The fatigue and challenges that come when cooking with chronic illness can often make the necessary task of making meals feel impossible. Dre’s multiple sclerosis creates multiple challenges in allowing him to continue to function in his favorite place; the kitchen. However, independence in the kitchen is a crucial part of maintaining independence in daily life when living with chronic illness.
Keeping functionality in the kitchen also means having more control over a healthy diet, which is important in combatting chronic illness, managing food cost, and providing the taste and dishes that you personally crave.
Passionate about cooking and maintaining his independence, Dre has worked to find the adaptations that allow him to stay active in the kitchen while cooking with chronic illness.
Tip 1 For Cooking with Chronic Illness: Manage Fatigue
Fatigue is one of the main battles Dre fights with his multiple sclerosis. Fatigue with MS or other chronic illnesses is not something that can be “powered through,” in fact, that is pretty much the worst thing you can do. When fatigue hits Dre, it drains, and continues to drain him until his body shuts down. Once that cycle has started, fatigue can take Dre out for hours, or even sometimes days.
Early in his disease, Dre did try to battle through the fatigue that came with it, and the impacts both on his body and long term health suffered. In order to stay active and continue to do the things he loves to do, he needed to make adjustments to how he conducted his daily activities to maintain energy.
To manage the fatigue that comes when cooking with chronic illness, he divides up the tasks that come with cooking a meal. Breaking down the tasks into smaller pieces throughout the day allows him to rest and get off his feet, which stores his energy for the actual meal assembly.
Things that help with this include chopping vegetables or other items earlier in the day, flavoring proteins and storing them in the fridge prior to cooking, mixing seasoning salts and flavors in canisters prior to cooking, and making sauces or toppings prior to the actual cooking event.
Finding opportunities to get off his feet and take a short rest between prep, assembly, and cooking allows him to complete, and enjoy, the final product in the way he had envisioned.
Tip 2: Plan out your Weekly Meals
Another way to support the fatigue that comes with cooking with a chronic illness is knowing which meals you are making in advance. By planning out your weekly meals you can double up on activities such as chopping your vegetables or creating sauces in one cooking session.
This doesn’t mean you have to have the same vegetables or sauces for every meal, but it does mean if you have your vegetable chopper out on Sunday or Monday you can chop the vegetables for multiple meals at one time. Prepping and storing on a day when you might not have as many other physical demands is key in managing fatigue. On days you might have work, multiple errands, getting children to different activities, or any combination of activities that burn energy not having to prep meals is a huge help in maintaining energy.
Some examples of Dre’s favorite way to do this are to make a batch of pesto sauce then freeze the sauce in ice cube trays, boil a whole chicken then portion it out for a variety of different pastas or rice dishes for the week, dice a variety of onions, peppers, carrots, celery, or other vegetables and store in separate containers so he can mix them in different ways throughout the week.
He also likes to freeze and store items like the chicken stock he creates by boiling the chicken. Having items like this on hand also saves him from last minute trips to the store when he’s looking for ingredients for a meal.
Tip 3: Find Tools and Equipment that Adapt the Kitchen to your Needs
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Finding adaptive kitchen equipment is an important element in allowing Dre to stay active in the kitchen. When Dre’s MS really began to impact his physical ability, Dre often tried to work through the challenges without using adaptations. There can be a feeling that using adaptations or equipment to make the kitchen accessible is giving in to a disease. The fact is, finding the right adaptive tools is actually a key factor in overcoming the challenges that come with chronic illness and multiple sclerosis.
Adaptations can, but don’t need to be, specialized equipment geared towards disabilities. The majority of the adaptive equipment Dre uses are common kitchen gadgets that allow him to have easier access to the kitchen.
You can check out how he uses some of his favorite kitchen hacks here.
Some examples he uses: To combat his neuropathy and limited grip strength he utilizes the Zyliss Electric Can Opener; to help with limited mobility in his hands he loves using the LHS Vegetable Chopper and Dicer and the Winware Non-Adhesive Mat to help with keeping items still on the counter while cutting and mixing. To minimize the amount of movement in the kitchen, he uses the Duxtop portable induction burner that can be placed anywhere in the kitchen so he doesn’t have to move as much or carry pans far distances.
Tip 4: Organize Your Kitchen for Ease
How you organize your kitchen has a large impact on the amount of movement it takes to cook a meal. If you are newer to cooking with a chronic illness, think through how your kitchen is set up and how many steps it takes to get from one area to the next.
Some things like the distance between the pantry, stove and sink, you don’t have control over, but there are small tweaks you can make to limit the movement between these areas.
When Dre first set up our kitchen, all of the pans were in the same cupboard. He realized that when he was filling pans with water, the cupboard the pans were in was further away from the sink and causing him to need to take extra steps. He moved the larger boiling pans to the cupboard near the sink, which reduced the number of steps he was taking while cooking.
Think about things like where knives are positioned and if they are conveniently located near the cutting board, are all utensils stored in the same drawer and does this cause more movement to get to some than others?
Another piece of equipment that has really helped Dre in organizing the kitchen to cook with multiple sclerosis is the Duxtop Induction Burner. Because he doesn’t have control of where the stove is placed, having the burner allows him to move his cook top closer to the sink or onto the island. By having this versatility he is able to boil water close to the sink so it’s easier to drain a heavy pan or prep his ingredients and move them directly into the saute pan without taking extra steps.
Every step in the kitchen when you have limited mobility and fatigue is a challenge, particularly if you’re carrying a hot and heavy pan around. Finding ways to limit these not only saves fatigue, but can also help with safety.
Tip 5: Get All Ingredients Ready
This tip follows the theme of limiting movement and fatigue and brings together many of the tips above.
Whether it’s early in the day or just before cooking, take a couple of minutes to make sure all of your ingredients are out, ready, and easy to access. Do a quick review of the recipe and put all of the ingredients out on the counter. From the spices you’ll need, the vegetables you chopped up earlier in the week, the equipment you’ll be using, and your proteins, having them together in one place prior to cooking eliminates those extra steps during the cooking process.
When his MS first really started to impact him, Dre was cooking in the more traditional way of pulling out ingredients as he needed them. He found he was exhausted by the time cooking was done and was often impacted the next day.
He realized that he was taking multiple extra steps back and forth to the pantry, cupboards, and fridge to get ingredients. When he started to pre-collect the ingredients, he could focus his energy on the actual cooking process.
He also started to tally which shelf sustainable items such as spices and starches he uses the most and put them in the easiest places in the kitchen to access. This does mean we have a stock of spices that stays on the countertop, but given how much he cooks, having them out is a convenience that is well worth it!
Tip 6: Communicate With Your Family
Communicating the needs you have for access and how your chronic illness is impacting you on any day is a huge part of keeping the world around you accessible.
An important part of developing the kitchen into a place where he could function and be comfortable was Dre communicating with me what his needs were for the set up in the kitchen.
Even thought I’d lived with Dre for years, I didn’t always recognize how some of my habits were adding to his challenges in the kitchen. By explaining to me when and why he’d arranged the kitchen differently I became aware of his needs to save even 10 steps and made sure I put things where they belonged.
If I don’t know where his preference is for an item, he asked me to leave it on the counter so he could put it away in the place he will know where to find it.
Leaving small things on the counter or cooking surface forces him to have to take extra steps to put or throw them away, and we have already discussed, extra steps means more fatigue. So while I’m trying to rack up steps and burn energy on my smart watch, Dre is working on conserving his, and communicating his need for these differences has been key in him maintaining a kitchen, and living space in general, that allows him to be productive and healthy.
Putting it All Together; Making Your Kitchen for You
Some of these tips may already be things you are doing, some may be partially in place, or some might not be necessary for how you are cooking with chronic illness.
As Dre found, reflecting on his own personal process was an important part of setting up the kitchen for himself. What are the adaptations he needs? Where are the areas he’s burning extra energy that he didn’t need to? All of this depends on both the individual set up of your kitchen and how you are impacted by chronic illness.
If you have a pedometer or a smart watch, you might want to keep track of how many steps you are taking while cooking and see where you can limit some extra steps to maintain your energy for the process itself. Reflect on where you are seeing yourself challenged during cooking and see what adaptations or adjustments can be made to ease the process.