(Note: this was published on "RDs for neurodiversity" earlier, but I'm posting it here as well!)
I was raised in a Singaporean household, meaning, despite being born and raised in the US, I grew up submerged in my mother’s culture. My mother, her parents, and her siblings, grew up in Singapore, and even though my brother and I were born in the states, my mom’s family raised us with their cultures and principles. With that came a love of food, both creating and consuming it.
Food is a love language for Singaoreans. In Singapore, we often joke that there are three topics of conversation at the dinner table: what we were currently eating, what we had eaten before, and what we were going to eat later. My dad has always been exasperated at this, but we wouldn’t ever want to change. Even through the course of my eating disorder, my love and appreciation of food, and how that served as a way to connect with my family, was never something I wanted to give up. It’s a beautiful thing, to care for one another through the artistic expression and hard work that is food. We were taught that food is to be savored and celebrated, whether that was slicing cratefuls of pineapples and slow cooking it through the day for nonya pineapple tarts, stirring coconut cream and pandan leaves over low heat for hours to make kaya for breakfast toast, or fine tuning our curry recipes over generations.
I was privileged to have my family start teaching my brother and me to cook early, at least early when compared to our peers in the United States. I have a particularly fond memory of visiting my mom’s oldest sister at the tender age of seven. I was all curiosity and enthusiasm, and was thrilled when my aunt asked if I wanted to try cooking dinner for us. I eagerly accepted the challenge, cooking my first meal “all by myself” - I sliced vegetables and sausage meat, scrambled eggs, and boiled rice on the stove. I was taught how to hold a knife carefully, and how to fry on the open-flame stove, being careful not to splatter hot oil. My auntie called my mom that night after we devoured our meal, and I recounted the skills I had learned and the food I had made to my mom, wanting nothing more but to keep learning and growing.
Even though I was taught these skills early on in life, it doesn't mean it was easy, especially when my chronic illness and pain reached new heights in my twenties. There were (and will continue to be) plenty of accidents; I remember being taken to the ER at age 14 for cutting the tip of my finger off while slicing grapefruit, and having to painstakingly dress and re-bandage the wound by myself on my school’s overnight trip the next day. I still have the scar, though hidden under a tattoo, from the third degree burn I gave myself cooking caramel at 16 (I am much more careful around anything that involves heating sugar now!). My poor motor control and tremors, partially due to being autistic, partially due to dislocations from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and partially due to peripheral neuropathy, makes things like slicing neatly (and carefully) difficult. I drop things, break things, and spill things regularly (at least once a recipe, if not far more!). My pain and fatigue makes standing over the stove for a long time difficult. There was a period in my life that despite my love for it, I stopped cooking and baking completely. The frustration was too much. But I knew I didn't want to lose those skills and that love language.
Over time I have developed not only the skills to create food, but the skills to accommodate my disabilities in the kitchen. It has been a work in progress, and always will be, as my condition progresses and I go through new struggles in the future. But, for now, I would like to share the things I do that make kitchen work a bit easier for me.
These are things I do that help me, as an individual, and may not work for everyone! Every person, even with shared diagnoses, has a different body and different struggles. Some of the things I share may not help everyone. A few may even make things harder for some! And some will simply not be accessible to every single person, whether due to financial reasons, or other accessibility barriers. (Please note that I do come from a place where financial privilege has been accessible to me, and that may affect some of the accommodations I have been able to make.)
But without further ado, here are the things I have done to make cooking and baking more enjoyable, and more accessible:
If there has one thing I have done that has helped me the most, it has been to create an efficient organizing system. This has been trial and error, and the system I use will certainly evolve over time. Buying the supplies to make a “perfectly aesthetic organizing system” will not be possible for everyone, but it doesn’t mean you can't create an organizing system that works for you! I recycle a lot of old jars and containers, making sure things are clearly labeled. I spend a bit of an absurd amount of time organizing and reorganizing my drawers and cabinets, and do fall prey to intense hyperfocus at times, but sometimes I like to let that play to my advantage. Having a system means I forget where I put things less, and don't leave things sitting out as much because it has a “proper place”. I also don’t have to do as much work later on, constantly shoving containers of this and that over to make space for whatever new ingredient I obtained. Also, having my kitchen appear tidy makes the space feel more welcoming, which means I don't avoid it as much.
Okay, I know there is some discourse over romanticizing certain things (and I am honestly not up to date with it all), but this has been one of the top tips for me personally. I try and think about the things I love about kitchen work. I envision it as one of those calming vlogs you see online, or how the author of a book about cottage living might describe it. I open the blinds, play background music, listen to podcasts or audiobooks, or even play a calming video of someone else baking. When I have the time, I allow myself to take things slow. It makes the process more calming if I am letting myself slowly slice the apples into perfectly thin slices, rather than frantically just trying to “get it done”. This is a luxury, of course, but I try to plan to allow myself that time whenever possible. I don’t want to start too late, realize it is taking too long, and then risk panic and possible injury while rushing through the process. I want to enjoy kitchen work as craft, not dread it as a chore I have to do.
While I enjoy playing music or videos while I am in the kitchen, I try not to put something on that I might get distracted by so that I’m not watching my cookies in the oven, or that pot of water I’m boiling. So, I’ll put on a nature-watching video, or a ghibli film I’ve watched a dozen times, but I won't play an action-packed series I haven't seen yet.
Boiling water? Baking a cake? Letting something marinate? I time it all, even if that means having a dozen timers all labeled for different tasks going. I -know- I can forget that I’m doing something if I get distracted, so I try to mitigate that by doing things that make my life easier, even if I think it's “silly”. Also, I don't know about other people, but sometimes I get in these hyperfocus “zones” where I spend 9 hours straight baking 20 batches of cookies and wonder why I am suddenly so tired and cranky, and then realize at the end that I haven't eaten or drank anything for that entire duration of time. So, alarms for water and food breaks too!
Sometimes, we don't always have the time, energy, or attention span to commit to longer recipes. It is perfectly okay to do things ahead of time, whether that is earlier in the day, or more than 24 hours in advance. I often make large batches of browned butter, and then pour them into molds so I have on-demand brown butter ready to go whenever I need it. Sometimes I will make cake batter the night before I bake it, because I am simply too tired to do the whole process all in one go. Also, if you have ever watched a cooking show, you’ll see that sometimes they have all the ingredients they need measured out into little bowls, ready to add to their recipe without the fuss of having to measure as they go. This is great for recipes that require quick moving, so that you don't get as frazzled when you've let that chopped up garlic fry 5 seconds longer than you should have while measuring out the salt and pepper. Now of course, this tip often means more dishes and clean up time, so use at your discretion if this may make things harder rather than easier.
Like the above tip, I do things to help myself out even if it's things that neurotypical and non-disabled folks might not understand, or might judge us for. A particular example that comes to mind is an infomercial I saw once about a contraption in a fridge that helps tip a jug of milk or juice with a simple pull of a handle. Many non-disabled people joked about how “lazy” a person must be to need a tipper for a jug of juice, so that they didn't have to lift anything. However, many of these products are made for disabled people, though the infomercials don't always talk about or advertise it. Someone who struggles with chronic wrist dislocations (like myself), or has a tremor could find that product helpful, or even necessary. If you can afford it, allow yourself to make life easier for yourself. Pull a chair up to your stove so you can sit down while stirring that stew that requires 30 minutes of simmering . Use a food processor to quickly blend up onions because you don't want to spend an hour cutting them into tiny pieces. Etc.
*Also, figure out which steps in a recipe you can and can’t get away with skipping if you run into time, energy, or executive function constraints (such as: I probably don't need to spend all that time and effort and hand strength sifting the flour and sugar together for this brownie recipe, but if I’m making an angel food cake, skipping the sifting step will result in a cake that is as dense as a brick, which is NOT what I’m after in a fluffy, airy cake recipe.)
I don't know about you, but for me, the sound of knives being sharpened makes me want to scream and cry and rip off all my skin. So, I started wearing earplugs while sharpening my knives. Sometimes, the sound of metal scraping against bowls and cups is physically painful. So, I use silicone “toddler” spoons when I need to stir my cocoa powder into hot milk. Also, the feeling of wet food and wet sponges and water that is always too hot or too cold sounds unbearable. So, I got a sponge with a handle on it to wash dishes with. Find, and think about which parts of kitchen work feel the hardest to do for you, and think about why that might be. It took me a long time to realize why I always procrastinated on doing the dishes, but once I realized it, accommodating that need was a game changer.
Struggle with motivation but still really wanting to commit to learning kitchen skills, or cook more often in general? Find someone to set a date with! Whether in person (post-pandemic) or over the phone or through video chat, partnering up with someone to cook along with can be helpful, and also fun! Try cooking the same recipe together through video, or have someone chop the carrots while you prepare the marinade if you are in the same space! Turning kitchen work into social time can make it much more enjoyable, and can help motivate you since you have a “date” to commit to.
I hope that one or more of these tips has helped make kitchen work seem a little less daunting. Be patient with yourself as you learn new skills, and don’t be afraid to experiment to see what works! If you are disabled, oftentimes other disabled people can be your greatest resource. If you are having trouble with something, there is someone out there who also struggles with it. Finding someone who you can discuss access issues with can be a rewarding process, for both the work, and the sense of community and solidarity we can build together.