Ease the Pain: 12 Tips for Cooking with Arthritis

Photo: Max Delsid on Unsplash

Eating healthfully can be challenging enough without dealing with arthritis pain. Try these tips to make cooking easier and more enjoyable.

It sounds easy enough: eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight to help manage arthritis symptoms. But trying doing it with sore, stiff and swollen joints — and without blowing the grocery budget on pricy prepared foods. Additional symptoms like loss of movement, fatigue, weakness and general malaise also make healthy cooking a challenge.

Need some help in the kitchen? Try these simple tips:

1.Keep items within easy reach. If you use it regularly, experts warn that you shouldn’t have to bend, twist or reach for it. Make sure your staple foods, pots and pans, dishes and commonly used appliances are easily accessible. For instance, try hanging pots on hooks, and keep a set of everyday dishes on a lower shelf.

2. Make a few updates. Take a good hard look at your kitchen and ask yourself: “What bothers me the most?” and “What could I do to make my life easier?” It might be as simple as replacing the knobs on your cupboards and storing your trays vertically — or as complex as rearranging your kitchen for easier access.

3. Downsize. Too much stuff can be a safety risk if you’re constantly moving heavy items or sorting through stacks of dishes or bake ware. Move items you don’t use often (like cookie sheets that only come out at Christmas) to out-of-the-way areas and give away items you no longer need. This will give you room to spread out so stacking and shifting won’t be required.

4. Lighten up. Heavy pots and dishes can be hard to handle. Opt for lighter weight items that are durable and good quality. The same goes for large containers: if you buy in bulk or buy larger items (like a bag of flour), portion it out in smaller containers with easy to remove lids.

5. Sit down for it. A stool or adjustable chair can take the load off while you do your food prep. Look for a seat that’s safe, sturdy and can be adjusted to suit the height of your work surface. You can even sit next to your oven to check on foods.

6. Try a new appliance. When you’re exhausted, preparing a meal can be a mental challenge as well as a physical one. Making a meal in a small appliance — like baking chicken in a convection toaster oven — seems easier so we’re more likely to make a healthy meal. Other appliances that are worth a look? Consider a food processor, slow cooker (you can find mini ones too) and an indoor grill.

7. Invest in joint-friendly tools and gadgets. There’s no shortage or ergonomic and joint-friendly gadgets on the market, but make sure they’re comfortable to hold and easy to use without strain or repetition. Items like a jar opener, specialty knives, choppers, knife grips, peelers and can openers can make simple tasks feel like they’re simple again. If you need some help reaching items, add a reaching tool to your arsenal.

Once you have the right tools, take good care of them. For instance, regular sharpening will keep knives in top shape and make it easier to cut.

8. Use both hands (and your arms, elbows and chin too). In addition to simple techniques like using both hands to pour or lift, experts have adapted many cooking techniques to spread out the work among other joints. (For example, chef and cookbook author Melina Winner has some techniques with photos on Cookingwitharthritis.com.) Take some time to properly learn the techniques to avoid injury.

9. Build a KISS-able recipe collection. Ever heard the saying “keep it short and simple”? Keep it in mind while building a repertoire of recipes that doesn’t require a lot of ingredients, work or clean up. For instance, braised bok choy requires little time and effort but it’s packed with anti-oxidants and vitamins. One-dish meals, stews and soups also help keep clean up to a minimum and make great leftovers.

10. Think ahead. Weekly meal plans can keep you motivated and promote a sense of accomplishment, but sometimes even the best intentions go out the window when a bad day hits. On good days, make extra or prepare a casserole, soup or stew to freeze serving size portions for times when you don’t feel like cooking.

11. Stock your pantry and freezer. Keep healthy, easy to make choices on hand to avoid temptation. For instance, frozen vegetable blends make it easy to get a variety of colours and flavours (not to mention vitamins and nutrients) without all the chopping. Add some “wow” without the work with ingredients like a jar of roasted red peppers, your favourite salad dressing, salt-free spice blends, pasta sauce and soup stock.

12. Find new sources. Cooking with arthritis is a challenge that many people face — and they’re willing to share their tips and recipes. In addition to cookbooks, there’s a wealth of information online from recipe and food websites, bloggers and forums where people share their experiences and expertise.

Not sure where to start? Here are some sources to try:

Arthritis Today from the U.S. Arthritis Foundation has a nutrition section with healthy eating tips and recipe ideas.

Cookingwitharthritis.com has videos, recipes and tips from Melinda Winner, author of A Complete Illustrated Guide to Cooking with Arthritis. (You can preview it on Google Books.)

A word of caution: be wary of sources that promise a “cure” — there is a lot of debate and confusion over which foods help alleviate symptoms or make them worse. Substantial research is still needed to better understand the role specific foods play with specific conditions. Also, what works for an autoimmune disorder like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis may not be necessary for other types of arthritis like osteoarthritis. When in doubt, talk to your healthcare provider before making any dietary changes.

Additional sources: the Vancouver Sun, Canadian Arthritis Society, University of Washington School of Medicine.