snacks. I save anywhere from 10-40% (!!) compared to civilian stores.
Wow Piper! What a great tip. I hope all military families take advantage of those discounts. So great that you are starting your daughter so early on healthy foods. Please keep in touch!
You say to avoid sugar and even acknowledge that fruit has it, yet recommend bars that are certainly high in sugar. Lara bars have just as much sugar as fruit snacks!
HI Jen….thanks for your comment. YES, some of the processed bars do have around 10 grams of sugar, which is why we stick to one packaged snacks a day in lunches. We do pretty well staying at or under the 25 grams of sugar a day for kids — they don’t drink sugar or eat sugary yogurts, etc. Sugar hides in everything! What are your favorite bars for your kiddos?
Hi Beth – I am thrilled to find your information about ADHD. Although, I do not have teenagers any longer. My 24 year old daughter was diagnosed ADHD in September 2020. My doctors decided I should be tested. So, yes, at 58 years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD as well. Both of us have been looking for some tips and information to help us on this new journey in life. Your articles, even though written with children and teenagers in mind, will be a big guidance on the road ahead! Thanks you for the dietary assistance! I look forward to your emails!!
Hi Carla! Glad you found us! Food has made the biggest difference for our family, for sure!! Let me know how its going, stay in touch.
Our school has a strict no-nuts-of-any-kind policy. If there’s a food wrapper stating “made in a facility that also handles nuts” they will repack that item and not allow the child to open and eat it while at school.
However, they constantly hand out nut-free “treat”s filled with sugar, gluten, food dyes and additives.
I’m so frustrated. My kids need lots of protein and healthy fats… my daughter won’t eat any avocado products at school (issues with texture/color changes, the guacamole cups she dips just enough to touch the food and throws the rest away).
Yes, I have a texture kid, too. : P Will she have a smoothie with all the good stuff in it? My kids love to use a big wide straw with a smoothie and our physical therapist tells us the straw activates a calming, sucking reflux – bonus!
My son’s school is nut free, but not sure they are that strict. Do you ever make nut free granola bars? Katie Kimball’s site has some great cook books in pdf format that have GREAT recipes – easy and mindful of allergies.
We love the GoMacro bars that are nut free, but not sure what their label says.
Does she like to crunch things? Have you tried the roasted chickpea recipes all over pinterest? My kids love the cinnamon sugar ones.
I also love to make gluten free muffins and put protein powder in them.
It’s frustrating when people don’t get that all those junky snacks are really horrible for kids-and adults!! My high schooler now has access to free lunches because of some covid policy and guess what he now eats everyday!! Sunchips, bosco sticks, junky granola bars, etc…..but as a mom I’ve got to start letting him make his own choices – after all my good work with him. : P So we are super healthy at home to counteract it.
It’s always a work in progress, sounds like you are doing a great job.
I feel so overwhelmed and confused right now. Everything on the dirty dozen list that is avoided are pretty much the only things my daughter loves to eat. I just learned of my daughters ADHD and there’s so much information out here that I have no idea where to start or what to do. Her eating habits are definitely not good and I try everyday to get her to eat better and try new foods but she won’t. She’s very strong willed to so she will go to sleep without eating if I don’t give her what she wants. What’s wrong with strawberries and apples. I was at least ok knowing she would eat these fruits and it’s about the only fruits she eats (especially strawberries – she eats them every single day) Can someone please help. I’m lost
Hi Maria, I know it’s overwhelming! The dirty dozen just means to try to buy organic…they are the fruits and veggies with the most pesticide sprayed on them. So buy those on the dirty dozen list as organic as much as budget allows. I think it’s best to avoid preservatives and dyes in processed foods….and remember you can’t and won’t be perfect about all of this…just baby steps. Your job is to prepare and offer the healthiest foods and then your daughter will or won’t eat them. You do what you can. Get a good multivitamin she’ll eat, if you can, too. Hope this helps. Feel free to message me on IG, too. I’m heyfuzzymama on IG.