Now We're Cooking! Kitchen Tips for MS
Keep yourself safe and comfortable when you're whipping up a favorite dish with this smart advice.by Erin L. Boyle Health Writer
When you love to cook, multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms like fatigue, loss of motor skills, balance problems, and vision issues (just to name a few) can turn what was once a relaxing hobby into a stressful chore. Reaching for the spice rack can cause you to stumble, and simply moving around the kitchen calls for a nap.
Still, you know that healthy eating can help improve some MS symptoms and boost your overall health, and giving up something you find mentally satisfying seems like the antithesis of what you should be doing when you have MS. The good news: You don’t have to. There are things you can do to set up your kitchen for maximum safety, comfort, and enjoyment.
We asked two doctors specializing in MS, as well as occupational therapists who work with patients to improve their environment, for strategies to make cooking with MS easier.
Make a Plan
Sometimes, MS fatigue is so intense, you can barely get yourself to walk to the kitchen, let alone slicing, dicing, and cooking a meal. “Part of the challenge with MS is that it’s so variable,” says Scott Trudeau, Ph.D., OTR/L, an occupational therapist and productive aging practice manager at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) in Bethesda, MD. “Today, I might be able to prepare a three-course meal, and tomorrow I only have energy to microwave a can of soup. We want to accommodate for that sort of fluctuation and build in systems that flatten the peaks and valleys.”
Always be thinking about what you can do today that will help you tomorrow, adds Barbara Giesser, M.D., a neurologist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “On a day when you’re feeling good, cook up two weeks’ worth of meals and stick them in the freezer,” she suggests. These are a few other ways to plan in advance:
Go simple: Find short recipes online, suggests Madisen Mendez, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. Zero in on ones that have prep/cooking times of 30 minutes or less.
Use a grocery service: Companies like Peapod, Shipt, and Fresh Direct deliver to your door so you can save energy otherwise spent on grocery shopping.
Focus on food prep: Prepare vegetables or parts of the meal ahead of time, says Mendez, or purchase pre-cut vegetables you need for easy meals.
Watch the clock: Know when your symptoms are worst, and avoid cooking during those hours, Trudeau recommends. Instead, double the recipe you make during times you feel OK, and save half for those low-energy moments.
Organize Your Kitchen
Your first consideration: Making the kitchen safe, whether you’re in a wheelchair, use a walker, or are able to move around without help, says Jennifer Graves, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist and director of the UCSD Neuroimmunology Research Program at UC San Diego Health in San Diego. The space can be dangerous—think hot foods, liquids that can spill, glass and porcelain that can shatter, heavy pots and pans that can crush, and knives that can cut.
Decluttering your space is the easiest thing you can do to increase safety as well as cooking ease. (If it’s not on the counter, you can’t knock it off!) Here are some ways to streamline:
Find middle ground: Take care not to place heavy items on the top cabinet shelves: You don’t want to be reaching above your head and possibly dropping things if they’re too heavy. “Place heavy items on lower shelves and place lighter items on taller shelves,” Mendez says.
Prioritize ingredients: Keep the stuff you use most often in a bin on the counter, instead of stashed away in hard-to-access-spots. “Also, a Lazy Susan could be beneficial to avoid reaching in the back of cupboards,” Mendez says.
Get creative: “If you struggle with handles, loop ribbon around the refrigerator door for easy access,” Mendez recommends. Or hang an unbreakable mirror at an angle above the stovetop to see how your dish is cooking without having to move from your counterspace.
Take a seat: “Consider adding a counter-height chair with a back so your feet still touch the floor, but you can sit comfortably by the stove to keep an eye on the food,” recommends Brandy Archie, O.T.D., OTR/L, an occupational therapist in Kansas City. You’ll save energy and prevent loss of balance if you have lower extremity weakness.
Clear the floor: Remove rugs to lower the odds of tripping and wipe up any spills immediately to prevent slipping, Dr. Graves suggests.
Lighten up: Good kitchen lighting that’s bright and clear without shadows is important if you have MS-related vision issues. “Get a pack of inexpensive sticky mounted-under-the-cabinet lights,” Trudeau says. Also considering switching light bulbs from fluorescents (which give off cooler tone) to incandescent (which give off warmer tone) or vice-versa if you’re having trouble seeing, says Mendez.
Use a rolling cart: These are helpful for setting the table or transferring food from the counter to the table, moving items around the kitchen, or just keeping all your ingredients nearby, Trudeau suggests.
Pick Helpful Products
Once you’ve set your kitchen up for success, you can add what’s called adaptive equipment, or products that can help with any dexterity issue you might have. For instance, you might choose an electric can opener instead of a manual, a stand mixer instead of a whisk, a slow cooker instead of a stovetop, or “a Ninja Bullet to chop instead of dicing by hand,” says Archie. These are a few other gadgets that might come in hand:
Recipe magnifier or audio-enabled device so recipes can be read to you
A rocking knife
Gloves, including cut-resistant and heat-resistant varieties
Non-slip mat-like material (use for jar and bottle opening)
Adapted cutting boards
Loop scissors (skip chopping your herbs and cut them instead!)
Utensils with bigger handles
Just remember: You don’t have to go it alone. You can ask for help cooking in the kitchen from family and friends, and make it an enjoyable time of socializing and catching up. Your doctor can help, too, says Dr. Graves, by giving you an assessment of your abilities, and seeing if you can do something like train your nondominant hand for “more risky tasks in the kitchen like cutting” if MS has affected your dominant hand, for instance. Or your doctor can write a referral for an OT to perform a home occupational therapy safety evaluation in your house, including your kitchen. It may take a little while to figure out the best setup for you in the kitchen, so keep experimenting. MS can be a real pain in the you-know-what, but it doesn't have to steal the satisfaction of a healthy, hearty, homecooked meal.
MS Symptoms: Mayo Clinic. (2020). “Multiple Sclerosis.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/multiple-sclerosis/symptoms-causes
Nutrition and MS: Nutritional Neuroscience. (2015). “The association of diet with quality of life, disability, and relapse rate in an international sample of people with multiple sclerosis.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4485697/
Tips for Cooking in the Kitchen: Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. (n.d.). “In the Kitchen With MS.” cando-ms.org/online-resources/can-do-library/in-the-kitchen-with-ms
Role of OTs: American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020). “Occupational Therapy: Improving Function While Controlling Costs.” aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Professionals.aspx