By Donna Gregory Burch
Disclaimer: One of the most important things I've learned about fibromyalgia, ME/CFS and Lyme is there is a wide spectrum of disability among our patient groups. Some of us lead pretty normal lives in spite of the pain, fatigue and other symptoms, and some of us have symptoms so severe that we can't get out of the bed, much less load the dishwasher. Given that spectrum, it’s impossible to come up with tips that apply to everyone. So, in reading these, I ask that you apply the tips you can use based on your abilities and ignore the rest.
I’ve always been into time management and finding the most efficient way to do things, but I’ve become even more aware of wasted energy and movement since developing fibromyalgia. I’m much more deliberate about daily tasks now. I’m continually looking for ways to simplify my household duties, so I can get as much done as possible without increasing my pain and fatigue levels.
In December, I wrote “20 helpful tips for cleaning and organizing when you’re chronically ill.” Now I’d like to drill down a little further and focus on tips for cooking and cleaning the kitchen.
I work during the week, and I’m usually exhausted by dinnertime. That used to mean ordering takeout or throwing some preservative-laden frozen dinner into the oven.
But I’ve learned that eating unhealthy food aggravates my fibromyalgia symptoms, so I’ve tried to find ways to prepare foods ahead of time when I’m feeling more energetic. On weekends, I sometimes spend an hour or so prepping food for the coming week. I’ll marinate a pork tenderloin and stick it in the fridge to be cooked later in the week. I’ll precook ground beef for spaghetti or tacos. I’ll make a pot of soup or chili that I can eat for several days. I’ll roast a pan of root vegetables, so I can have them as a side dish during the week.
I haven’t tried this personally, but some people package their smoothie ingredients into freezer bags, so they can grab a bag and dump it into the blender.
Another timesaver is freezer cooking.
Keep meals simple
I love to try new recipes, but I steer clear of anything that requires a long list of ingredients or more than 30 minutes to prepare.
I’ve also given up the idea that every meal has to include a protein, starch and two vegetables. That’s just too much work!
These days, our typical dinner is some sort of grilled, baked or slow-cooked meat served alongside a sizable portion of roasted or sautéed veggies. It’s easy, and it’s fast (especially if I precooked the veggies earlier in the week).
If you’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, ME/CFS or Lyme disease, then you’ve probably been told to eat a more whole foods-based diet. That’s great advice, but chopping and dicing all those fresh vegetables/fruits takes energy – something a lot of us don’t have.
I save time and effort by using inexpensive frozen veggies/fruits in my cooking. (Most grocers also sell fresh pre-chopped produce, but it’s usually more expensive than frozen.)
My favorite is frozen chopped onions. I always keep a few bags of these in my freezer, so when a recipe calls for chopped onion, I just dump out what I need, and toss the bag back in the freezer. Best of all, no more tears!
I also use frozen chopped peppers for easy stir fries and steam-in-bag veggies or rice for quick side dishes. (Just make sure to read the ingredients list if you’re trying to eat a healthier diet. Some of these contain preservatives and unnecessary fat/sugar.)
Make more than you need
When you cook, consider doubling or tripling recipes. That way you can have a meal now and leftovers for later. This works great with things like soups and casseroles.
If your family isn’t a fan of leftovers, pop the extras in the freezer. When you pull them out of the freezer in two weeks, they won’t know the difference!
Invest in a slow cooker
My slow cooker is my favorite kitchen tool. I ladle at least one or two meals out of my slow cooker every week. I love it because I can dump the ingredients into the crock in the morning (when I have more energy), and dinner is ready for me by the time I’m finished with work.
I also use the slow cooker for bulk cooking. For example, I slice up a few apples, sprinkle them with some cinnamon, add a bit of water, and in a few hours, I have homemade applesauce.
You can also “bake” potatoes in the slow cooker. Just stack them in the slow cooker with their peels still on, and in a few hours, you’ll have baked potatoes (or sweet potatoes) for future meals.
Simplify grocery shopping
Grocery shopping is a big struggle for me because it takes so much energy, so I’ve been looking for ways to make it easier. We have several pets, and they eat a lot! Their bags of food and litter are super heavy, so I’ve started ordering those from Amazon, and the mailman now delivers them to my front door.
When I can find reasonable prices, I order food and household items online as well.
Some Walmart locations and grocery stores now offer pick-up and delivery services for a small fee. (I’m hoping this will be available in my area soon!)
Let someone else cook
If your spouse or kids offer to make dinner or “fend for themselves,” let them. Sure, they might burn the meat, but even that is palatable if you didn’t have to cook it.
Hire someone to cook
I’m not suggesting that you hire a private chef. Not many of us could afford that, but there are companies that sell premade meals. Schwan’s, Personal Chef to Go and Real Food Works are just a few examples. (Google “premade meal delivery” for others.)
Have a seat
Keep a stool or chair handy in the kitchen, so you can do as many tasks sitting down as possible. This helps conserve energy.
Use helpful tools
Some of us with fibromyalgia have lost strength and dexterity in our hands. I struggle to open jars, so I invested in an Oxo Good Grips Jar Opener. This little tool has saved me more than once when hubby wasn’t around to open a jar of whatever.
I’ve also bought good kitchen shears, which I’ve found are easier than knives for cutting things like meat and fresh herbs. A food processor can speed up chopping/dicing, and a handheld mixer alleviates the repetitive stress of stirring. I don’t own one myself, but a lot of people also find electric can openers helpful.
Clean as you go
While dinner is cooking, I try to load the dishwasher, put items away and wipe the counters down, so there’s less to clean up after eating. This helps to keep the kitchen reasonably clean from day to day.
I don’t always feel up to cleaning, but there are certain chores that I try to do every single day just to keep my house in some semblance of order. I always try to load the dishwasher, rinse out the kitchen sink and wipe off the counters.
I admit I don’t always get these done; sometimes hubby does it for me. But forcing myself to at least do the dishes and clean the counters keeps things from piling up.
I hate having to deal with baked-on, caked-on cooking messes, so I avoid that whole chore as much as possible.
I use slow cooker liners in my slow cooker. (These are sold at most big box stores or on Amazon.) When I’m ready to clean the slow cooker, I tie a knot in the plastic liner and toss it in the garbage. Usually I just have to wipe the inside of the crock with a paper towel.
Whenever I cook something in the oven, I line my pans with aluminum foil. That way, I can just ball up the used foil and toss it in the garbage. I’ve had my cookie sheets for years, and they still look practically new.
Never clean your microwave again
I saw the following tip online a few years ago, and it’s seriously life changing: I keep a plastic pie plate cover in my microwave to cover foods we’re heating up. (I found mine at the Dollar Tree.) Any food splatters are trapped by the cover and don’t explode all over the walls of your microwave. It’s genius!
Rethink your stuff
Give some consideration to how your kitchen is organized. Try to place frequently used and heavier items in lower, easier-to-access cabinets. This eliminates extra reaching, climbing and straining.
For example, if you drink coffee, group your coffee, filters, sugar/creamer and mugs all in one place, so that you don’t have to move from cabinet-to-cabinet to gather supplies.
Look for ways to eliminate wasted movement and steps.
Consider purging kitchen items you no longer need or use. When you own fewer things, there is less to clean and maintain.
Even when I was healthy, cooking and cleaning was a real chore. It’s even more so now that I’m living with a chronic illness. But finding ways to simplify and streamline these daily tasks makes them more manageable. It just takes some forethought and planning.
What are your favorite tips for cooking and cleaning the kitchen? Share in the comments below.
Donna Gregory Burch is founder of FedUpwithFatigue.com, a blog dedicated to helping others live better with fibromyalgia and ME/CFS. In 2014, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after several years of unexplained pain and fatigue. Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in publications throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She currently lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.