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


Meal preparation

Once food is purchased, it must be prepared. Cooking presents a number of challenges to individuals with LD and/or AD/HD, as outlined below.

Learning or attention problem Challenges when preparing meals
Executive function (organizing, prioritizing) Difficulty planning the preparation of several different items so they can all be served at the appropriate time during the meal
Receptive language (understanding written or spoken language) Problems understanding common cooking terms, such as “sauté” or “dice”
Reading Difficulty decoding (reading the words in) recipes
Math Trouble measuring ingredients
Visual discrimination Problems telling the difference between look-alikes (e.g., a teaspoon and a tablespoon)
Fine-motor coordination (ability to use one’s hands and fingers effectively) Difficulty peeling, slicing, and chopping
Temporal perception (sense of time) Trouble planning enough time for various parts of a meal to cook, resulting in burnt or under-cooked food
Distractibility Difficulty maintaining focus and following all of the steps involved in preparing a meal

Serving and cleaning up after a meal

Serving a meal — and cleaning up afterward — requires coordination. It entails choosing appropriate serving dishes and utensils, providing any necessary condiments, and socializing during the meal. Once the meal is over, the dishes must be cleared and washed, any leftovers safely stored, and the table and kitchen cleaned up.

LD and AD/HD can present challenges in these aspects of meal preparation, as described below.

Learning or attention problem Challenges in serving a meal and cleaning up
Executive function (organizing, prioritizing) Difficulty deciding the order in which food should be served
Spatial perception Trouble choosing appropriate serving dishes for the quantity/type of food prepared; difficulty washing dishes and pans thoroughly and wiping down the counters and table
Social skills Difficulty demonstrating good table manners and conversation skills during the meal


Tips for teaching your teen meal preparation skills

Meal preparation can be introduced very early, with children as young as toddlers getting involved in baking and making simple sandwiches. As your child with LD or AD/HD matures, you should gradually involve him more in the food preparation process.

As you practice the following strategies, keep in mind that it is very helpful for children to hear “think alouds” from adults as they reveal their thought process. While teaching your child to plan and prepare meals, try to model your decision-making by actually saying what you’re thinking as you make your choices. For example, you might explain, “We’re having company to dinner, so I’ll buy the big box of rice instead of the small one that we usually buy just for the three of us.” Thinking aloud about each step of the meal planning and preparation process will help your child learn steps that might seem obvious to you.

Here are strategies for teaching meal planning and preparation skills during your child’s middle and high school years:

At the Grocery Store:

  • Point out the categories of foods and household items and the layout of the aisles. Note, for example, that all the breads are grouped and that spaghetti and sauce and other food items that tend to be used together are placed in close proximity. As your child catches on, take the next step and ask him to help you locate items throughout the store.
  • Explain unit pricing and how you make decisions about purchases with unit prices in mind (e.g., “The big box is cheapest, but we rarely eat this, and it’ll just get stale, so I’ll spend a little more per unit and buy the smaller size.”).
  • Have your teen use a calculator to track the accumulating cost of the food being placed in the cart. Explain that particularly for those shopping within a budget, tracking purchases when shopping is a very helpful habit.
  • Point out the differences among the various checkout lines. Explain when it is appropriate to use the express lane versus and the regular line.
  • Explain how to use coupons and store membership or discount cards to save money.

In the Kitchen

  • Ask your child to be your cooking assistant. Give him increasing responsibility for unwrapping, slicing, and measuring as he grows old enough to tackle these aspects of the process. Read through recipes together and explain cooking terms (e.g., “chop” versus “slice”) as they are introduced in recipes.
  • Teach your child how to use kitchen knives safely. Supervise as he practices slicing and chopping until he’s comfortable handling and using knives for various food preparation techniques.
  • Show your child how to use the appliances needed for basic cooking. Introduce one appliance at a time (e.g., oven, stovetop, microwave oven) and let him practice using it until he can do so safely and comfortably, without your coaching. If he has difficulty remembering the steps involved in using an appliance, write them neatly in a notebook or on a Post-it note near the appliance for him to refer to as long as he needs the extra support.
  • Use cookbooks with photographs and step-by-step diagrams. Novice cooks with LD and/or AD/HD benefit from step-by-step diagrams that show how a recipe should be prepared as well as photographs that show how the recipes they are preparing will look when they are completed.
  • Color code measuring spoons and cups. Marking the 1/4 teaspoon and 1/4 cup with red, the 1/2 teaspoon and 1/2 cup with blue, etc. provides an additional visual clue to help differentiate similar-looking items while cooking.
  • Model with think-alouds as you cook, walking your child through the process of planning the timing of different parts of the meal. Be sure to mention any ancillary needs (e.g., “Since we’re having burgers, we’ll need ketchup and mustard too.”). Planning ahead exactly when each part should be prepared and cooked and creating a chart that outlines the entire process eliminates the need for on-the-spot decision-making, which can be very stressful for any new cook, particularly those with LD and/or AD/HD.
  • Give guidelines for storing leftover food. Discuss how long foods can safely be stored in the refrigerator and how to properly store leftovers in aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or food containers. Demonstrate how to label and date leftovers to be refrigerated. As foods go bad, show your child how they look and smell before you throw them out.
  • By the time your teen is nearing completion of high school, you might assign him to cook one meal per week for the family. Many teens find it helpful to verbally walk through the full meal planning process beforehand with a parent and make lists of all steps, from shopping to cooking to setting the table to cleaning up. The need for your supervision will taper off as he becomes more experienced and comfortable in the kitchen.
  • Collect your child’ s favorite recipes in a file box to take along when he moves out on his own!

Recipe for success in the kitchen

Planning and preparing a meal is a complex process that requires a broad range of skills. Your teen with LD and/or AD/HD will benefit from explicit instruction in each step of the process as he develops the skills and confidence to tackle this crucial aspect of daily living.