Cooking With Ease

Whether you find cooking a joy or a chore, it shouldn’t be a pain. Arthritis can present many challenges in the kitchen, whether you struggle to open cans and containers, find it difficult to grip the tools you need, or are simply unable to stand at the stove for long stretches of time because of pain in your knees or hips. If you’re ready to call for takeout most nights because you can’t handle the pain and fatigue of preparing a meal, you may need to rethink your kitchen strategy. Preparing a meal at home can be pain-free if you make a few changes to the way you cook and prepare food. These tips and techniques will help you get back in the kitchen.

Shopping strategies

Easier dinner preparation starts at the supermarket. To save yourself a few steps at home, take advantage of foods that are washed, sliced, and ready to use. Some items to look for include the following:

  • In the produce section, find bagged, washed salad greens or salad mixes, shredded coleslaw mix, and sliced mushrooms.
  • At the salad bar, select your favorite chopped, washed vegetables.
  • In the center aisles, look for cans of diced tomatoes and jars of minced garlic.
  • In the dairy aisle, choose shredded, sliced, or cubed cheese.
  • In the meat department, look for meat that’s already cut up, such as stew meat, chicken tenders, and kabob meat. Don’t be afraid to ask someone behind the meat counter to cut up a piece of meat for you while you do the rest of your shopping.
  • In the deli or freezer section, you can find cooked rotisserie chickens, frozen stuffed chicken breasts, and frozen meatballs.

Organization

You don’t have to spring for a complete kitchen remodeling to reap the benefits of a more ergonomic kitchen. Investing in a few practical gadgets and updating your storage methods can make your kitchen a much more comfortable place.

Start by rethinking the way you store things in your kitchen. Move the equipment and tools you use most frequently to storage spaces at waist-to-eye level, where you can easily access them without bending or reaching. Relocate any heavy gear and supplies that you don’t use often to lower cupboards and drawers, saving higher spots for lightweight items. Consider adding hooks near the stove to store your most frequently used pots and pans.

Look for gadgets that can help minimize reaching and stretching. Pullout shelves make it easy to find kitchen equipment located in the back of your cabinets. Adding a turning shelf such as a lazy Susan to your cupboard allows you to easily access items that would otherwise end up in the back of your cabinet. Consider investing in a cart on wheels for your kitchen so you can easily transport items around your cooking space.

This is also a good time to try out any energy-saving electric tools you have. Adding ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer is much easier than trying to grip a hand mixer while adding items. Pack up your manual can opener and use an electric one instead. If you have an electric knife, see if it makes it easier to slice meat and bread. You may have labor-saving tools that you simply don’t think about using because they’re not a part of your everyday routine.

Consider the weight of your dishes, pots, and pans. If they’re heavy and unwieldy, it may make sense to invest in a lighter set, or perhaps just a few lighter pieces for everyday use.

If you buy ingredients in bulk to save money, consider dividing them into smaller storage containers that are easier to lift and handle. When you’re shopping for storage containers, choose ones that are easy for you to use. Look for easy-open lids and zipper closures to minimize strain on your fingers.

Cooking school

When you first learned how to cook, dealing with joint pain might not have been something that you even considered. If you started cooking in your pre-arthritis days, take a minute to evaluate your kitchen techniques. It’s likely that a few simple changes could make meal preparation less painful.

  • Instead of grabbing plates with your fingers and thumb, use your open palms to hold and lift plates. (See an illustration.) It may be second nature to grab a plate or bowl with your fingers, but rethinking your grip can take the pressure off painful fingers and thumbs and put it instead on larger, stronger joints that can better handle the job.
  • Instead of holding your knife like a table knife when you cut and chop, wrap your hand around the knife’s handle as though you’re holding a dagger. (See an illustration.) When you hold your knife like a dagger, you can push on the knife with both hands using a rocking motion, easing up the pressure on your thumbs and wrists.
  • Instead of holding utensils in your fingers while stirring and cooking, grip them with your palm. (See an illustration.) When you grip the utensil in your palm, your upper arm does the work of stirring, putting less stress on the wrist, thumb, and fingers.
  • Instead of standing as you chop vegetables or roll out piecrust, pull a chair or stool up to the counter and do your prep work sitting down. Minimize the amount of time you spend standing at the counter or stove, and take a seat whenever you can.
  • Instead of stretching or stooping to reach the countertop, switch to a work area that’s more comfortable. If you’re constantly straining, leaning, or bending while you’re in the kitchen, it’s no wonder cooking is a pain. Do most of your prep at a surface that’s a comfortable height, such as the kitchen table or a rolling island.
  • Instead of lifting pots, pans, and cooking containers with one hand, always move heavy cookware with both hands. Invest in good-quality oven mitts or potholders, and make a point to be a two-handed cook. Hold both sides of a pot when lifting it from the stovetop and use both hands to pull dishes out of the oven. Try sliding a pot down the counter or onto another burner instead of lifting it up to move it.
  • Instead of scrubbing away at dirty baking dishes, give yourself a head start on cleanup. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and baking dishes with foil before you bake on them. Simply throw away the liner when you are done.

The right tools for the job

Sometimes having the right utensils can make all the difference. The tools described below can help you save energy and protect your joints.

Better slicers and dicers. A large, high-quality serrated knife will be a great help when slicing and cutting meat. The Straight Swedish Kitchen Knife is easy to grasp and puts less stress on hands because you are using your upper-arm strength to cut. When cutting bars and sandwiches, try using a pizza cutter; the rolling action is easier on your hands. The OXO Good Grips Roller Knife is a good choice. For slicing and shredding vegetables, use a mandolin slicer, a classic French kitchen tool that allows you to slide the vegetable along a cutting surface.

Of course, a food processor can be a tremendous help for slicing, grating, and mixing ingredients. A small food processor, such as the Black & Decker One Touch Chopper, may be a more practical solution for smaller quantities.

Getting a good grip. Ergonomic handles, which have a larger and softer gripping surface, allow you to hold kitchen utensils more comfortably and securely. Ergonomic handles are available on a variety of tools, from spoons and knives to peelers and graters. One good product line is OXO Good Grips.

If you don’t want to buy new kitchen utensils, you can adapt your own by adding rubber tubing to enlarge the handles and make gripping easier. Cylindrical foam is a thick, dense, and water-resistant foam that provides a larger, cushioned grip on utensils. You can also apply a nonslip, self-adhesive material called Dycem to utensil handles to improve grip.

Some bowls have a rubberized surface on the bottom to help them stay put when you are mixing ingredients. You can also place bowls, plates, or cutting boards on rubber shelf mats to hold them in place. Even a damp washcloth under a bowl or cutting board will help to keep those items still. Another option is to apply Dycem tabs to the bottom of these items. Just peel away the adhesive backing of the tabs and stick them to the underside of dishes, cups, or appliances to help prevent slippage.

For help turning appliance knobs, try a gadget such as the TKO Turning Knob Operator. When the turner is pressed onto a knob, its pins grip the knob so you can simply twist the lever to turn it. To make it easier to open the refrigerator or cabinet doors, use fabric to create a loop around the handles, and then pull on the loop instead.

Help with opening jars and packages. Tearing packages open with your hands causes wear and tear on your fingers and thumbs. Keep a pair of scissors handy so you can easily open packages. When it comes to opening caps and containers, wearing garden gloves with a traction surface in the palm may help. In addition, jar and bottle openers can make it easier to remove tight lids. Some favorites include the Hot Hand Hand Protector and Jar Opener, the Maddagrip Opener, and the Good Grips Jar Opener. The Un-Skru Jar Opener can be mounted under a counter or cabinet to allow one-handed jar opening.

Some multipurpose openers are designed to handle a variety of packages, containers, and cans. The Open-It Universal Opener, for example, has a protected blade for opening bags and boxes, a “poke” for opening lids and making holes in drinking boxes, and a hook for opening pull tabs on cans. The 5-in-1 All Purpose Opener pops open sealed jars, bottles with twist caps, and pull-tab beverage cans.

Some other openers have more specific uses. The Bag Opener with Magnet is a handy, easy-to-use device with a sharp point that punctures and slits open plastic bags. The magnet keeps the opener in a convenient place on a refrigerator door. The Boxtopper slides under box tops for easy opening. The Purrfect Gripper opens a variety of small containers, jars, and pull-tab cans. An adjustable wrench or pliers can also help you open jars or bottles.

Help with reaching. Use an extended reacher for retrieving items from high shelves or for picking things up from the floor. One option is the Handi-Grip Reacher; its rotating head and flexible rubber tips make it useful for picking up small items.

A proper peeler. If you can’t purchase vegetables that are already peeled, use a palm peeler that grips your finger with a loop held in the palm. The Chef’n Palm Peeler slides onto your finger, is held in your palm, and peels anything. (But remember, peeling potatoes and apples actually strips them of the healthful vitamins found in their skins.)

Saving time and effort

You don’t have to slave away in the kitchen for hours a day to turn out healthy, satisfying meals for yourself, your family, or your guests. Preparing food more efficiently — and when appropriate, scaling back your ambitions — can save you much time and energy.

  • Instead of preparing seven suppers a week, cook three or four times a week, and make the most of your leftovers for other meals. It’s not much harder to cook a double portion of lasagna or spaghetti sauce than it is to cook a smaller recipe, and cooking extra gives you leftovers to work with later in the week. Pack leftovers into individual serving-size containers, and pop them in the freezer or refrigerator for a night when you don’t feel like cooking. Low-energy days are bound to happen, so it’s smart to plan for them. Plus, there’s nothing like a healthy homemade meal to pick up your energy when you’re down.
  • Instead of relying on labor-intensive cooking methods, use methods that don’t require much hands-on help. If you’ve never used a slow cooker, you’ll be amazed by how easy it can make meal preparation. Put a turkey breast, vegetables, broth, and seasoning into your slow cooker in the morning, and at the end of the day you’ll have a homemade turkey dinner without ever having turned on the oven. Slow cookers are ideal for preparing meats, soups, chili, casseroles, and even desserts.
  • Instead of cooking everything from scratch, experiment with convenience products. There are many high-quality convenience products available at the supermarket, and using them can make cooking much easier. You don’t have to give up your signature recipes, but you can look for ways to take shortcuts. If your apple pie is an autumn tradition, try using a ready-made piecrust to save yourself the effort of kneading and rolling dough. Incorporating convenience products into your kitchen repertoire can make mealtime less stressful without making it less delicious.
  • Instead of committing to over-the-top entertaining, keep things simple. Remember that your guests are coming to your home to see you — not to have a four-star dining experience. Plan a simple menu, with just one standout dish if you can’t resist. Since dinner guests tend to gather in the kitchen before the meal, consider enlisting them to help by chopping veggies for fondue, tacos, or a stir-fry. Or make the meal a potluck and invite guests to bring a dish to share.

Whether you look forward to cooking for family gatherings, love trying out new recipes, or simply wish to maintain your independence in the kitchen, making a few small changes can make a big difference. Pay attention to your body, and make adjustments to simplify and modify your kitchen routine so that you can protect your joints and save your energy. Bon appetit!

Nancy Callinan is Manager of Hand Therapy at TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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