Picky Eating in Children With ADHD

Picky Eating in Children With ADHD

Many parents of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) report that their children are often picky eaters or have strong food aversions. Research shows there does appear to be a correlation between ADHD and picky eating habits. Understanding why this occurs and how to help children with ADHD expand their food preferences can make mealtimes less stressful.

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Written by

Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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The Effects of Picky Eating & ADHD

ADHD affects 3 to 5 percent of school-age children or more than 2 million school-age kids in the United States. Among children and adolescents, ADHD is more frequently diagnosed in males, with the male-to-female ratio ranging from 2:1 to 10:1. 

However, research indicates that the difference in the number of males compared to females diagnosed with ADHD can be partly attributed to females not being recognized or referred for diagnosis as often. Studies also show that females with ADHD might show distinct variations in their symptoms, comorbid conditions, and how their daily life is affected compared to males.

Kids with ADHD show symptoms related to inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms have a knock-on effect in terms of development, learning and daily functioning. 

One ADHD trait that can have a significant effect on children and their families is picky eating, also known as selective eating. Several studies have shown the connection between challenges with eating and ADHD in children, especially preschoolers.

Did you know that many people with ADHD are "picky eaters"?

How The ADHD Brain Leads To Picky Eating

Picky eaters tend to have limited food choices and are usually unwilling to try different foods. Both adults and children with ADHD can struggle with this.

Children with ADHD tend to gravitate towards foods that are sugary and familiar. They are often reluctant to sample unfamiliar textures, tastes, or smells. Sensory sensitivities associated with ADHD may make certain foods unappealing based on color, smell, or texture. For example, a child may refuse all cheeses due to an aversion to the scent of pasteurized milk. Or, they could find the texture of many vegetables unbearable. Depending on which food groups become intolerable, children can become deficient in specific nutrients or have issues with their body weight due to not being able to manage a healthy diet.

Selective eating habits in children with ADHD may also stem from impaired dopamine activity in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward-seeking behaviors. Many children with ADHD prefer foods high in sugar and fat, as these provide a temporary "dopamine surge."

While dopamine is likely to play a role, it is not the only factor. Picky eating can be complex and multifactorial. Many other factors can influence a child's eating habits when diagnosed with ADHD.

but what is picky eating?

Other Factors That Can Contribute To Food Issues For A Child With ADHD

There are specific comorbidities that can be associated with selective eating.

For example, selective eating can be a symptom of  Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Selective eating is also common in children and adults with autism. These children may obsess over certain foods while restricting all other food groups. selective eating is also associated with depression, social anxiety, and exacerbating symptoms of ADHD.

It’s important to note that just because a child is having issues with food doesn’t automatically mean they are struggling with a mental health disorder or a neurodevelopmental disorder. Many things can affect a child’s eating habits, and it’s important to rule out other causes by getting the advice of doctors and professionals who know how to address food issues in children. 

A lack of nutritious foods and variety can result in a child with ADHD experiencing long-term physical health problems. Not getting enough of the proper nutrients from being picky with food might make ADHD symptoms worse and even lead to other health troubles. 😨 

Long-Term Psychological Problems Associated With Selective Eating

If parents don't address food issues early on, they can persist into adulthood. One follow-up study found that although many children grew out of selective eating, 28% still showed selective food habits at age 23. It's important to note that this study studied the general population of children so this statistic may be higher for those with ADHD.

While addressing these eating habits early on is essential, research suggests that parental pressure around food is associated with an increased risk of children developing an eating disorder in young adulthood. Therefore, it's critical to use strategies that support the child during mealtimes rather than forcing them to eat.

a "picky eater is someone who has a limited set of favorite food and often avoid new or unfamiliar food

Preventing Selective Eating: When A Child Only Eats Certain Foods

Managing selective eating is possible when parents understand how to handle their children's food preferences. 

Here are some steps to help parents prevent negative associations with food, especially for children with ADHD:

Involve Kids in Food Preparation

Many experts recommend letting children participate in meal preparation and deciding what to eat. This way, kids understand what goes into their meals and are less likely to develop a negative association with specific foods.

Mix It Up

Balance familiar foods with new flavors, textures, and healthy snacks. Children will be likelier to try new things if it centers around a meal they feel safe with. For example, this could involve adding a subtle new flavor to a 'safe' dish. 

but adults can be picky eaters too!

Make Meals Enjoyable

Incorporating games into meal times can distract kids from fixating on food qualities. This distraction can help them explore different foods without anxiety. However, choose games carefully to avoid choking hazards or a complete loss of focus on their food. If your child finds it difficult to sit at the dinner table, sensory cushions that allow movement and sitting can offer sensory input to help your child remain seated for an extended period.

Introduce a Variety of Foods

To ensure children receive the necessary nutrients, introduce a range of healthy foods, especially if they avoid certain vegetables and fruits. These foods provide essential nutrients for brain health and can prevent future issues with selective eating.

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Use Reward Charts

Employ reward charts to motivate picky eaters. Offer stars or stickers for trying different foods and meeting a certain quota of healthy meals before indulging in favorite snacks.

so why people with ADHD tend to be pickier with food?

Offer Breakfast Variety

Serve a diverse selection of foods during breakfast, providing a mix of protein, nutrients, carbohydrates, and sweetness. This approach gives kids options and sets them up for the day.

as our brains are craving dopamine we tend to choose food with the more appealing flavors to us

Model Healthy Food Behaviors

Remember that a child learns by watching. Demonstrate healthy eating habits by consistently exploring a variety of different foods. You can teach them that it's perfectly fine to stop trying something they don't enjoy; the important thing is that they try it. When they see you doing this, they'll understand that trying new things is safe. Children often imitate their parents' eating behaviors, so setting a positive example is crucial.

By following these practical steps, parents can help their children develop a positive relationship with food and expand their dietary preferences.

people with ADHD are also often very sensitive to smells, taste, and textures...


A picky eater in the family, whether a child or adult, can sometimes be frustrating. However, it’s important to remember that expanding one’s food preferences takes time and patience. Pressuring or forcing someone to try different foods often backfires, creating more stress and anxiety around food.

Picky eaters, especially children, will become more open to new tastes and textures as they mature. Their sensory systems and palates will continue developing. They can slowly acclimate to a wider variety of healthy foods with gentle encouragement.

Remain patient, creative, and compassionate when dealing with picky eaters. Respect their boundaries while regularly incorporating small amounts of new foods. With support, not pressure, picky eaters can learn to try new foods independently. Mealtimes will become more pleasant for the whole family.

The key is providing a low-anxiety environment that makes mealtimes an enjoyable experience. Patience and understanding go a long way in supporting picky eaters of any age to become more adventurous with new flavors, textures, and foods.

My advices are accept your taste, try to cook and it is okay to ask for help.
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ADHD and Picky Eating: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Is picky eating a sign of ADHD?

Issues with food are not an official diagnostic symptom of ADHD. However, many clinicians observe a strong connection, with up to 70% of kids with ADHD being selective eaters. Sensory issues and food aversions are much more prevalent than in the general population.

How does ADHD affect a child's (or adult's) eating habits?

There are several ways ADHD can influence food habits. Many kids with ADHD have low dopamine levels, causing them to prefer sugary foods. Additionally, traits like sensory sensitivity and distractibility can also impact mealtimes. Some develop negative associations with certain food textures, tastes, or smells. selective eating is complex but often rooted in the ADHD brain.

Why is it essential to address picky eating early on?

Nutrition is critical for proper growth and development in children. Picky eating can lead to deficiencies, health issues, and problems like anemia. It is also associated with disorders like anxiety, depression, and anorexia nervosa later in life. Working early to expand food choices and make mealtimes pleasant can help prevent these issues. The key is providing a low-pressure environment focused on making eating an enjoyable sensory experience.

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