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 3 years of packing lunches with these stringent rules in mind, I have really found a system for making the best lunches for ADHD.
Ground rules for my ADHD lunches
I don’t prepare, I gather: I rarely cook anything for my kids’ lunchbox. I work outside the home three days a week, and work at home the other two. I save my cooking for breakfast and dinner. Instead, I have curated some awesome stuff and pack simple whole foods.
Pack what they will eat:Kids can be picky eaters – especially if you are serving them foods on the healthier side. I make sure I pack what my kids will eat. The lunch box is not the time to introduce a new food.
Be predictable: ADHD kids thrive on routine. I pack the same things they love over and over. I save the variety for meals at home when things are calmer and free of social expectations.
Appeal to their social fears and 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.
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 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!
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
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.)
Along with some of the convenience foods listed above, my kids love nuts(cashews, almonds and pistachios are the most nutritious), egg salad, Nutbutter Energy Balls(Yes, a recipe but super easy) and a good ol’ fashioned peanut butter sandwich.
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 are the 12 ounce plastic disposable bottles from Costco – again mostly for convenience and easy packing. But also, my kids lose reusable water bottles like crazy and they are usually too big to fit in their lunches, anyway. It’s not my best move for the environment, but I make up for it in other areas.
Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and veggies provide the ADHD body and brain with vital nutrients, 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.
Our favorite ADHD Lunch resources
Homegoods – don’t be scared of the food they sell. I have never bought anything but fresh products. The real healthy stuff is often on sale because no one buys 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.
Money saving tips
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.
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 will have sales on rare occasions–but I look out for ’em.
Some weeks my kids get a peanut butter sandwich everyday!
I plan around what’s on sale and what is in season.
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!
Need help with Breakfasts? I’ve got the Best Breakfasts for ADHD HERE.
Want more on ADHD?
Read about how amazing a weighted blanket is for sleep, here.
WE have a great bedtime routine. Read about it here.
Want more ADHD diet help? Here’s how we do breakfast.
Have a reluctant reader with ADHD? Here’s how to help.
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