ADHD and Breakfast: How to Get Kids to Choose Healthy Cereal

Boy eating healthy breakfastLast year our teenage grandson lived with us. He had some adhd behavior, little motivation for school, and lousy grades.

We loved having him with us but what a challenge. Just getting Caleb to eat breakfast at all, much less a healthy one, started out as a struggle. But it was step one toward doing better in school and helping tame the adhd behavior.

We're at the grocery store together.

Caleb: "Grandma, let's get Froot Loops (with red dye 40, artificial flavor and mostly sugar)?

Me: "Are you kidding?"

Caleb: "But you said you wanted me to eat a good breakfast."

Me: "Right."

Caleb: "Then how come I can't get Froot Loops (with red dye 40, artificial flavor and mostly sugar)?

Me: "Because Froot Loops (with red dye 40, artificial flavor and mostly sugar). It isn't even food."

Caleb: "Well, I'm not gonna eat some gross old people's health food cereal that tastes like dog food."

Me: "I agree. Sounds truly disgusting."

Despite that conversation, by the time the year with his grandparents was up, Caleb was happily eating a low sugar, high protein and fiber, whole grain cereal for breakfast. In the end, he chose the Kellog's Frosted Mini-Wheats, not me--a cereal with a whopping 74 out of 82 on the Cereal Nutrition Scale versus Kellog's Fruit Loops with a measly score of 38.

Post Shredded Wheat comes in at 82 but I don't care since I've always thought it tasted more like cardboard than cereal.  And unfortunately the Cereal Nutrition Scale doesn't look at grams of protein.  For some kids and often ADHD kids, a cereal low in protein may not provide enough energy for a whole morning.

So back to the story.  How did I get Caleb to eat a relatively healthy cereal which he chose?

I got Caleb interested in the nutritional value of food by convincing him-along with the help of his football coach-that eating well would help him play better football. And then by sending him on a mission in the grocery store to read labels. It became a contest between us. Contests are great for motivating teenage boys.

Here's what happened. I had declared that sugar-coated cereal will never appear on our shelves. Period! So to push my limits, Caleb asks about a cereal that is frosted. I repeat the no sugar-coated cereal at our house.

Then he, in typical teenager fashion, goes back to the cereal he chose so he can prove to me that it meets my standards. And he was right! He had found a cereal, despite the frosting, that's low in sugar for packaged cereal and relatively high in protein and fiber. He won the contest, and I won the goal of getting him to eat a healthy breakfast.

Do whatever you can to get your kids interested in eating well. Teach them to read labels. Make a game out of it. Count grams of sugar, grams of saturated fat and compare to grams of protein, grams of fiber. Connect eating well to something they're passionate about like a sport they're playing. If they aren't concerned themselves about getting better grades, doing better in school won't be much motivation.

Have a red dye 40 contest. How many foods can they find in your kitchen that have red-dye 40? How many foods on the grocery store shelves? How many kinds of candy (other than chocolate) can they find that don't have red dye 40? For some kids, just omitting any food or candy that has red dye 40 in it will stop ADHD behavior in its tracks.

What they eat affects how well they learn. So a kid who survives on junk food loaded with sugar and fat will struggle more with learning and have more behavioral issues including ADHD-like symptoms.

Maybe your kids don't have ADHD after all and maybe just a change in diet will help with ADHD symptoms. To find out what looks like ADHD and isn't, I invite you to grab your copy of the FREE "Maybe They Don't have ADHD" inventory and checklist. Discover 12 factors that can contribute to ADHD-like behavior Give it to teachers and parents. Help stop the over-diagnosis of ADHD!

Discover 12 conditions that look like ADHD and ADD but aren't. Sign up now!

About Dr. MaryJo Wagner

MaryJo Wagner, PhD, helps you help your kids transform ADHD behavior for success. Sign up at Coaching & Accountability to get your questions answered with a complimentary Transformation Session.


  1. I would agree that for many children with ADHD or ADHD-like behavior, a breakfast of eggs versus oatmeal helps. For other kids, high-protein meals are less important. Mom and Dads just need to experiment to see what works best.

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