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Nourishing the ADHD brain

August 17, 2023 | Valerie Elwell
Two blueberry muffin smoothies are displayed on wood cutting board with raw oats and banana.

Whip up these blueberry muffin smoothies to give your kids a high-protein, brain-boosting start to their day! Photos by Jessica VanRoo.

While many parents give a little cheer when a new school year starts, for those whose children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the return to the classroom can be filled with dread.

The classic characteristics of ADHD — difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness — can make school a challenge for children with this diagnosis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Certain foods are thought to aggravate ADHD symptoms. Studies out of Holland demonstrated that an elimination diet — removing sugar, gluten, dairy, eggs, processed meats and food dyes — improved symptoms in 70% of children with ADHD.

But a well-rounded diet full of essential nutrients is known to improve memory, mood, behavior and cognition.

"Nutritious food can be a powerful ally in calming ADHD symptoms,” says Katie E. Rankell, a registered dietitian and director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program. "In general, experts say that whatever foods are good for brain health are likely to be good for ADHD.”

Recommended foods include:

  • High-quality, lean protein. Beans, legumes, fish, tofu, lean meat, eggs, cheese and nuts are protein-rich foods that are great for breakfast and after-school snacks to help improve concentration.
  • Complex carbohydrates. Oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa and other whole grains deliver a steady source of fuel. Vegetables and some fresh fruits — like berries, apples, oranges, pears and even kiwi — do, too.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in tuna, salmon and other cold-water fish, omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in regulating neuron transmission and inflammation. Other great sources include olive oil, avocados, walnuts, flaxseed and leafy vegetables.
  • Choose organic foods. Food additives, including dyes and flavorings, hormones and environmental toxins can harm developing brains and bodies and should be avoided, says the America Academy of Pediatrics.

These tasty ADHD-friendly recipes — created by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health — just might make your child's back-to-school transition a little smoother.

Blueberry Muffin Smoothie

Serves 2 (Total cost: $4.08 / $2.04 per serving)
Calories: 315 per serving

What kid (or adult) would pass up this colorful smoothie? But there's way more to this delicious meal-in-a-glass than meets the eye.

Blueberries are a superfood containing many antioxidants that appear to have a beneficial effect on neural pathways, reducing inflammation and improving memory and brain function.

Add banana and you're getting both potassium, a vital nutrient that helps brain cells communicate with each other, and magnesium, which helps to regulate and ensure the normal function of neurons.

Toss in dates to help lower inflammatory brain markers such as interleukin 6 (IL-6), which is associated with a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Like bananas, dates are also high in magnesium.

Greek yogurt adds essential vitamins and minerals — including vitamin B-12 for red blood cell formation, enhanced nervous system function and energy production. A 7-ounce serving also provides 20 grams of high-quality protein!

Let's not forget the omega-3 fatty acids. This recipe calls for flaxseed meal and hemp hearts, which will keep those neural pathways functioning at optimal levels. Rolled oats add a whole-grain, complex carbohydrate to keep blood sugar levels stable and your body feeling full lots longer.

Quick and easy to prepare, this smoothie is a high-protein, nutrient-packed way to start the day!


  • 1 peeled banana, frozen
  • 2 large Medjool or Deglet Noor dates, pitted
  • 1½ cups frozen blueberries, preferably wild
  • ½ cup vanilla-flavored Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal
  • 1 tablespoon hemp hearts
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • ¼ cup rolled oats
  • ⅔ cup milk of choice, more as needed


  • Soak dates in warm water at least 20 minutes, drain and set aside.
  • Remove banana from freezer, set aside for 5 minutes then slice.
  • Combine all ingredients in a high-powered blender.
  • Blend until smooth, adding more milk as needed.

Tofu Gyro with Hummus Slaw

Serves 6 (Total cost: $12.75 / $2.13 per serving)
Calories: 395 per serving

An assembled tofu gyro is displayed with an open whole wheat wrap on a table outside.

These protein-packed, plant-based gyros are the healthy wrap you didn't know you needed.

Gyros are traditionally made with beef and lamb. Using tofu, which is made of condensed soy milk, gives them a lighter profile while also providing 17 grams of protein per 3.5 ounce serving!

Soy isoflavones may improve memory, attention, processing speed, and overall brain function in some adults, according to a recent study. Tofu also appears to protect against certain types of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

The marinade for this recipe contains many beneficial spices, including turmeric, which has been shown to decrease plaque in the brain. Cinnamon improves attention span and blood sugar regulation while oregano boosts blood flow to the brain.

The hummus made from chickpeas provides all-important iron — 3.7 milligrams per cup — to help the body produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in feelings of pleasure as well as the regulation of attention. 

The cabbage in this recipe packs 36% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, which also happens to be important for regulating dopamine in the brain. The cruciferous vegetable is also rich in vitamin B6 and folate, which are essential for energy metabolism and normal functioning of the nervous system.

Consider doubling the recipe to have a few more days of lunch fixings ready for those busy school mornings.


Tofu gyro

  • 14-16 ounces tofu, extra firm
    (pressed at least 20 minutes)
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon allspice
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • 2½ tablespoons avocado or olive oil
  • 6 whole wheat wraps or pita pockets

Hummus slaw

  • ½ cup prepared hummus
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons honey or maple syrup
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 4½ cups shredded cabbage, carrot or broccoli slaw
  • ½ cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup mint leaves, chopped
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • ⅓ cup chopped, toasted walnuts
  • 1 tomato, sliced for garnish as desired



  • Combine ingredients in a bowl, mix well, adding water to thin out the hummus.
  • Refrigerate at least 2 hours to allow mixture to marinate.

Tofu gyro

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Shred pressed tofu with a peeler or crumble into pieces in a bowl.
  • Mix the herbs, spices and oil, then pour over tofu and stir gently to coat all pieces.
  • Place tofu pieces on lined sheet.
  • Bake 30 to 40 minutes until browned, remove from oven to cool.

To assemble, spread hummus slaw on the wrap, top with tofu. Add sliced tomatoes if desired, roll up and serve.

Raspberry Curd Tartlets

Makes 20 (Total cost: $15.65 / $0.78 each per serving)
Calories: 163 per serving

Raspberry curd tartlets with a golden almond crust displayed on a white platter on an outside table.

Raspberries are also rich in antioxidants that contribute to the health of the brain and the neurological system. They also contain vitamins C and E, which may help protect a person's ability to think and remember information.

The eggs in this recipe are a strong source of protein. One egg has 6 grams of protein and nine essential amino acids. They are also rich in vitamin D, which protects the body's neural networks and helps regulate genes that are important for brain functions, and choline, which helps the brain's nerve cells talk to each other.

Even the almond flour crust offers brain benefits. Almonds are loaded with L-carnitine and riboflavin, which help brain cells grow, as well as the amino acid phenylalanine to support cognitive function.

Altogether, these low-calorie mini pies support brain and nerve health in a big way!



  • 12 ounces raspberries
  • 3 tablespoons sugar, more as needed
  • 1 lemon, juiced (about 1½ tablespoons)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

Tart shells

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup almond flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • ¼ cup (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut in pieces
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil



  • Combine raspberries with 3 tablespoons of sugar in a pot, cook over low heat until berries burst and sugar has melted.
  • Strain raspberry puree, taste and add more sugar as needed.
  • Stir in lemon juice, set aside to cool completely.
  • When cool, whisk raspberry puree with salt, eggs and egg yolks in a small pot, mixing well.
  • Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from separating and forming lumps.
  • Cook until mixture thickens and reaches 180 degrees, about 5 to 6 minutes.
  • Turn off heat, remove from the stove, stir in butter.
  • Press sheet of plastic wrap onto the surface of the curd, refrigerate at least 3 hours. Makes about 2 cups.


  • Combine ingredients in a food processor, pulse until a dough forms, adding 1 tablespoon of water at a time, as needed.
  • To make crust by hand, mash butter into flour with a fork, knead by hand, adding water as needed.
  • Press dough into tart molds, prick the bottom with a fork, refrigerate at least 60 minutes or freeze 20 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, bake tart shells 20 to 45 minutes, depending on size, until golden brown.
  • Remove from oven, set aside to cool.
  • Fill cooled shells with raspberry curd and serve.

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