Life with MS

Improving the Kitchen Experience

By Darbi Haynes-Lawrence
Over the years, there have been many changes within our family. As we watch our daughter grow into a senior in high school and prepare for college, we have also observed the decline of my fine motor skills. As the primary meal prepper in the house, this has caused some changes to food preparation. My daughter and I have always enjoyed having a lot of raw vegetables cleaned and prepped in the fridge, so it is easy to grab a few for a snack and go on our merry way. However, not being able to peel, chop, or slice fruits and veggies as quickly as I used to is a challenge. While my daughter is awesome at helping me in the kitchen, I love my independence (or I’m stubborn) and want to continue to be able to cook and prep meals on my own, without assistance.

Like many of you, I’ve observed my fine-motor skills decline to the point where food prep has become difficult. After a few minor accidents, for example while trying to peel potatoes, I have had to make changes in the kitchen. I have discussed the difficulty of holding and peeling things with my team of medical professionals, including occupational therapists, and the recommendations made are ones that do not always work for me. Items that are thicker, or have a fatter handle, are my go-to items in the kitchen.

Utensil utility

One item that is consistently recommended for me is the palm peeler. I do not like this item. If we continue with the issue of peeling a potato, that is a two-handed job. I can hold a fat-handled peeler well. I can hold a potato in my other hand well. It is when the two hands come together to put force on the potato and peel it, that issues occur. I did not like the palm peeler because I felt I had no control over the blade because of not being able to see it in relation to a funky-shaped potato. Now with something straight, such as a carrot, it works just fine. But, because the carrot is straight, I can hold it, or place it on my cutting board, and peel it with a traditional fat-handled peeler.

Because of the difficulties of something basic, such as holding and peeling a potato, and instead of purchasing multiple, often expensive gadgets to help with this process, my family and I have decided to leave the peels on. Seems simple enough. The potato peels soften during cooking (for example, making mashed potatoes). My daughter who has a lot of mouth-texture concerns said the potato peels causes minimum to no texture issues for her. She is my guide for food texture concerns. Once I received the go-ahead from her, I continued to leave the peels on for any meal that included a potato. I have investigated so many items to help with peeling a potato, but nothing I have found is helpful for me, personally.

I purchased a mandoline to assist with slicing any food in the kitchen. I purchased mine from Walmart. A mandoline is a device used to assist in slicing vegetables and fruits. Now, fair warning – without proper protection and care, a mandoline can be extremely dangerous. A child should never, under any circumstances, use a mandoline. We have family friends who have been sent to the hospital needing stitches because of a slip-up with their mandoline. When I purchased mine, I also purchased a protective shield for my hand so I would not get hurt.

I found this on Amazon. Whenever you are using a mandoline, you need to exercise focus, care, and patience. A mandoline can be used when fruits and vegetables need to be sliced to various thicknesses. For items that need to be rough-chopped, such as carrots, I recommend a food chopper. We are investigating which one to purchase. Right now, I use my mandoline for thicker-sliced pieces of carrots.

Preparation is always on my mind. I freeze extra meals when possible, especially soups, which are easy to pull out of the freezer when we need a quick meal, but also when I’m not feeling well. We eat a lot of potatoes and so we try to always have cleaned, chopped potatoes in the freezer. Potatoes can be partially boiled, then frozen. The potatoes can then be pulled out of the freezer for a stew, soup, or to make a quick batch of mashed potatoes. I especially love doing this with sweet potatoes – which we absolutely love, but are incredibly difficult to clean and chop. If I had to clean, chop, and then cook these foods all at one time, I would be at greater risk of cutting myself because of fatigue. Partially boiling and freezing items such as potatoes has made meal preparation much faster, and decreased fatigue in the kitchen.

Other protective items I use in the kitchen include a cut-resistant glove. I especially use this when I’m using a hand grater, or a microplane when zesting fruits. I learned many years ago that hot pads were not my friends. Trying to hold the hot pad, and then pull a baking sheet out of the oven required squeezing that I do not always have the strength for. I was gifted a pair of Penacio thick heat-resistant oven mitts, with an internal protective cotton layer. These are much easier for me to use than a hot pad when handling any hot items. Ultimately, I experience a lot of trial and error in finding the right food preparation items to use in the kitchen.

Kids in the Kitchen

Having children in the kitchen is a wonderful way to teach about textures, colors, smells, nutritional value of foods, the importance of nutrition for our bodies, math, science, and the list goes on. Some of the most amazing conversations we have ever had as a family were over food preparation times and mealtimes. However, having children in the kitchen can be exceptionally dangerous, especially if there is limited space for movement because of mobility issues. We do not want to trip in the kitchen and hurt ourselves or others.

A study I conducted indicated that many people with MS need assistance in the kitchen. It was noted that many people allow their young children to prepare hot meals, which was concerning. Preparing hot meals increases safety issues tremendously. Whenever children are in the kitchen, the activities need to be developmentally appropriate, and they need to be performed under constant supervision. In other words, we do not want a preschooler using a knife to cut vegetables. They have neither the strength nor the fine motor skills, nor have they had the training to perform those activities.

Let’s imagine that part of the menu for supper is a salad. The parents have a 4-year-old who is eager to help. That same preschooler could, wash, tear, and sprinkle.’ Cleanliness in the kitchen is the first step prior to any food handling. Teaching good handwashing skills encourages good hygiene. After handwashing, the child could, with supervision, wash the veggies that are going to be used. Then, instead of cutting the lettuce, the child could tear the lettuce with his hands, with examples provided by a parent. Parents should not allow the child to cut any vegetables. When it comes time to build the salad, the child could put the lettuce in the bowl, and sprinkle the vegetables that have been chopped, sprinkle cheese, and shake salt and pepper or other seasonings into the bowl as well.

Having children in the kitchen takes planning for that time to be safe, enjoyable, and educational. We can include children in the kitchen from early ages; infants and toddlers can observe from their highchairs. Storytelling and explaining step-by-step activities taking place in the kitchen, singing songs, and simply talking to the baby are wonderful foundations for communication development created during this age period. Toddlers can help prepare meals by adding in premeasured ingredients, stirring foods, and helping to set the table with non-breakable items. Preschoolers can participate by carrying larger, nonbreakable items to the table, helping to set and clear the table (again, with nonbreakable and dull items), or wipe the table with a cloth. As children grow, more activities can be added to their time in the kitchen.

Every parent understands their child’s development best. With supervision and learning, a child can be exposed to more activities as they grow. If parents want more specific information on children in the kitchen, I recommend reviewing They have wonderful resources, per age group, with ideas of how to incorporate children in the kitchen.