Holiday Disruption & ADHD: Messy Mealtimes

Remember those four things that heavily impact how difficult your ADHD symptoms are to manage? Diet, sleep, exercise, and stress. This series as a whole is about lowering your holiday-related stress levels, which should help somewhat. Part of lowering your stress levels, like we discussed last week, is maintaining your routines.

This week, we’re going to talk about diet.

About Diet & ADHD

First, my disclaimer: I am not any kind of medical or nutrition professional. I am not offering advice regarding the actual content of your diet beyond general suggestions based on the nutritional guidelines adopted by most food and health related services in Canada and the United States. Always consult your doctor and/or a dietician before making any big changes to your overall diet. And of course, eat what you enjoy eating that fits within whatever dietary constraints you may have (e.g., food allergies, food intolerances, food sensitivities).

Now that’s out of the way…

You’ll find lots of information online about dietary intervention for ADHD. Some of it is supported by science, but a lot of it isn’t. The problem is that a lot of the unsupported ADHD-related diet stuff tends to be offered up as a way to cure ADHD. Which it isn’t, because ADHD isn’t caused by food allergies or sensitivities. But dealing with those food allergies or sensitivities, if you have any, can make your ADHD easier to manage. For example, studies have shown that people with food allergies or something like celiac disease may have some cognitive problems similar to those seen in ADHD. However, those problems disappear once their diets have been adjusted, and they obviously do not actually have ADHD. Of course, if you do have ADHD and one of those food-related issues that causes brain fog (etc.), then adjusting your diet will help with the food-related symptoms, but you will still have executive dysfunction.

In general, the best diet for ADHD is a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and a little extra protein. Not a low-carb diet necessarily–your brain actually requires glucose in order to function–but protein actually provides more energy over a longer period of time, and it has other nutrients that ADHDers can need more of, such as iron. And yes, you can eat extra protein if you’re vegetarian or vegan; meat is not required.

If you’re really confused about what will be best for you and your health, find a registered dietician and discuss your diet with them. This can be pricy, but it’s worth it for your overall health and functioning. I do recommend a dietician over a nutritionist, though a nutritionist may be cheaper, because dieticians have professional guiding bodies that ensure ethical practice and give you somewhere to go if you think your dietician has done something they shouldn’t. Meanwhile, in a lot of places the term “nutritionist” isn’t regulated at all, so someone may not have any food science education whatsoever.

Okay, let’s talk holidays and food.

Meal Messiness

I don’t know about you, but I forget to eat. There are a bunch of reasons for this, all related to my ADHD:

  1. I might get hungry but be hyperfocused and forget to get food.
  2. I might make food and forget about it until there’s no time to eat.
  3. I might not get hungry at all (sometimes due to medication, sometimes my body is just weird).
  4. I might be hungry but unable to find anything I actually want to eat.

On top of that, I also tend to overeat. Again, there are a bunch of reasons for this, all related to my ADHD:

  1. I might seek out high-carb food like chips and candy for a quick hit of glucose for my brain.
  2. I might snack absentmindedly while watching TV/YouTube, reading, or doing something creative.
  3. I might have extra helpings of something that tastes really good.
  4. I might be extra hungry after not eating all day (see above).

I’m also notoriously bad at figuring out what to make for lunch. Breakfast is easy, and I’m good at supper, but I’m not a sandwich person and need things to be easy in the middle of the day.

Basically, food is already chaotic for me, and I bet it is for a lot of other ADHDers. Add in holiday disruption, and you’re going to struggle even more.

So how to handle holiday disruption and food?

Set Alarms

Those little hand-held computers we all carry in our pockets these days can be fantastic for reminding us to eat. I even found this great little app called EatWise (not sponsored, not affiliated) that will remind me to eat at specified intervals. It’s free and available for both iOS and Android.

Carry Snacks

Keep snacks nearby. Things like granola bars, trail mix, fresh fruit, cheese strings, and yogurt cups can be great options. Eating something that combines carbs, fat, and protein will help keep you going when you’re hungry but not able to have a full meal.

Drink Meal Replacement Shakes

If you’re struggling with eating actual food, a high-protein meal replacement shake (e.g., Boost) can be a decent option. This should really be a once in a while kind of thing, but it’s worth keeping some around just in case.

Plan Your Meals

Meal planning sounds hard, but it’s probably not as hard as you think it is. In fact, I’m going to suggest you keep it as simple as possible. There’s a bit of work to do to get it set up, but then it’ll be easy to maintain. There are a few different ways to make this work for you, depending on whether you’re hosting others or visiting. So let’s look at the general set up first.

Set Yourself up for Success

In general, you probably have food that you like to eat. You also have meals that you’re good at making. Start there. Write everything down. Don’t worry about anything except writing down the food you like to eat and like to make. Microwave dinners are absolutely an option.

If you’re responsible for feeding more people than just yourself (e.g., you have children, you’re the primary meal-maker in your family), do the same for each person you need to feed.

Once you have your list, you’re going to sort it. For whole foods like potatoes, carrots, steak, etc. you’ll divide them into proteins (include dairy products here), fruits & vegetables, and carbohydrates (grains & potatoes). Put candy, chocolate, chips, and other “junk food” in their own group. Your final grouping will be for full meals, like casseroles and microwave dinners. Full meals are things you can’t really separate into the individual components. Meal replacement shakes go here.

If you’re feeding more people, sort their lists of food as well. Then compare the sorted lists and create a master list of all of the foods that appear on everyone’s lists. You’re going to want to use this master list for any meals that you will all be eating. Be sure to note any food allergies or sensitivities; you don’t want to make anyone sick.

You now have what you need for meal planning.

everyday meal planning

I don’t think it makes sense for ADHDers to make strict meal plans. Life is way too unpredictable for that! Instead, use the components on your master list as your basic grocery list. These are the staples–basic meal building blocks you want to keep on hand, so you can easily feed yourself (and others) based on what you feel like eating and what you’re up to cooking. Doing things this way also lets you shop the sales at your local grocery store. Stock up on your staples when they’re on sale, and that way you’ll always be able to make food you like without spending too much.

when you go to make a meal

When you are going to make something to eat, you can look at your list to see what your options are. Choose something that sounds like it will taste good and fits your current cooking ability. For a meal that isn’t from your full meals category, you want to choose a protein, at least one vegetable or fruit, and a carbohydrate. The “balanced plate” illustration most government sources use suggests half your plate should be vegetables, a quarter should be protein, and a quarter should be carbohydrates. I agree with this, though a little more than a quarter of your plate being protein is also good.

Remember that a snack is just a really small meal.

when you have guests

If you’re hosting people, you may be responsible for keeping them fed. If so, get them to make lists of their favourite foods and meals before they come, so you can compare their lists with your master list and adjust your staples for the time they’re there. It’s also a really good idea to check if anyone needs to eat at particular times, such as if they have diabetes, so that you can figure out how to make sure that happens for them.

when you’re the visitor

Now that you have your master list, you can pass a copy along to your hosts so they can plan meals more easily. It’s also a good idea to ask if there is a set schedule for meal times, since that will help you know if you’re going to need snacks.

hosting a festive meal

If you’re going to host, ask your guests to bring side dishes, and you provide the protein. If you have to provide all of the food yourself, figure out the timing early so that on the day you know what to do when, and make some things ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about them on the day of the meal.

This week’s printable is all about meal planning. The first two pages will guide you through the process of creating your master list of meals and meal components (print these two pages for every person you need to feed). The rest of the document is about planning a festive meal. I hope this will help lower your stress!