Cooking: something we must do in order to eat nourishing food. But when living with a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), how do we find the energy, the mobility, and money to cook the food we need?
I am lucky in that I LOVE to cook. I’m one of those people you’d see on a house hunting TV show, “I need a big kitchen because this is where my family and friends congregate.” Cooking is how I show love, both to those around me, and to myself. It brings a sense of accomplishment, and is one of my favorite ways to be creative by playing with new ingredients, presentation, and taste. And let’s be honest, I love to eat.
RA has forced me to figure out ways to chop, stir, and be in the kitchen long enough to finish a meal. And like probably a lot of you, I adhere to a specific diet to help my health, but I also can’t spend my entire paycheck on buying healthy food. Cooking at home allows me to control what goes into my food for my health, and ultimately saves me money.
Setting up your kitchen
An accessible kitchen can make getting in there much less daunting. Start by identifying what gives you trouble. Is it standing on your feet? Find a stool or chair that you designate for kitchen use so it is always available, or invest in a gel pad to stand on. Is cutting and chopping difficult? Find tools that agree with your hands, and be willing to try new tools. I was personally terrified by a mandolin chopper, but it now it makes quick work of veggies. Do you have difficulty getting things out of the cupboards? Rethink the setup of your kitchen. There are no rules that say which cupboard has to hold the cups. Lastly, ask for help. I cannot stress this enough. My husband is my jar opener, pan getter, and stirrer. This is also a great way to involve people in cooking, making it a fun group activity.
Keeping it simple
A lot of people tell me that they don’t like cooking because going through a recipe and making it happen is time consuming and exhausting. My solution: don’t use a recipe! Learning to become an intuitive cook can save you so much mental energy, and you’ll appreciate flavors more as you figure out what you like.
Most meats and veggies are fabulous with a bit of roasting. I’m a fan of ‘throw it in the oven and forget about it.’ For most veggies, drizzle on a little oil of your choosing, salt and pepper, and roast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30-45 minutes. This is the beauty of intuitive cooking; if you like your veggies softer and with more crispy bits, roast for longer. Adding just one spice to meats and veggies can change the entire meal. Try things like smoked paprika on chicken (you’ll thank me later), or smoked sea salt. My Texas roots are showing…
Clean up sucks. If you have multiple people in your house, a rule I like is: if you cooked, you don’t clean. This also has the added benefit of encouraging others to learn to cook!
Making clean up easier- especially if you’re on your own- is vital. At one point an occupational therapist told me I could not scrub ANTYHING for six months and I still have great difficulty with it. I line most pans in foil, so I can wad it up and toss it in the recycle bin. I also use paper plates and bowls when I’m really not doing well. I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly method, but this one step can ensure that I will eat better food for my health.
Use a slow cooker
If you don’t have a slow cooker, put it on your holiday wish list. It changed my life. The beauty of a slow cooker is that you can legitimately forget about food. Take for instance this week’s need for versatile protein that lead me staring blankly at a meat counter. When the butcher asked what I wanted, I just pointed to an entire chicken. I am flaring right now, and so exhausted that making decisions feels impossible. On the way home I felt very adult, like a real cook – I was going to conquer that whole chicken. I tossed it in the slow cooker, rubbed it in dairy-free butter to get a good crispy crust with salt and pepper, turned it on low, and WALKED AWAY. How long did it cook? I don’t know. And I don’t care! It was overnight, so by lunch the next day, glorious baked chicken awaited. Just look up recipes online as a loose guide. You need more convincing? Cooking food slowly can soften it and make it easier for us to eat, chew, and digest.
I know that I don’t have it in me to cook every day, so I always work ahead. When cooking a meal, I always make sure to make enough so there are leftovers for at least one day. Other times, I plan ahead. This past week, I cooked up three pounds (yes you read that correctly) of ground turkey meat with my own blend of taco seasoning. While it simmered I used a rice cooker to easily make cups and cups of good rice, and sautéed a big batch of veggies. This became nearly a week of gluten free rice bowls that I was able to customize each day. Rice, canned beans, turkey meat, sautéed veggies, a little sliced avocado, and pre-made salsa – I could live on this.
Cooking should be fun and should not feel like a chore. We are the ones who will eat it, so we might as well find a way to enjoy the process, and reap the rewards of our hard work. Plus, cooking is for YOU. There is no better way to care for you than making time to cook food that is good for body and soul!