Meal Planning

Grocery Shopping During a Pandemic: ADHD Tips and Tricks

As if grocery shopping weren’t stressful enough for ADHD brains, this pandemic brings food shortages, contamination worries, and massive lists of essentials. Use these strategies to get what you need with the least amount of anxiety as possible.

Delivering Food To A Self-isolate People or Quarantine At Home
Delivering Food To A Self-isolate People or Quarantine At Home

Have you ever driven to the supermarket with a whole list in your head, ready to take on the challenge, and left with a headache, a bunch of bananas, and some air freshener?

During regular times, the supermarket is stressful for people with ADHD. It’s almost universally overwhelming for adults with ADHD to navigate aisles and aisles teeming with hundreds of choices, face down a maze of distracting people, and breathe through the sensory overload. The neurotypical world doesn’t understand the level of planning involved or the ADHD brain’s exhaustion over making so many decisions in a short amount of time.

Grocery shopping with ADHD is daunting at best. During a pandemic, it’s unspeakable. You have to manage supermarket shopping while also remembering to wear masks and gloves, to practice social distancing, and to adapt recipes on the fly due to food and supply shortages. Oh, and also shop extra fast without forgetting any essentials. This much anxiety can quickly lead to panic or a meltdown.

“It takes me twice as long,” wrote one ADDitude reader on Facebook. “I focus on what I should buy and forget the distancing rule and then I somehow spend more even though they don’t have half of what I want, and I really, really need to touch my face!”

“I’d say in the grand scheme of things, I’m normally balanced,” wrote another reader. “After coming home from completing a big shop a couple weeks ago, I was a wreck. It felt hard to breathe, like everything around me was closing in. My husband suggested I lay down for for a while to relax, but all I did was toss and turn. Finally, I went for a hot shower, which actually helped. Three changes of clothes and a few hours later, I felt okay again.”

[Do I Have ADHD? Take the Symptom Test for Women]

All of this stress is why it’s generally best to outsource grocery shopping if it’s too draining. Most supermarkets offer an on-line grocery ordering option for a fee. Alternatively, services like Hello Fresh and Dinnerly ship directly to your door recipes and all of the ingredients to make them; these services are more expensive than buying the groceries on your own, but less pricey than take-out — and they incorporate fresh vegetables and meat. If you can’t or don’t want to shop this way, ask a family member to go for you or pick up items you need ASAP. This is a good time to ask for help.

If circumstances require you to go to the store regardless, the key to food shopping during highly stressful times is to use systems. In doing so, you are training your brain to know, “This is how we do this task.” As a result, you’ll need less mental energy to plan and do it moving forward. To that end, here is my system for grocery shopping with an ADHD brain.

The 2-step system for making a grocery list:

Making a master list at home is the most important part of this system. Planning ahead is essential now because we can’t easily run to the store.

[Use This Free Guide to Delicious (and ADHD-Friendly!) Eating]

Step 1: Look in your fridge, pantry, and cabinets. Using visual cues means you don’t have to rely on your memory. Write down the answers to these questions:

  • What obvious things am I out of today?
  • What does my family normally eat?
  • What dinner recipes will we prepare?
  • Are there any special foods I want to buy?

Step 2: Walk through your house to give yourself visual cues. Write down the answers to these questions:

  • What do I need to clean the house?
  • What do I need to do laundry?
  • What do I need for bathing and taking care of my body?

By making this list, you’ll have taken care of more than 50% of the hassle of grocery shopping. Make a copy, log your items in an app, or take a picture of this list so that you can use it again. About 80% of what we buy tends to stay the same week-to-week, so keeping a digital master list for easy reuse makes a lot of sense.

Here are a few recommendations to help make your shopping even easier:

Stop, pause, and breathe

If you get overwhelmed at any point in your trip, stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. Repeat as often as needed. If you try to push through the anxiety, it will only get worse.

Use lists you already have

If you usually order groceries online but now need to go to the store because you can’t get a slot, print out your online list. This is what you get most of the time, so you can’t go wrong.

Add as needed based on what you’re out of right now or what you want to stock up on. Cross out whatever you don’t need.

Buy in bulk

If possible, buy two or three of every item. This will decrease the number of large trips you have to make. It’s also a good idea since you can’t guarantee you’ll get what you need every time you go to the store.

Decide ahead of time about alternatives

The store may be out of the brand you usually buy. These days, it may be out of an item altogether. Go in knowing that and have a backup plan. It can be as easy as, “I will buy whatever wheat bread I can find.” Or “Frozen is an alternative to fresh orange juice.”

If you want to order online, check daily for open slots

Set a daily alarm to remind yourself to check for open pick up/delivery slots, which typically open up in the wee hours of the morning. This way, you don’t have to rely on your memory.

Have a full cart ready to go; to save time, reuse a past order to fill your cart. Then go in daily and check for slots. This way you don’t have to shop and check for slots at the same time. You’ll decrease your stress if you break the task down into chunks.

Buy the healthiest food you are likely to eat

People with ADHD are sensitive to sugar, additives, mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and poor nutrition overall. All brains need good nutrition, but when you have ADHD, your brain needs it even more. When you’re living through a pandemic, eating chips and ice creams is very tempting; it can also make a bad situation even worse.

You don’t have to cook complicated meals to improve your nutrition. Add a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit to your meals. Try making smoothies with frozen fruit. Look for non-perishables that have fewer preservatives or less salt.

Build in a reward

What’s your reward for going to the grocery store? Having food and toilet paper are definitely good incentives. However, you’re going to need something more to make up for the task being harder. How about a nap? A hot shower? A reward will train your brain that the hard task is worth it. As a result, your brain is more likely to want to do it again.

Grocery shopping is a necessary evil on a good day. Right now, it’s like a Medieval torture device. Do the best you can to keep it easy by problem solving ahead of time, using systems, taking breaks, and building in rewards. You can do this. We’re all rooting for you from a safe distance.

Dr. Ronit Levy is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with high achieving teens and adults struggling with anxiety due to Anxiety Disorders, OCD, ADHD, chronic illness, and life events. She also helps students and families develop learning plans that fit their special needs. Dr. Levy spent her first two weeks in quarantine writing and publishing a guide for parents to help them navigate the stress and chaos that come with educating kids at home during a crisis. Click here to learn more about the guide and bonus material.

[Read This Next: “Is It Selfish, Shallow, or Frivolous to Worry About Your Own State of Mind During a Pandemic?”]


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Updated on April 24, 2020

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