How To Curb Food Waste When You Have ADHD

Here are some expert-backed strategies that may jive better with your brain.
Photography by Fernando de Otto via Getty Images

When you’re on a mission to waste less food, there’s a special twinge of guilt that strikes when another well-intentioned bulk buy expires or the bunch of kale you swore you’d whip into a salad is now a glob of slime at the back of your crisper drawer.

For most, the go-to pointers available on how to curb food wasteplanning your meals in advance, sticking to your shopping list, repurposing leftovers – are usually enough to get the job done. But for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), relying on the standard how-tos can, paradoxically, lead to an uptick in food waste.

This is because ADHD messes with a person’s executive functioning, a group of mental skills that include attention, planning, motivation, self-control and flexible thinking.

The connection between ADHD and food waste

“In order to maximize food use, it’s necessary to do things like plan meals (which involves attention and planning), create shopping lists (also attention and planning), avoid impulse buys (self-control), follow meal plans (motivation, planning, self-control) and repurpose leftovers (flexible thinking),” says Dr. Charissa Chamorro, a New York City-based clinical psychologist. “All of these steps require the very skills that are impacted by ADHD.”

Danasia Fantastic, 35, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur with ADHD, orders groceries with the best of intentions, but rarely uses everything she purchases. “Every time I have to throw food out because I forgot it was in my fridge, I’m riddled with guilt and an overwhelming feeling of shame,” she tells HuffPost.

The same goes for Monica (whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy), a woman recently diagnosed with ADHD from Alberta, Canada: “I used to think I was just stupid, because no matter how many lists and meal plans I made, no matter how simple I tried to make the process for myself, I always ended up with food waste.”

While it’s possible for someone with ADHD to use meal planning and grocery lists to waste less food, Chamorro says that additional methods may be necessary to circumvent the ways in which your brain tends to derail your efforts.

Below are possible solutions to the most common ways having ADHD can lead to food waste.

The problem: getting sucked into tasks and forgetting to eat

Most people with ADHD experience periods of hyperfixation, where they focus intently on something of interest and all other things, including the passing of time and physical cues, like hunger, fall away from awareness.

“Additionally, the stimulants that many people take to help with their ADHD symptoms reduce the awareness of hunger cues and can cause people to forget to eat,” says Dr. Marcy Caldwell, supervising psychologist at Rittenhouse Psychological Services in Philadelphia.

While in hyperfixation mode, all of those ingredients you intended to morph into healthy meals rot away in your fridge as you survive on protein bars and takeout.

The fix: Try breaking your tasks down into phases and practice using the end of each phase as a cue that it’s time to stop and eat. At the end of each break, deciding what you’ll eat during your next one can help strengthen the likelihood you’ll follow through.

Investing more of your food budget into convenient eats – smoothie cubes, snack platters, heat-and-eat dinners – can make it easier to eat when you can’t tear yourself away and reduce food waste in the process, Caldwell says.

The problem: the veg drawer graveyard

The anxiety Fantastic feels around her veg drawer graveyard is crippling.

“When shopping, I’m convinced I’m going to make all of these salads and stir fry several days a week,” she says. “But the moment I put those vegetables in my produce drawer, I rarely think about them again — until my fridge starts to smell weird.”

Object permanence is a problem for many people with ADHD, in that when something disappears from awareness and view, it tends to disappear from memory. “The fact that produce gets stored in a drawer makes it very difficult for someone with ADHD to remember it exists, so it doesn’t get used,” Caldwell says.

The fix: Reorganise your fridge, placing perishable and healthy foods within your immediate sight – say, in stackable, see-through containers – and, preferably, pre-washed and cut. “If you can see it and it doesn’t take any extra prep work or planning, you’re that much more likely to use it,” Chamorro says.

For items that you’re regularly seeking out in the fridge, like milk or jam or mustard, those are better stored in the drawers or places not immediately visible.

This strategy has been helpful for Fantastic, who makes sure the things that spoil first are at the forefront of her fridge, so they’re the first items she sees when she opens it.

The problem: well-intentioned impulse buys

When you have ADHD, impulse buys are typically thanks to a one-two punch of impulsivity and temporal discounting.

Impulsivity causes people with ADHD to act on an impulse or drive without considering how it will play out. “You might be in the grocery store and see a new food item you’re excited about trying and grab it without thinking about when or how you might cook it or if you’ll even have time to prepare it,” Caldwell says.

Then there’s temporal discounting, which is the tendency to prefer small, immediate rewards over long-term ones.

“If you see a food that looks delicious, you’re likely to buy it despite the risk of not using it before it goes bad because the immediate gratification of the purchase has a stronger hold on you than the long-term downside of wasting food and money,” Caldwell explains.

The fix: Always go to the store with a list in hand, even if it’s one you slap together in the parking lot. “Planning ahead of time gives you a base that alerts you when you’re going off book, acting as a cue to help you think through each purchase a bit more,” Caldwell says.

It’s also important to work with your psychology, rather than fight it all the time. Attempting to completely resist impulse buys will make the urge to go full-on Supermarket Sweep during your next shopping trip that much stronger.

“Giving yourself permission for one impulse buy per grocery trip may help curb the habit, as well as alleviate the stress of having piles of impulse buys going to waste in your kitchen,” says Caroline Thomason, a Northern Virginia-based registered dietitian.

The problem: repurchasing foods you already bought

Repurchasing food items you’re not out of – and forgetting to pick up the ones you are out of — is another artefact of object permanence. When something’s been put away out of sight or has been present and visible for so long, it starts to blend into the scenery and disappear from awareness.

The fix: Create a master list of the food items you prefer to keep on hand and either place in on your fridge or store it on an app, like Out of Milk. When you start running low on an item, highlight it on your master list or app in real-time.

“You can also take a picture of your fridge and pantry before heading to the store so you can double-check what’s there as you’re browsing the aisles,” Caldwell says. Then start fresh with a new copy of your master list the following week.

The problem: buying foods you love in bulk, then getting sick of them

“Hyperfixation can take hold of someone with ADHD in many ways,” Thomason says. “One is becoming attached to a specific food or snack item and buying it in bulk, only to burn out on it almost as quickly.”

The fix: The all-or-nothing extremes that typically make this habit a reality can also be used to defend yourself against it, Caldwell says. For example, making it a rule not to buy in bulk.

All-or-nothing rules can sometimes mean you don’t benefit from nuance (like buying that one thing you’d eat repeatedly), but with them come a significant upside: jiving with how your brain works naturally.

“Provided the loss of nuance has a manageable impact, it can be worth not fighting against your brain’s natural tendency,” Caldwell says.

The problem: prepping meals in advance — and not wanting to eat them

This is usually an issue of the novelty wearing off — novelty being a primary motivator for people with ADHD. “For someone for whom food is driven by motivation (in this case, the motivation being cravings), prepping meals in advance makes them no longer new and, therefore, less inherently motivating,” Caldwell says.

For Fantastic, there’s something about buying groceries that makes her feel accomplished, but also fatigued the moment she leaves the shop. “The last thing I want to do is prepare any of the food I just bought,” she says. Before she knows it, she’s browsing Uber Eats.

It’s completely normal to feel like you don’t want to eat any of the foods you have. But for a person with ADHD, this is more likely to lead to food waste because executive functions are required to follow through with a meal plan despite these feelings.

“Specifically, you have to use self-control and prioritising to follow through with your meal plan and engage in emotion regulation to manage the frustration of not having prepped what you’d now rather be eating,” Chamorro said.

The fix: Something that’s helping Fantastic combat this issue is ordering her groceries and scheduling them for delivery the night before she needs them — if she doesn’t physically have to go to the store, she finds she’s more likely to eat the food she’s purchased.

For some, preparing smaller amounts of multiple meals can also be helpful, allowing for the benefit of prep but also offering choice.

“Another option is preparing some bases with various ways they can be altered to suit the craving,” Caldwell says. “For example, turkey taco meat could be made into a taco, taco salad, burrito or added to a store-bought sauce and put over pasta.”

The problem: fixating too much on keeping the kitchen organized

When you have ADHD, keeping your kitchen and pantry organised can be a grind. Once you finally have everything in its place, you can become so focused on keeping it that way that you resort to eating convenience foods (to avoid a new pile of dirty dishes) or ordering takeout (to avoid running out of ingredients), all while the inventory of food you worked so hard to curate and prep goes bad.

This can be a result of hyperfocus, but it can also be a compensatory strategy. Cooking is a task that requires heavy amounts of executive functioning and it can feel too overwhelming to have anything out of place when embarking on this already tricky task, Caldwell says.

As a result, some people will choose to keep things super-organised as a way of helping themselves — only, they never get past the organising to execute the cooking and eating parts of the equation.

“It can also be about a fantasy that if they find the right organisational system, all struggles will disappear,” Caldwell added.

And when they inevitably don’t, the emotional paralysis can trigger an ongoing cycle of everything going to waste, followed by another kitchen revamp, followed by everything going to waste again.

The fix: Identify the most significant areas of your kitchen that need to be organised to function — say, the sink needs to be empty or two areas of the countertop need to be clear — and make that be the bar that, once accomplished, cooking can begin.

This can be difficult for some, who will feel like they can’t get rid of the drive and pressure to finish the entire kitchen, said Caldwell, who suggested postponing the rest of the task until after the meal has been prepared, rather than ignoring it altogether.

Each time you accept the discomfort as you cook and follow through on putting everything back after you’re done eating, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to maintain that organisation over time, alleviating the anxiety that’s causing such strong compensatory behaviours.

The most important thing you can do to reduce ADHD-induced food waste? Keep trying. “I feel like food waste is something I’ve constantly had to battle, but I’m doing my best to find hacks that’ll help change my behaviour,” Fantastic said.

Monica still has a lot of messy days when she decides what she wants to make for dinner, then realizes one of the ingredients she needs has gone bad or she never picked it up.

“The guilt and shame is definitely an ongoing thing, but I’m working with a therapist to help with these emotions,” she said. “Knowing I’m not alone and my experiences are valid has been so good for my mental health.”

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