What to Do when Your ADHD Child Is a Picky Eater

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Some of you had expressed concern over your child's eating habits in your comments to my last post.     And so I thought it would be a good idea to share my experiences with my son who is an extremely picky eater.   Also I want to open up this topic for other readers who may have some tips or suggestions to share about how you get your child to eat.

If you have a child who has ADHD or other special needs you may find that it is difficult to get your child to eat and if they do eat, they may be very selective in their choices. In addition to having a child who already is a picky eater, some medications your child is taking can also suppress appetite.   ADHD medications such as Adderall, Vyvanse, and Concerta all have side effect precautions that they may cause your child to lose their appetite.   Some medications for mood can have the same effect.   My son takes Prozac and during the first months of taking it, his appetite diminished.

Then of course if you have a child who has ADHD symptoms, they may be constantly moving and on the go, sometimes forgetting to eat.   Needless to say, my ever fidgety picky eater has always been on the thin side.   My worry, as I am sure any parent who has a child like this, is that my child is not getting enough of the nutrients that he needs to grow properly.

When my son first started to eat solid foods, he would eat most everything.   I have photos showing him eagerly devouring a variety of foods at his high chair.   I look back on those pictures and ask incredulously, "He used to eat that?"   My son's selectivity to choose only certain foods to eat began pretty much when he turned two. And soon his food preferences became more and more narrow.   At one point in time he only wanted to eat three things:   French Fries, raisins and pears.

Over time we discovered ways to get him to eat more in quantity and also increase the variety of the foods he will choose to eat.

It has taken much effort but my son is in the normal healthy weight range for his age and height and he now eats a more balanced diet.   Does he eat all varieties of food?   No.   But he still gets what he needs to be healthy and that is what counts.

There are several issues which I think are very important to think about when your child is refusing to eat.

  • 1. Your child's reluctance to eat certain foods may indicate that he or she has a food allergy or intolerance. After seeing a nutritionist (who was no help to us at all), our pediatrician, and gastrointestinologist (a gut doctor), we finally found an allergist who found that my son was allergic to multiple food items.

  • 2. Your child may have an aversion to some foods because of their texture. Some children, such as mine, have sensory issues which cause them to shy away from things which feel a certain way. For example, my son has never liked mushy foods. He prefers crunchy or chewy. We all have these sorts of preferences but for some children it is more extreme. Sensory integration (a method where an occupational therapist works with your child to decrease their aversion to sensory stimuli which in this case may include certain textures of food) may help in this case.

  • 3. You don't want to ever enter into a power struggle over food. You will be setting you and your child up for bigger problems if you enter into this mine field. You don't want your child to develop a true eating disorder in the years to come. Try not to use value laden words of "good" or "bad" to describe your child's food preferences. Punishment for how your child eats or doesn't eat is simply not going to be effective.

In essence you want to begin by figuring out if there are medical reasons for your child's eating behaviors such as food allergies or a side effect to medications. Do discuss your child's eating issues with your doctor who may have some ideas as to both reasons and what to do.  Then you might look for other reasons such as a sensory issues or even a psychological one that your child is wanting more control.

Once you have figured out some of the main reasons for your child's food issues you can proceed to do something about it.   Here is what we did for our son and remember that I am talking about a process which developed over years.

  • Make a list of all the foods your child will eat now. Then brainstorm about other foods which are similar to the ones listed. If your child likes pears see if he or she will eat apples. If they like chicken nuggets see if they will like fried veggies which look like chicken nuggets. Think of ways to expand your child's diet without making the changes too extreme.

  • Get your child involved in the shopping and preparation of food. When your child is an active participant in the process of meal preparation, they are more likely to taste the results of their efforts.

  • Bring food with you for on the go snacks. If we have a long car ride, or if we are going to the park, or other places where you may take a break, bring a snack along. Since you are bringing your own healthy treats, this will prevent the need to stop at places for fast food or less desirable food choices.

  • If your child doesn't eat much for main meals, opt instead for more frequent smaller meals spread out through the day.

  • Make a celebration out of food. Has a luau, fiesta, or Chinese banquet and in addition to learning about the different customs, your child can try different foods. My son tried pineapple for the first time when we bought one at the supermarket for a family luau we had for our kids.

  • For the child who is wanting more control, you need to give them that power through controlled choices. For my son we had a visual menu choice board. We showed him a picture of two or three items and asked, "Do you want a banana or an apple?" This way they have a choice but we get to structure that choice.

  • If your child needs more protein there are protein powders out there which you can mix into their beverages. My son takes rice protein which we mix into his rice milk. There is also the option of buying those protein bars which many children do like.

  • Sometimes changing the name of a food to something more pleasing can get a child to try a food. My son would never touch a chicken nugget but when we called it a "hot treat" then he decided to try one and loved them.

  • Try to find ways to mix healthy foods into your child's preferred food selections. For example, my son loves bread and muffins. We make him French toast with a lot of eggs in it for the protein. With muffins you can put fruit or even ground up vegetables in them. If your child likes spaghetti sauce then you are in luck because you can put pureed veggies into the sauce. If your child likes pasta there are pastas made of beans for more protein than pastas made of flour.

  • There are plenty of recipes on-line which are kid friendly and healthy. ADDitude Magazine has some good suggestions for brain healthy snacks for kids who have ADHD which you may find here.

These are just some suggestions out of many.   It simply takes time and lots of patience to get your child to eat more of a variety of foods.   But I am here to tell you that it can be done.   Now what about you?   Have you had any food struggles with your child?   Do you have any strategies for getting your child to eat more of a variety of healthy foods?   Let us know.   We love hearing from you

You may also find Merely Me writing about the topic of Learning Disabilities on Health Central's Friends of Quinn site!