Deborah Quilter, ergonomic design consultant and certified Feldenkrais® practitioner based in New York City. She is author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. RSIHelp.com
Bottom Line: From the right tools to the right way to use them, these tips will help you enjoy cooking again.
You may love cooking, or at least not mind it. But what happens if you have a hand injury or a chronic health condition, such as arthritis…or even just weak hands—so it is painful or even impossible for you to cook?
There are solutions! If you are frustrated with packaging that won’t open easily, vegetable peelers that don’t work for you, kitchenware that puts your hands in awkward positions, and so on, here are some of the special tools and techniques that can get you cooking again—and enjoying it…
If you’ve ever injured yourself trying to open hard plastic packaging with the wrong tool (e.g., a knife rather than scissors), you know that safe practices are important to protect your hands. But you may not realize that safety factors include the balance, weight and ergonomic design of your kitchen tools. Choosing well, especially if you have a chronic hand or arm issue, can protect you from cuts, scalds and serious kitchen accidents that could require months of rehab. Use the following as a checklist for evaluating kitchenware…
Weight. When shopping for items ranging from knives and other utensils to casserole dishes, griddles, pots and pans and even storage containers, the absolute best thing you can do is pick up the item and notice its weight. If it feels heavy to you—especially if it’s a vessel that’s going to hold food—it weighs too much for your physical ability. Don’t buy it.
Balance. When you hold a skillet, pot, or other kitchen item by the handle, how balanced does it feel? Is the length of the handle appropriate for the size of the pot? Is it easy for you to manipulate? This can often be the deciding factor between two equally attractive items. Example: If you are buying a tea kettle, lift it and pretend to pour water from it. This will tell you how well-balanced it is and how well it works with your physiology or level of ability.
Handle design. How easy and comfortable are an item’s handles to grasp? How easy does it feel as you lift the item? When choosing between a lid with a knob and a lid with handle, the handle will most often feel more comfortable because it’s a better match for the natural flexion of fingers. A knob is typically (though not always) small and harder to grasp because of the different type of grip you need to use.
Versatility. Unless you’re a gadget maven, choose products that can do more than one job well…rather than a lot of separate, very specialized tools. Why: Having to rummage for the right item in a crowded drawer or cabinet can be just another stressor on your hands and arms, especially if you have to move other items out of the way to find them.
Give your hands a break by upgrading the tools you use every day—look for specific features will make it easier for you to accomplish a variety of tasks.
Spring-loaded scissors. This tops the list of must-have kitchen tools for opening tough packaging, cutting off wire and plastic twist ties and other jobs that you might not even realize impact your hands, such as snipping grape stems, which requires a surprising amount of hand energy. When using traditional scissors, it’s typically the movement needed to open them that exerts undue pressures on your hand, not the movement of closing them to cut. Spring-loaded scissors eliminate this pressure. You might find that having kitchen scissors in a variety of blade lengths is helpful—shorter ones for, say, snipping herbs, longer ones for cutting rounds of parchment paper for baking, etc.
Ergonomic knives. These knives are better-shaped than most knives for the job you need to do with them—the blades are set lower than the handles to allow a more natural alignment of the hand as you cut. This is especially helpful when you need to use significant force to cut hard vegetables or thick or bony meat or when a food processor’s blades won’t do.
Caution: A sharp knife is easier to use and safer than a dull knife because you don’t have to exert as much force with it. But if you buy new ergonomic knives, they’re likely to be much sharper than the old knives you’re used to—so be extra careful about not casually touching the blades, and store them with protective sheaths on (if they come with sheaths) or in a knife holder, not loose in a drawer.
Jar opener. While there are electric jar openers available, an easier and essentially free trick is to use an ordinary bottle opener inserted under the lid of a new jar to break the vacuum seal…and to then twist off the lid with the grip-assistance of a dishwashing glove. As long as you don’t bend the lid very much with the bottle opener, you’ll be able to screw it back on easily. If this method doesn’t work for you, you might find that it’s worth buying an electric jar opener.
Plastic or silicone mesh sink mat. Weak hands, nerve injuries and age-related loss of sensation can lead to poor grip and things slipping out of your hands. As insurance, buy a sink liner—the kind primarily made to prevent scratches to your sink’s surface from utensils and dishes—for you, it will help prevent glasses and plates from breaking if you drop them over the sink.
A special shopping note: “Ergonomic” kitchen items are big business these days, and you’ll see lots of products labeled that way. But it’s important to trust your assessment of a product and your instincts over the labeling. A product might be described as ergonomic or hand-friendly but might not be right for your unique situation. In fact, you might find that a run-of-the-mill item performs just as you need it to. For example, an “ergonomic” salad spinner with a top button you push down on might be great if you have arthritis, whereas someone with repetitive strain injury might find that same arm/hand movement painful. Remember, you know your own body best. Try out numerous models of every tool to find the ones that answer your needs.
How you use your tools is as important as the tools that you choose…
Slide rather than lift. It might sound obvious, but it’s not intuitive for many people: If you have, say, a heavy pot on the stove and need to move it to a different burner, slide it and use both hands. This enables your core muscles to do most of the work.
Store heavy objects between chest and waist level. You might have gotten used to storing some of your heavy kitchen items up on a high shelf or down in a low cabinet earlier in life, when lifting things was easier, and just never thought to change that arrangement. Change it now! This way, you’ll engage your core muscles to reach for them and not have to bend low or support weight on raised arms.
Transfer ingredients to smaller, easier-to-lift containers for storage. This is especially helpful if you buy food in bulk to save money and time.
Keep your elbows near your torso when you’re chopping. You’ll use the power muscles of your core and avoid straining your shoulders, which is more likely to happen when you work with your arms outstretched.
Get kitchen-prep help. Instead of slicing and dicing yourself, see if your market will do it for you. Besides offering the services of a meat butcher and fishmonger, more and more markets now have a “produce butcher” who will take fresh, whole produce that you choose and slice or chop it for you (usually for a fee). Let this person know if you want your produce washed first—they don’t always do that. This is a more nutritious alternative to buying pre-chopped produce that could be losing nutritional value over the hours, if not days, that it’s been sitting already-cut in the market.