At first I was hesitant to write about this topic, thinking it was kind of frivolous. However, I have recently begun cooking for my family much more than I was and I realize that if you cook frequently, having little strategies to help you through the whole process can make a big difference in how enjoyable and successful the cooking experience (and resulting meal) can be.
Cooking almost anything is a pretty complicated task, requiring lots and lots of steps, including choosing the recipe, buying and preparing the ingredients, and timing the preparation of the dish to coincide with other things being served and the likelihood of family members being at the table.
Preparing a meal can be a daunting task for anyone, but for those of us with MS, we have some extra challenges. Fatigue (for me, at least) often is its worst in the late afternoon or early evening, just when dinner prep should be happening. Spasticity or tremor can make chopping, mincing and grating hard to do by hand. And I'm willing to bet that any of us who has MS-related cognitive dysfunction has found themselves standing in their pantry wondering what the heck they needed while the food reached a critical point on the stovetop.
Given all of these challenges, I am offering these tips that have helped me in the past. Many of them seem to be simple common sense, but I forget them constantly, adding lots of time and frustration to my cooking experience.
Take a look at what helps me to cook efficiently and happily:
Read the recipe thoroughly. Make sure that you are comfortable with the ingredients and methods. Also, check for unwelcome surprises – I have been halfway through a recipe when I have read that something needs to soak overnight or be refrigerated for several hours.
Plan your trip to the grocery store strategically. I always make a list. Even if I am only going to the store to get 4 or 5 items, by the time I am in the middle of the store I have been distracted by new things to sample, a seasonal display or something that I think my girls would like to try. A list ensures that I at least get what I need. I also organize my list by putting letters next to items to indicate where things are: "P" for produce, "B" for the bulk section, "D" for dairy, etc. This system has prevented the need to walk back across the entire store for a forgotten onion or cinnamon sticks.
Be realistic about cooking and prep time. Never, not once in my life, has the actual time that it has taken me to prepare a dish coincided with the estimates given in cookbooks. I can pretty much count on doubling it. By being honest with myself about how much time it will probably take me to complete all of the steps, I have saved myself lots of frustration, rather than the scenario of frantically trying to speed things up in the kitchen while grumpy and hungry family members hovered around the stove.
Prepare your ingredients in advance. Take advantage of when you are feeling good to pre-chop vegetables or mix dressings. I often do this in the morning when I am home. Also, do not hesitate to ask for help. My husband could happily slice up everything needed for a stir-fry while he is on a conference call.
Lay out all ingredients before you start cooking. The French call this mise en place, or "everything in place." It means that everything is ready to go, fully prepared, in the order in which things will be used. Cooking like this is fun – you feel like you are on a cooking show. Get a bunch of tiny bowls to hold your ingredients. Line them up beside the stove and pretend you are Emeril or Rachael as you whip up something to serve to your studio audience.
Make your work and cooking areas comfortable and functional. I cannot emphasize this enough. Put down one of those padded cooking mats. Get a high stool to go in the kitchen so that you can rest when you need to. Clear out all of the stuff around the stove and counters where you prepare your ingredients. Clean out the fridge and pantry, so that things are easy to find. Also, sharpen your knives and get new measuring spoons and cups if you need them. Investing a little in your workspace can make all of the difference in your cooking experience.
I believe cooking should be a joyful experience, or at least a tolerable one. Even if you don't love doing it, it should be gratifying to know that you are feeding yourself and your family things that you made yourself. Almost anything you make at home will be healthier than prepared food. Take the pain and frustration out of cooking and maybe you'll find something you actually look forward to doing.