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Executive Functioning and Cooking with ADHD

Although the term executive functioning skills has gained traction in recent years, you have only a vague sense of what this means. You know that executive functioning skills are related to goals or planning, but what does this mean in your day to day life?

Today I'm going to pick a task to analyze so we can look at just how this group of skills affects a daily job. I'm going to use a chore that is dreaded for many: cooking.

What's so tricky about dealing with food? This seemingly "simple" task is chocked FULL of executive functioning skills. Let's look at what those are:

Menu Planning

What are we going to eat? Do we have the items we need? How long will it take to prepare the food? Do I need to do anything ahead of time? These are just some of the planning questions inherent we need to answer in order to plan a meal.

Assuming we've planned what we're eating and determined what we need in order to make it, we'll probably need to go to the store for some items.

Shopping is loaded with decision making, prioritizing, and organizing (all executive functioning skills) and if you're like me, you may return from the store too tired to cook!

Let's assume we made it back from the store with energy to spare and we're making pasta with a salad for our meal. What other executive functioning skills do we need to rely on to get this done?


Deciding that it's time to start preparing our meal and initiating action. Many struggle here due to overwhelm; misjudging the time needed and seeing all of the steps in a multi step task; may make it hard to get started!


Most cooking requires a HIGH level of organization and planning. We need to have the components for our meal purchased and ready to use. Ingredients that are not part of the recipe such as salad dressing, croutons, parmesan cheese etc. still need to be planned for and purchased ahead of time.

Time Management- Cooking is the ultimate time management challenge! Sequencing and organization are important because we need to complete the steps in the right order to cook (we'll cover more on those skills below). Predicting how much time each step will take can be tough for those of us with ADHD. We may overestimate the time needed for one step, which results in overwhelm. Then we underestimate the time needed for a different step, and find ourselves rushing, panicking, and feeling pressured.

Planning, Sequencing, and Prioritization

Cooking is heavy in planning and sequencing; the amounts of ingredients, sequence of steps, and order of steps matter quite a bit. When do I start the pasta to serve with the sauce? When do I turn on the stove top so the water is boiling by the time I need to put the pasta in? The salad I can make at any time, but if I wait too long to start it, the lettuce won't drain enough or the pasta will get cold while I prepare the salad.


Sustaining attention is important in the kitchen. If for nothing else, it's relatively important for safety (I have quite a few of my own cautionary tales related to this, but I'll save my pizza dough/food processor story for a different day). Attention to recipe instructions, oven temperatures, and the sequence of directions is essential when preparing a meal.

Working Memory

This is your shortest term memory and it's seriously taxed in the kitchen. Can you hold instructions in your head long enough to complete them, or do you have to keep pulling the box out of the trash? Do you need to set the timer for the garlic bread or can you keep that in your mind while you make the salad? (Set the timer, trust me on this one.)


This comes into play when we have to adjust our plan for pasta and salad. The lettuce has gone bad or we picked up salsa instead of marinara sauce. Can we adjust in the moment and problem solve? Many of us have a difficult time with this kind of flexibility and we may find ourselves wanting to throw in the towel when we have to make adjustments.

Emotional Regulation

Being able to feel your emotions without being carried away by them is the essence of emotional regulation. We may feel rushed and panicked because we misjudged the time we needed, frustrated because we left out a key ingredient and have to start from scratch, or disappointed because we spent a large amount of effort and time on a meal that did not turn out the way we planned. Emotional regulation lets us experience any and all of these without melting down.

It may appear that I wrote this entry to bemoan the complicated components of cooking, but that isn't my intention.

I wrote this because every day I work with intelligent, talented, and creative women who are bewildered that this "simple" chore seems to be their undoing. If you have ADHD, you have deficits in at least some of these skills and that can make managing food a challenge!

That doesn't mean that you can never improve them. Executive functioning skills are skills. With awareness and practice, we can strengthen them. We can also choose to make accommodations for our executive functioning skills in order to better support our unique brains.

The next time you manage to prepare a meal, no matter how simple it may seem on the surface, give yourself credit for completing a herculean executive functioning feat!


If you are interested in learning more about how to work with your unique brain to create changes that matter to you, please contact me for a free discovery call below. .

*Connect with Me on Instagram @ theadhdclaritycoach and Facebook @Clarity Coaching for bite-sized coaching tips!


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