For those with a permanent or temporary physical disability involving mobility impairment, cooking can present challenges as well as opportunities for creative problem solving. Not all disabilities or people are the same, but some of the common issues include limitations in standing, reaching, or using one side of the body.
When reader haipanda requested a post about cooking with physical disabilities, I realized I had never given much thought to this subject. Yet I was intrigued and after a week of research and talking to a group of experienced individuals, it became clear that this is a rich topic for discussion. Below are some tips for cooks and their friends and families, provided by two cooks with physical disabilities, a family member, an occupational therapist, and a chef who works with a non-profit. Many of these are helpful suggestions for any cook, not just those with a disability.
• Plan ahead: While planning saves time, money and hassle for every home cook, it is crucial for those with disabilities. An accident like a broken glass or missing ingredient might leave a disabled person without anything to eat. Make careful shopping lists, and build leeway into your cooking schedule. Work with small quantities, saving bulk cooking for days you have help. Always keep food on hand for days you don’t feel up to cooking. – Hannah Katsman
• Break it down: Look at whatever you want to cook and break it down. For example, plan to hit the refrigerator once instead of 10 times throughout the process of making a dish. Have everything ready before you start cooking. – Cat Holden
• De-clutter: Storing too many things together makes it physically difficult to get to what you need, especially when heavy items are stored. Roll out trays, smart storage at convenient heights, and a de-cluttered kitchen will help make work in the kitchen more efficient and pleasant. Rearrange, throw out and generally reduce and organize food and other items so that access is greatly enhanced. – Susan Serra
• Rest if needed: Fatigue can be an issue, so take frequent breaks and keep a chair or stool nearby in case you need to sit down. – Cat Holden
• Appreciate the process: Cooking food can be therapy for the soul. If you have limited motor skills, it might affect how “perfectly” you can cut an onion or roll out sushi, but enjoying the tactile experience, using your senses – that in itself is just as important as the end product. – Rodelio Aglibot
• Countertop height: If you’re in a wheelchair, lowering counters is good. If you have the funds, having a counter that can go up and down would be wonderful. Having a small table on wheels as a working surface can also work. – Nicolas Steenhout
• Countertop material: Easy clean, smooth, surfaces and clean lines throughout the kitchen help the cleaning process, for a healthier kitchen. Engineered stone such as Silestone provides ease of maintenance. – Susan Serra
• Appliances: I like any appliances that have good lighting and easy access into the appliance. Lighting around appliance knobs, large letters and numbers and smooth, rounded corners are preferred. Look for handles and doors that are easy to use and open. For ovens, look for easy roll out shelves. – Susan Serra
• Lighting: Add adequate lighting overhead and task lighting if necessary. – Susan Serra
• Hardware: Replace hardware for better access – small knobs can be difficult to use. Pulls can often be a better solution. – Susan Serra
• Faucets: A faucet that is hands free or electronic touch is very welcome for many people as it is a simple touch to turn on and off.
• Adaptive equipment: Many people don’t even know about the range of adaptive tools that exist. For example, there are cutting boards with a spear that help you secure the food, rocker knives, silverware with built-up handles, and more. Check medical supply stores and catalogs or talk to an occupational therapist, who can be a great resource.
• Push cart: A push cart on wheels, like the kind you can get at Target or Home Depot, is a good secret weapon. You can use it if you have difficulty carrying foods, and it’s easy to slide from the fridge to the counter or stove. – Cat Holden
• Cutting boards:
If you cannot stand, I recommend using a cutting board on your lap. Some people put a cushion under the board. – Nicolas Steenhout
In a wheelchair, it is almost impossible to get up close enough to the typical counter because your feet will be blocked by the cabinets below. I wound up doing most of my food preparation on a pullout chopping board, sometimes even laying another board on top of it to try to extend the surface. – Mike Shirk
• Hook on a stick: Because of the depth of the typical countertop, one of my most useful gadgets is a hook on the end of the pole. I use it to grab the blender, the breadmaker, the food processor, the toaster, pull pots and pans out from under the stove with the space – you get the idea. – Mike Shirk
• Pastry cutter: My fingers are too weak to use a conventional knife for chopping, so I use a pastry cutter for that purpose. What it lacks in sharpness I make up for with better leverage. – Mike Shirk
• Disposable gloves: Some have mentioned a worry about hygiene, having to handle wheelchair wheels then food. From the health and hygiene point of view, disposable gloves are wonderful. – Nicolas Steenhout