Cooking on a bad day

This feels like a dull subject – 1,330 words about how I made my dinner – but the theme of this blog is tackling the challenges that chronic illness presents in everyday life and cooking is one of those things that has become trickier. Though there are ways of making it easier. I wanted to write about this topic because it will be useful for me to look back on in the future, so hopefully, it might be useful to someone else too. So in this post, I’m sharing my ideas for managing in the kitchen with a chronic illness. I haven’t bothered with the recipe because it’s the process of adapting a recipe to suit your circumstances that I’m really interested in.

These ideas are based on my experience and experiments, so they are geared towards my symptoms. I’ve included a link at the bottom to a website that has suggestions for adaptive products for a wider range of issues including visual impairments and mobility issues. Because I live with my partner, I don’t have to cook very often. I do a lot less than I used to just because it’s much easier for him. Lots of things like chopping, lifting pans, opening jars etc. can trigger pain. And I often get absent-minded, have vertigo, or brain-fog. None of which are ideal in the kitchen.

Yesterday I wanted to make a chilli for dinner. The idea was to make enough for four meals and freeze three. Due to Covid restrictions, my partner is working from home and I could tell from the phone calls I overheard and his non-appearance at lunchtime that he was not having a good day. He was expecting to do the cooking that evening and I really wanted to get it done so he didn’t have to. The hitch was that I could already feel a full-blown migraine developing. This is exactly the kind of situation where I make bad decisions about how much I’m capable of doing. A migraine affects your brain. It doesn’t just produce pain but has sensory and cognitive effects too. My common sense often fails me, and I make impulsive inexplicable decisions based on feeling rather than judgement.

I’ve had a constant migraine for years. During this time I’ve discovered lots of tips and tricks for making life a little bit easier. The problem is that I don’t always remember to put them into practice and often struggle needlessly. I’ve been meaning to make a series of checklists for difficult days so I don’t need to rely on my migraine-brain to do what it’s not really capable of. A checklist will talk me through the steps I need to take and help me make sensible decisions. I wanted to attempt the cooking but decided it was a good opportunity to write the checklist as I went along. It would slow me down a bit and encourage me to think about what I was doing.

Pacing is a strategy for managing pain, fatigue and low energy by taking regular breaks before you get too tired to continue. The aim to break the cycle of “boom and bust”. Unfortunately, I haven’t got on well with pacing when I’ve tried it before. I found it too restrictive. I resent having to stop what I’m doing. However, I do see the sense in using this approach. Part of what annoyed me was being interrupted by a timer so I still take frequent breaks but I tend to plan them for natural stopping points in whatever project I’m tackling.

My strategy for pacing in the kitchen is to break the recipe down into chunks. Each chunk should be an opportunity to take a break, and to make a judgement about whether to move on to the next chunk or call it a day. The idea is that I will have made some progress on the recipe even if I don’t get to the end. Time isn’t wasted by putting effort into cooking a dish that turns out badly because I was too tired and made mistakes. Last week in a similar situation I didn’t follow my own advice and produced a loaf of bread that tasted alright but had the shape and heft of a house brick. I’d like to stop repeating the same mistakes.

Step 1: Risk Assessment

This doesn’t need to be over the top but I do need to take a moment to think about whether the cooking I’m doing is sensible. I’ve made a list of the equipment that I should think twice about using if I’m likely to suffer from lapses in attention. Basically, anything sharp, that needs a lot of cleaning after, or that has the potential to explode or ignite if left to it’s own devices for a short while.

  • knives
  • food processor
  • frying pan
  • grill
  • pressure cooker

The only thing from the list that was necessary yesterday was a sharp knife. I decided that was okay as there was only a small amount of chopping at the start and it wasn’t going to overstretch my concentration.

Step 2: Recipe adaptations and substitutions

Go through the ingredients and methods and look for every opportunity to make it a little easier, safer or more comfortable. I’m made a list of everything I could think of. These are related to my symptoms. For my chilli I decided to:

  • Substitute ground spice for pestle and mortar
  • Substitute whole chillies for chopped (fish them out before serving)
  • Substitute with frozen ready-crushed garlic, garlic puree or granules
  • Use frozen ready prepared vegetables (Martin prepped a lot of peppers at the end of the summer)
  • Use a tool to open ring pulls and jars
  • Use a ladle or ask for help instead of lifting heavy pans
  • Always use a timer when cooking on the hob – even if you’re watching it. Don’t be a skutter*
  • Use oven gloves for getting food out the freezer
Knife sharpener makes chopping safer and easier
Tool makes ring pulls painless to open

Step 3: Get out the ingredients

I like to get everything out at the start. This way I know I have everything I need before I get started. Putting each item away as it’s used means I can tell what’s gone into the recipe and don’t need to rely on memory.

Step 4: ‘Chunk’ the recipe into bite-sized pieces for pacing work and rest

Go through the instructions in the recipe looking for places that would make a good point to stop at. At each of these points you want to be able to walk away if you’re symptoms have got worse and you shouldn’t continue. For example, once I’ve fried the onions in this recipe I can let them cool and put the whole saucepan in the fridge overnight before beginning again tomorrow. At each of my rest points I’m going to make myself a cup of tea and sit down and drink it in the other room. The time it takes to make and drink is about right for me to have had a little rest and be able to decide of carrying on is sensible. I’m not very good at knowing when to stop. I always want to finish what I’ve started so I am strict with myself about having these breaks and sitting down in the next room with a cup of tea before deciding whether I’m going to move on to the next stage or not.

recipe notes
My recipe notes

Tips

  • Learn to hold a knife properly and practice on good days so it becomes automatic
  • Don’t attempt to multi-task. Practice single-tasking even on good days so it’s a fixed habit.
  • Clear up at the end of each chunk. Then if you need to stop partway through you won’t be left with a big mess to deal with later.
  • Cook extra portions and freeze them. It’s a little extra effort at the time but means cooking less often.
  • Keep pre-prepared meals and snacks in the freezer then you never need to feel pressured to finish when you’re unwell.
  • Sit down when you can.

The adaptations I’ve described have ben related to my symptoms and won’t be helpful to everyone. The kitchen and cooking section of The Living Made Easy website has suggestions for products to help with a much wider range of circumstances.

My checklist

The chilli turned out well and I didn’t feel any worse at the end than I did at the beginning. It took about an hour and a half to finish. I typed my notes up as a checklist and saved it Dynalist so I’ll have it handy next time


* Skutters are the service droids on Red Dwarf. They obeyed instructions but without much intelligence. This quote from Series 2 episode 8 is the one I’m reminded of whenever I find myself absent mindedly stirring a pan without really thinking about what I’m doing:

RIMMER: You say, “Keep an eye on that lamb,” and they do. They sit there for three hours and watch it burn.