Even a classically-trained chef can have trouble in the kitchen with multiple sclerosis (MS) on the menu.
When meeting people for the first time, the topic of my former career as a chef invariably comes up.
“What’s your specialty?” is a likely question. It’s a question that most chefs get and — just so you know — most chefs hate. It’s not like years of training and decades of working our way around kitchens can be distilled into one dish.
We get used to the question; we come up with a pat answer because most chefs are generalists, not niche artisans.
The question I am asked by the MS community, once they find out I was trained as a chef, is for tips, dishes, and shortcuts (Kitchen Hacks). So much am I asked these questions that, Virginia Mason Medical Center asked me to help produce a video called The Caring Kitchen, to address kitchen “concerns,” specifically for people with multiple sclerosis.
But the questions continue.
So here are five tips that I hope you find useful at different times and places in your life with MS.
1. Build a useful and healthful pantry.
Having ingredients on hand to reduce shopping trips is important for me on a good day. On a not-so-good day, it’s an imperative. From dried pasta to canned beans, frozen vegetables to a variety of oils and vinegars, and beyond; having my larder well stocked affords me the mental space to be creative even if energy levels are low.
Having ingredients that can be combined in the time it takes a pot of pasta water to boil, or for a pot of rice to cook is invaluable when standing for that length of time is all I can muster.
It also makes for simple shopping when I keep track of which staples need replenishing.
2. Keep your knives sharp.
I know, I know… MS and sharp objects don’t always go together well (alright, seldom to they go well together). As a labor saver — and quite frankly, for overall safety — there is nothing like a sharp knife.
Your knife (knives) are an extension of your arm and hand, so they must also be comfortable and functional depending on your fine motor abilities and dexterity. But it must be sharp.
You’ll save massive amounts of energy with a sharp knife over a dull one and, contrary to what you might think, cuts are less common with a sharp knife because you’re not exerting excess pressure to get the job done.
3. Have a go-to dish.
Choose a recipe that is relatively easy, uses ingredients you normally have on hand, that is tasty and interesting, and can be made in large enough quantity to have leftovers for use the next day or to freeze for those non-cooking days we all have.
Mine is a North African chicken dish which marinates overnight, roasts and serves in the same dish and makes a complete dinner party with the addition of bakery bread and pre-washed, bagged salad greens.
It needn’t be fancy, but let it be something which is nearly foolproof, suitable for guests, and a bit special, so that even the thawed leftovers can be a bright spot in a difficult day.
4. Have breakfast for dinner.
When I was a child, I remember the fun — almost bordering on social anarchy — it was to have pancakes, eggs, and sausages for the evening meal. Fun for us, because it was different. Fun for the cook in the house because it’s a) easy, b) cheap, and c) see point ‘a’…easy!
There are plenty of high-quality convenience products out there like pancake/waffle mixes; frozen potatoes of all varieties, bakery products ranging from stir-and-bake, to par-baked, to heat-and-serve; and innumerable preparations for the incredible, edible egg.
Even hot cereals with yogurts, fruits, nuts, granola, or muesli can be as satisfying and healthful a meal in the evening as they are in the morning.
5. Keep your apron on.
Sure, we all know that chefs wear those nice, white, double-breasted coats, but we also wear aprons, and they are invaluable in the home kitchen as well. In fact, I “forget” to take mine off when I leave the kitchen and sit down for my meal.
With my MS-compromised motor skills and occasional intention tremor, food often takes a detour from plate to mouth. I lost a number of shirts and trousers to food stains before I happened upon this most helpful of kitchen hacks.
While an adult bib or some other accessory to keep food from my clothes might be embarrassing to wear, a chefs’ apron on the cook doesn’t seem out of place or awkward at the table. You might even keep one especially for the dining room, so any cooking spatters don’t betray our felonies in the kitchen.
I hope these tips will be as helpful to you in your kitchen as they have been to this chef in his.
Wishing you and your family the best of health.
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Trevis L. Gleason is an award-winning author, chef and blogger who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001. He lives in Seattle, Washington and County Kerry Ireland with his wife Caryn and their Wheaten Terriers, Sadie and Maggie. His website is trevislgleason.com. Trevis’ book, Chef Interrupted, is available on Amazon. Follow him on the Life With MS Facebook page and on Twitter.