By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Foods that are rich in fiber and protein can help kids with ADHD stay alert, calm, and focused. Keep these easy snacks on hand for both their appetite and their ADHD.
Like all kids, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) need to eat a healthy diet, and that includes choosing healthy snacks. But feeding kids who have ADHD can be extra challenging for several reasons. First, medications can decrease their appetite. Second, kids who experience hyperactivity expend more energy and may need more calories than some of their peers. And third, if they eat too many sweets, they can suffer from mood swings when their blood sugar spikes and then crashes. As a parent, you have to know the right balance to strike. These eight kid-friendly ideas can help take the guesswork out of snack time.
Kids who have ADHD benefit from the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that fruit provides. If your child turns up his nose at a whole banana, try making a fruit shake from fresh fruit and yogurt instead. Blend bananas, strawberries, peaches, orange juice, and ice in the blender, add some yogurt for thickness, and serve. Choosing nonfat Greek yogurt will give your smoothie extra protein. “Don’t be afraid to be creative when it comes to what you put in your smoothie,” says Jessica Crandall, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. You can use any mix of fruits — try mangoes or pineapples for a tropical flavor. For a boost of protein, add a scoop of peanut butter. And you can sneak in extra fiber and omega-3 fatty acids with ground flax seeds.
Mini pizzas are a fun, quick snack — and you don’t have to tell your kids they’re healthy. Make a mini pizza on a whole-wheat English muffin (that’s the fiber) with low-fat cheese (that’s the protein). Protein helps feed the brain and reduces hunger-induced mood swings. It also fills kids up for longer because it slows the food on its path from the stomach to the small intestines. Fiber, a complex carbohydrate, takes longer to digest and keeps blood sugar levels stable longer.
Hummus Spread on Pita
Hummus is a Middle Eastern spread made from ground chickpeas and tahini (sesame seeds). It’s a great source of protein, fiber, and many of the vitamins that kids with ADHD need to stay calm and focus better, says Heather R. Mangieri, RD, LDN, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and owner of Nutrition Check Up in Pittsburgh. Serve it on fiber-rich whole-wheat pita that you’ve cut into pie-shape pieces. Try including colorful veggie spears for dippers as well.
PB&J on Whole Grain Bread
For kids with ADHD, Mangieri says, snacks should contain protein — which helps with memory and learning — and a couple of other food groups. “Think of a snack as a mini-meal,” she explains. One classic idea: Peanut butter — an excellent source of protein — on whole grain bread. Or try a PB&J-banana sandwich. Bananas, a great source of potassium and vitamins B and C, have been found to boost immunity and even lift moods.
Whole-Grain Crackers or Pretzels
What kid doesn’t crave potato chips? The problem is, potato chips are loaded with fat and have little to offer in the way of nutrition. To satisfy your child’s craving for crunch-worthy foods, offer whole grain crackers, baked chips, or pretzels instead. Hot-air popcorn is another healthier alternative that provides lots of fiber and can be a nice addition to your child’s ADHD diet. Pack some in your child’s backpack for when hunger strikes.
Veggie Sticks With Tasty Dips
When your child opens the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets, “you want them to see healthy snacks, not cookies, candies, or salty snacks,” Mangieri says. Cut up fresh vegetables — for example, carrots, celery, and sweet peppers — into bite-sized pieces, and leave them in the fridge for easy snacking. Peanut butter, cottage cheese, and low-fat dressings make great dips for cut-up veggies and may entice kids whose ADHD medications dampen their hunger, Crandall says.
Dried Fruits and Nuts
Dried fruits are another great source of fiber for your child. They have little protein, but they go well with nuts, which can provide the protein needed in an ADHD diet. A dozen almonds will net about 3 grams of protein. However, if you don’t watch portion sizes, dried fruits and nuts can quickly add extra calories to your child’s diet. That may not be a concern, since many kids with ADHD are hyperactive and need more calories anyway, Mangieri says. But it’s a good idea to divide the snack into small servings so your child doesn’t overeat.
Snacks With Hidden Nutrients
If your child with ADHD is a fussy eater, one way to get him or her to eat healthy snacks is to disguise the healthy ingredients. Try baking carrot cake or zucchini bread. “A diet high in sugar can cause swings in your child’s blood sugar levels, exacerbating ADHD symptoms,” Mangieri says, but you can usually cut the amount of sugar in the recipe by a quarter or a third without affecting the taste too much. You also may be able to substitute applesauce for the oil.