Cooking With Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

When you have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, cooking poses a lot of challenges—standing in the kitchen can cause pain and wear you out, problems with short-term memory and multi-tasking make it hard to follow the steps of even a simple recipe, and it's easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed with the whole process.

It can be tempting to avoid it altogether, but that's not realistic for most of us. Sick or not, we have to eat. Because many of us with these conditions need a specially tailored diet or at least feel better when we eat healthier, cooking is essential.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to simplify cooking and ease its strain on your body.


The Right Tools

Woman chopping nuts


Not all kitchen tools are created equal. Some of them are easier to grip than others, and some of them can make certain jobs a lot easier.

You can find reasonably priced things like peelers and measuring cups that have padded or ergonomic handles. Those can keep your hands from wearing out as fast and reduce the amount of energy it takes to do simple jobs.

Have a tough time opening jars and bottles? A thin rubber gripper can be a big help, allowing you to get a better hold on lids. There are also jar opening tools that are "V" shaped with ridges that catch in the grooves on lids. Some are hand-held and others can be mounted under a cupboard so you only need to use one hand.

Sharp knives are also great for conserving energy. Good ones are expensive, though. If you can't afford good knives, try to invest in a steel sharpener that can keep a good edge on them.

Kitchen tools like these are great things to ask for as gifts, especially from people who are handy in the kitchen and probably have all kinds of things that help them.


Keep It Handy

As much as possible, try to keep the things you use a lot where you can get to them easily.

For example, when spoons and spatulas are in a crock on the counter, it takes very little effort to grab one when you need it. Knife blocks are a good idea, too.

If you're short on counter space, you may want to explore things like wall-mounted spice racks or magnetic strips for knives, which can be right above your work area while keeping counters clear.

You'll also be less frustrated if you don't have to dig through drawers looking for your tools.


Minimize the Lifting

Stacks of pots and pans or glass mixing bowls can get heavy fast. So you don't have to lift all those up to get to the lower one, you might want to look into adding shelves so you can store them separately or in shorter stacks.

It's also helpful to replace glass bowls with plastic ones that weigh a lot less.

Consider the weight of things like plates, bowls, glasses, and coffee mugs, too. It may help to replace them with thin, light-weight ones.


Highs and Lows

When you do have to get things that are stored high or low, try to use tools that minimize how much you have to bend, stretch, and balance.

Kitchen chairs are convenient, but they can be awkward to get on and off of. Combine that with a dizzy spell and it could spell disaster.

A sturdy, light-weight folding stool is a better option for getting what's out of your reach. Two or three small steps are a lot safer than climbing on a chair. Many sizes and styles are available that can slip into the space next to your fridge or inside the pantry.

You can also buy grabbers on long sticks that help you get items from high or low shelves, or pick things up off the floor. If you do have to get down low, squatting or getting on your knees is generally better than bending. Listen to your body's cues and minimize the things that cause pain.


Take the Strain Off Your Legs

Standing on a hard floor while you cook can cause a lot of leg pain and fatigue. There's a good reason professional chefs wear well-padded shoes and stand on rubber mats.

Equipping your kitchen with mats or padded rugs, and wearing shoes or cushy slippers while you cook, makes a big difference.

For tasks that keep you in one place for more than a few minutes, like chopping vegetables or other prep work, try sitting down at the table or breakfast bar.


Keeping Track of What's Next

Thanks to our foggy brains and short-term memory problems, we generally have to refer back to a recipe (or the box) a lot more than most people. You don't want to have to lean or twist in order to see it, so it can help to have a good holder.

Home stores generally carry cookbook holders that will keep the books upright, open to the right page, and easily visible.

For recipe cards or pieces of paper, keep a clothespin handy that you can use to clip it to a box or whatever else will keep it at the right height.

If you're following a recipe on a smartphone or tablet, find a way to prop it up. Lots of small devices are available for that, and some cases double as stands, as well.

You can find apps that read recipes out loud, and if those work well for you, then great! However, many of us have more of a problem following oral instruction than written, so they may not be a good solution.


Organize Before Starting

How often have you been in the middle of something when you suddenly realized you were out of an ingredient, or you couldn't find the item you needed next?

When your brain is already working to follow instructions, something like that can trigger anxiety, confusion, and frustration that can make it difficult or impossible to keep going.

To keep that from happening, get out all the necessary ingredients before you start cooking, and arrange them in order of when you'll need them.

Also get out the measuring cups and other tools you'll need so you know right where they are (and so you know they're not sitting in the dishwasher, dirty).


Keep It Simple

We're often not the best multi-taskers, so something that can derail us in the kitchen faster than anything is having too much going on at once. Try not to fix things that require boiling this while sautéing that and mixing some third thing for an exact amount of time—it's too easy to lose track, mess up something, and end up a wreck by the time it's over.

It might be a better idea to focus mainly on one part of the dinner and make the rest easy and prep-light or prep-free. For instance, a bagged salad or raw vegetables with dip are a great option that frees you up to focus more attention on, say, the protein or a great side dish.


Remember Your Pacing!

Don't forget to pace yourself while cooking! When possible:

  • Work for a few minutes and then rest for a few minutes
  • Try to vary your tasks, i.e., if you have a lot of chopping to do, don't do it all in one stretch.
  • When preparing for a holiday or big event, give yourself lots of extra time, and prepare whatever you can ahead of time so you're not trying to do it all at once.

A Word From Verywell

Chronic illness complicates a lot of day-to-day tasks. The important thing to remember is that by adapting and finding new approaches, you may be able to keep performing necessary tasks such as cooking.

And on days when you just can't? Cut yourself some slack, stick something in the microwave, and take it easy.

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.