Something I have really struggled with since being unwell with ME and fibromyalgia is that I can’t spend much time in the kitchen any more. I used to love cooking and baking, and would happily spend a few hours making food with some music on in the background. Now that my stamina is so poor, my arms very weak and the fact that my pain is increased by exerting myself, cooking is something that has gone by the wayside a lot of times.
This blog post is aimed at those who can still cook (even if it’s only occasionally), but I do understand that not everyone with a chronic illness will be able to cook anymore. I know I certainly can’t a lot of days. If this is you, don’t feel guilty! You can buy some pretty healthy frozen and ready meals these days, which will get you by until/if you feel a little better.
1 – Use a stool or chair in the kitchen
If you have a chronic illness, stamina is very often an issue. I find that with my ME, I struggle to stand upright for more than a few minutes. I will get very weak and wobbly and have to sit or lie down. A stool or chair in the kitchen can really help! You can sit at the counter or the dinner table whilst your chop all your ingredients. If your chair is high enough, you can even sit in front of the hob, stirring your cooking. Just be very careful of any hot sauces etc spitting near your face!
If using a chair in the kitchen is impractical for you, consider doing your cooking in stages. Firstly, weigh out, chop and prep your ingredients. Go for a sit or lie down and a cup of tea. Next, pop back and prepare plates, cutlery and any condiments you might want – take those to the table or put them on your tray. After another short rest, you can actually do the cooking part. With these inbuilt rest breaks, your body is less likely to protest, and hopefully you will suffer less pain and fatigue the next day. I certainly find that if I do this, my fibromyalgia pain is less flared through the night and during the next day than if I powered through all in one go.
2 – Batch-cooking is your friend
I know personally I have some weeks where cooking just once or twice is a huge achievement! I am often bedbound, but hate leaving all the cooking to my husband as he doesn’t get home from work until 7pm, after a long day and a train journey. The best solution I have found (to avoid lots of takeaways!) is batch-cooking. If you are going to expend energy in the kitchen anyway, it doesn’t use up any more to cook double, or even triple the amount.
I rarely cook a meal that only makes one serving. For example, I may cook a Quorn bolognese – we would have it with spaghetti the first night and I would cook double the spaghetti for us to have it again for lunch (my husband takes his lunch into the office with him). Then we might have it a couple of nights later on a nice baked potato, with some cheese sprinkled on top. It’s such a relief knowing you can fall back on a nutritious, hot meal when you’re struggling to get out of bed.
Tip: if you don’t like repetition or quickly get bored of the same food, simply freeze the extra portions in tupperware and defrost them a few weeks (or months) later!
3 – The microwave reduces time spent in the kitchen
It’s easy to relate microwaves to bland, oily ready meals – but microwave cooking doesn’t have to be unhealthy! There are so many things that are quicker and easier to cook in the microwave these days, whilst still being nutritious. A few of our favourites are Birds Eye frozen vegetable rice (several varieties are available), Innocent vegetable pots (for flavourful curries, risottos etc) and steamed vegetables. I buy microwave bags which you just pop your chopped up veg into (not root vegetables, but anything else) and microwave for as little as 1.5 minutes. Once on the plate, you can season with salt and pepper, and even add a little lemon juice or butter for flavour.
If you’re craving comfort food and chocolate cake is the only way, even that can be done in minutes flat. Google ‘microwave cake in a cup’ recipes – most contain just a handful of basic ingredients and can be weighed, mixed and cooked in less than 5 minutes! Give this one a try.
4 – Meal planning is your saviour
Chronic illness makes it difficult to plan ahead – with both my ME and fibromyalgia, my symptoms fluctuate and can very in severity from hour to hour. This can make forward-planning a challenge, but a loose meal plan can take away the daily stress of thinking about what to cook and eat.
During my slightly better periods, I try to make a loose meal plan for the week. I generally only plan 5 evening meals, as sometimes we will have to get a takeaway, or I may just snack instead of having a meal if I’m feeling especially bad. If you’re chronically ill, you will understand the challenges of brain fog… it can be really difficult to think clearly and productively. Planning the meals when I’m clear-headed means that I can just glance at a list and not have to think about what food we have in the fridge and what ingredients will work together.
5 – Go gadget crazy!
Whatever challenges your illness(es) throws at you, there is a gadget out there for you! If you find unscrewing jar lids difficult, get hold of a gripper. If you often drop things, try to cook using sturdy cookware – you can get plastic utensils and silicone baking tins/pans. If you find it difficult to reach your arms above your head, or to bend down; try to store the things you use most often at chest height so they are easy to reach.
If you enjoy baking, an electric whisk is absolutely invaluable! It can give you smooth cake batter without the pain caused by over-using your arms. I only drink out of these really solid plastic cups with screw on lids and a straw (above) – mainly because I drop and knock over my drinks way too frequently, but I also find a straw more comfortable to drink from due to my TMJ.
If all else fails…
If all else fails and you simply aren’t well enough to cook, getting frustrated will just make you feel worse. Grab a takeaway menu or a ready meal, make sure you have something to eat, and try again tomorrow.
I hope this post was of some use to you – it’s something I have struggled a lot with over time, so I wanted to share what I’ve learnt to making cooking easier (or even just make it possible in the first place!) If you’ve picked up anything useful from my list, share it with your fellow spoonies and please do let me know if anything has helped you!