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Tablespoons & Teaspoons: Teaching Teens With LD the Art of Meal Preparation

Get expert, step-by-step advice on teaching your child with a learning disability or AD/HD to plan and prepare meals.

By Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D.

The multi-step process of planning and preparing a meal is a daunting prospect for many young adults. For individuals with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), even organizing a trip to the grocery store can be trying, as it requires putting together a grocery list, locating house and/or car keys, and finding one's checkbook, debit card, or enough cash to pay for purchases.

This article will explain how the characteristics of LD and AD/HD may present challenges for kids who are learning to plan and prepare meals. I will also offer strategies for teaching your child the various skills involved in meal preparation, from planning a menu through kitchen clean-up.

Meal Planning

Some people enjoy planning a meal; others find it a chore. The process of planning a balanced and tasty meal requires imagination, a basic understanding of nutrition, a sense of whether the meal being planned is within the limits of one's budget, and the ability to obtain the necessary ingredients.

The table below illustrates some of the ways various characteristics of LD and AD/HD can result in challenges to meal planning.

Learning or Attention Problem Challenges when Planning a Meal
Reading Trouble reading through cookbooks for recipes
Receptive language (understanding written or spoken language) Problems understanding common meal planning terms, such as "appetizer" or "main course"
Math Trouble adjusting recipe ingredients to suit the number of people to be served (e.g., "doubling" a recipe)
Writing Problems making a list of items to be purchased for the meal
Distractibility Difficulty staying focused during the meal-planning process (e.g., while making up a shopping list of groceries needed to prepare the meal)


Grocery Shopping

The chaotic environment of a grocery store can be overwhelming, and working one's way through the aisles and the checkout line can be very stressful. The process of shopping for food is complicated by specific deficits associated with LD and AD/HD.

The table below illustrates how various types of learning and attention problems can result in challenges at the grocery store.

Learning or Attention Problem Challenges when Shopping
Reading Trouble deciphering aisle signs and food labels
Math Difficulty understanding unit pricing, calculating the cost of sale items, and tracking the accumulating costs as items are selected and placed in the shopping cart
Visual memory Remembering the layout of the store and which aisle to go to for certain items
Visual figure-ground discrimination (trouble focusing one's vision on a single item within a "busy" visual background) Trouble finding a specific brand of bread or cereal among the dozens of choices on the shelves
Distractibility Trouble staying focused and on task while shopping
Impulsivity Difficulty controlling "impulse buying" of items that are not on the shopping list


Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D., an expert on transition issues in special education, is a Professor at Lesley University, where she served as founding director of Threshold, a transition program for young adults with learning disabilities, from 1981 to 1996. She has served on the professional advisory boards of several national LD organizations and maintains a private practice in psychology.