If you always enjoyed cooking, arthritis may be making it difficult to continue doing what you love. And if you never enjoyed meal prep, it’s even less fun now.
“There’s pain and discomfort in your joints when they get stiff and swollen, which makes it really hard to stand, to cut, and to hold things,” says Karen Jacobs, EdD, OT, OTR, CPE, FAOTA, an occupational therapist who works with arthritis patients and a clinical professor at Boston University. “And then fatigue is problematic, particularly when there is a flare.” (Check out these tried-and-true tips for coping with flares.)
But because eating right is so crucial for keeping your arthritis in check, try these hacks for cooking and kitchen organization that would make anyone’s life easier, especially those with chronic joint pain.
1. Use tools for chopping and stirring
Actions that force you to exert a lot of pressure on your joints in the hands and wrists can be painful, which is why chopping, cutting, and stirring are perhaps the hardest kitchen tasks for those with arthritis.
“I have a newfound love of gadgets: I have a mandolin, blender, a small [food] processor with a stick blend attachment, and a larger processor,” says arthritis patient Susy on the CreakyJoints Facebook page. “All of them make chopping, which I find the most difficult, much easier on my hands.”
Jacobs, who’s also a cooking instructor, advises a rocking knife with two handles, and to make sure it’s sharp for more effective cutting. For tasks that require a lot of stirring, like baking, don’t use your hands at all. “I use my KitchenAid stand mixer for everything!” says RA patient Kel.
2. Don’t let jars get you down
Jars can be a pain for everyone to open. Flat, rubber grips (or rubber bands around jar lids) may make it a little easier, but still require some effort. You can also try a mounted under-cabinet opener, and there are even electric jar openers now as well. When it comes to gadgets, “going electric is one of the number-one thing to think about,” Jacobs says. Electric can openers are also a must. For hard-to-pop-open plastic containers, like yogurt, Jacobs has a creative hack. “An inexpensive ring on your thumb can be used like a bottle opener,” she says. “Put the ring under the edge to lift it up.”
3. Get a grip
For utensils, spatulas, peelers, and basically anything you have to hold, use products with large, rubber, grippy handles. “I won’t use anything that doesn’t have a comfortable handle for stirring and cutting,” arthritis patient Nancy says. OXO Good Grips brand was made with arthritis patients in mind, and has this OT’s approval. “The Good Grips products are very well-designed,” Jacobs says.
You can also MacGyver items you already have using plumber’s pipe insulation. “It’s spongy and comes in different diameters, so you can put that on a spoon to build up the handle,” Jacobs suggests. In addition, use a damp sponge or towel under prep bowls to keep them from slipping on your countertops.
4. Find new uses for old gadgets
Cooking with arthritis doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to buy all new kitchen items. You can use gadgets you might already have around your kitchen for other purposes. “Those hard-boiled egg cutters can be used for cutting smaller vegetables like mushrooms,” Jacobs says. Apple corers can also be used for cutting veggies. Kitchen shears are useful for not only opening bags but cutting through meat and some vegetables as well. Pizza cutters can be used for sandwiches and other flatter food items; corn cob holders can be useful for spiking food in place on a cutting board. See what you already have in your cupboards and get creative.
5. Don’t stand for long stretches
How you prep in your kitchen is just as important as what you use. “Sit on a chair to do all the chopping and prep work because it hurts the feet, ankles, and back to stand for the whole process,” says arthritis patient Anita. Work at your kitchen table, or if you have stools under the counter, sit there. If you are standing, use an anti-fatigue kitchen mat. “Non-trip mats can take some of the stress off your legs and feet,” Jacobs says.
6. Lighten your load
You may love your cast-iron pan, but this may be one item you’ll have to give up or ask for help with. In general, “using lighter weight pots and pans helps,” says arthritis patient Matthew. This also goes for plates (switch to lightweight Corelle or melamine), prep bowls and cookware (try silicone), and storage containers (use plastic instead of glass).
Be extra careful with large pots of water. “Put the pot on your stove and then just use a small container to carry the water to the pot,” Jacobs says. For removing food from boiling water, don’t try to dump the pot into a colander in the sink. “Scoop it out with a spaghetti server or slotted spoon,” she says. Then wait until the water’s cooled before pouring it in the sink.
7. Invest in a slow or instant cooker
One-pot meals are the way to go to simplify your prep and cleanup. Slow cookers and the new hot gadget, Instant Pots, make it easy to throw the ingredients in and forget about them until they’re ready.
In addition, Jacobs says not to overlook your microwave, particularly for steaming veggies or rice. “There are items that you could just put in the microwave and heat rather than having to boil,” she says. Find room on the countertop for your microwave so you don’t have to reach up or down to get food in and out.
8. Do some reorganizing
In addition to keeping your microwave and other countertop gadgets like your food processor and slow cooker easily accessible, rethink where everything is in your kitchen. “You don’t want to strain yourself with reaching or bending for things that you use all the time,” Jacobs says.
Heavier, less-used items can go in lower cabinets, and lighter items up high — you can use a reaching tool to get them down when necessary. Make use of a lazy Susan to have spices and other smaller items easier to get out of crowded cupboards.
9. Get help from the grocery store
Grocery shopping doesn’t have to be the pain it used to be. Home delivery or pickup services (available from some grocery stores for a small fee, or look for coupons) takes this task off your shoulders. If you do venture to the store, “shopping and cooking are not done on the same day,” arthritis patient Nancy advises, to avoid tiring yourself out.
Take advantage of any assistance the store can give you: Shop for precut veggies in the both the fresh and frozen sections, ask the butcher and fishmonger to cut up meat and debone fish, or buy precooked foods like a roast chicken to doctor up at home.
“Don’t be afraid of the odd bit of prepackaged or processed stuff like prepared spaghetti sauce or frozen meatballs,” says arthritis patient and professional cook Lyin. “They can be great starters to a meal that you add your own touches to.”
A good manager knows what tasks to hand off to others. If you find something really painful, ask your partner or kids to help. “I get the other family members to chop,” says arthritis patient Nicole. Even young kids or grandkids can fetch ingredients and load the dishwasher. “We can start our children young learning how to cook,” Jacobs says.
In addition, if you’re having friends over, put them to work, or make it a potluck so everyone brings a dish and takes the pressure off you. (If you’re someone who hates to delegate, read these tips on how to be less hard on yourself while living with chronic illness.)
11. Simplify cleanup
One word: dishwasher. Use it for everything you can. You can also prepare ahead of time for less mess by placing liners in your slow cooker, aluminum foil in your roasting pans, and parchment paper on your cookie sheets.
In addition, “do [the washing up] in stages — don’t let it all pile up,” Jacobs says. “So if you finish cutting the vegetables or using the food processor, wash that and then take a little rest.”
12. Double up
You can still make elaborate meals; you just have to be smart about it. “I’m a big fan of double batches and freezing,” arthritis patient Nancy says. Cook once and have leftovers, or have meals ready to go in the freezer for the days you’re not feeling great. “Prepping meals ahead [are important] so if and when bad days come, meals are so much easier to get on the table,” arthritis patient Brenda says.
But Jacobs warns to be careful on your cooking days. “Pace yourself because in your good times if you overdo, it can precipitate a problematic time,” she says. “So you want to be very mindful of what your body is saying to you.” Build in rest times periodically. “During my cooking days I take my time preparing and chopping everything I need, and take breaks in between stages so I don’t get overwhelmed and tired out before I finish,” arthritis patient Shannon says.
With a little advanced preparation, cooking can remain an enjoyable — or at least tolerable — activity.
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