We all have embarrassing secrets. When the associate home and garden editor at AOL’s design site, Shelter Pop, said they were a fan of my site and asked me to contribute an embarrassing kitchen confession for an article they were compiling I was flattered that they were a fan. After giving it some thought and not considering the repercussions I revealed this:
“I never wash the metal covers under the stove heating element. When it gets really gunky looking I just buy new ones from the hardware store. For the effort it takes to remove the element, scrub the thing and get all the burned gunk off I figure it is well worth the $1.98 per cover a few times a year…. Now my secret’s out!” -Heather in SF
You can read the other kitchen confessions and the commentary they generated.
When it was published I was rather dismayed at the tone of the article, and I guess it is a measure of my naivite that I didn’t anticipate this headline:
“The downright filthy — and completely relatable — things people do in the kitchen.”
As many of you might know I am a stickler at keeping my kitchen clean. Proper kitchen hygene is a bugaboo of mine and dilute hydrogen peroxide solution and bleach wipes are my friend. This is not to say that a few dishes might stay in the sink overnight from time to time, but I am only human.
The real reason why I don’t scrub the drip pans under the electric stove elements is not due to a slovenly nature or laziness, but to something else entirely.
THE REAL SECRET
I have ongoing cumulative repetitive motion injuries that affect my arms, hands, neck and upper back. Coping with an injury is never easy but coping with injuries that will not improve more than they have done so at this point and will worsen as long as I make certain movements is quite a challenge, mentally and physically.
I am not embarrassed to admit that motions such as intense scrubbing, chopping, twisting open jars and opening cans and squeezing cause me pain, and then sometimes for days later inflammation, numbness and pain.
I love to cook, and I have great days and not so great days. In order to successfully perform my household chores and pleasures I have developed some coping mechanisms to help on the days when things are ouchy and ways to prevent irritation of this condition.
My situation is mild compared to many out there, so all things considered I realize that I am lucky in many ways. I am able to use a computer and knit, with care and proper ergonomics, and can do many things I love to do. And when I overdo it, I know how to take care of myself. The best response of course is always to respect my limitations and to find smarter ways to accomplish my tasks and chores.
Since so many people are developing “overuse” injuries from computers, gaming and smartphones, I thought I should share my resources and tips.
The most important thing to do is to know your limitations (I am hearing Clint Eastwood in my head as I type this). Pushing yourself too hard or ignoring pain just doesn’t help. If things start to hurt or go numb, stop and either find a way to get the job done another way or see my next point. Plan tasks and activities on days when things are feeling fine, and take shortcuts on the not so good days.
ASK FOR HELP
I don’t know why this is so hard for me, but asking for help is such a sensible thing to do. If you can’t do a task yourself, safely or without pain, then find someone who can. Since I’m solo at the moment, this can be a bit of a challenge, especially in the city where no one knows their neighbors. The night I was hankering for a martini and couldn’t uncork the vodka bottle seemed desperate times, until I found some nice folks coming out of the elevator on my floor. They happily helped me out, and I shared the vodka, and the evening turned out to be a festive one. Of course, this was pre-Twitter, I imagine if I had been able to tweet my plight all kinds of interesting things could have happened.
Asking someone to do the chopping or splitting open an acorn squash has an added benefit of teaching others how to cook and to become engaged in creating a meal and fun times with each other.
USE GOOD TOOLS
Every craftsman knows that using a good tool helps get the job done faster. It is no different in the kitchen. I love my kitchen tools, especially ones that help me get dinner on the table when my wrists or other parts hurt.
I have a can opener that is called an EZ Squeeze but it doesn’t work on big cans, and I’m not ready yet to get an electric one. A jar opener from Oxo is very helpful, and a jar “popper” which was a gift and is not branded but it does an amazing job at breaking the vacuum seal on most jars. Oxo has many great products that help in the kitchen, particularly for folks with arthritis.
Of course a Cuisinart is essential for me and I used the MiniChop a lot since chopping by hand is hard. Then last year at Blog Her Food, the kind folks at Cuisinart gifted me with a 4 cup machine, sort of a MiniChop plus, and I use it almost daily. I just tried an Alligator chopper from Williams Sonoma (sort of like an egg slicer but dices, small and large) but it’s hard to push down on and I think doing dicing and chopping with the Mini is easier. An electric mixer, either a stand or hand mixer, is an incredible help. Even for simple batters I use my machines and I am so grateful I have them. I use my microplane grater to finely grate garlic instead of mincing it by hand. I keep my knives super sharp using an electric sharpener. This is a necessary standard in any kitchen because a sharp knife is a safe knife. My biggest helper in the kitchen is my portable dishwasher. This countertop dishwasher has been the best investment. When my injuries were at their worst and I could not wash silverware at all, my darling water saving and energy efficient dishwasher saved the day. Now I don’t have to worry about keeping my kitchen clean. I put everything I can in the machine and let it do its job.
There are just some tasks I just cannot cope with. Heavy scrubbing and scouring is on that list. So, instead of trying to scrub out a spill into the catch pan under the electric heating element on the stovetop, I buy replacement covers from the hardware store. If there is a spill, by the time the heating element has cooled so that I can try to yank it out of there, the drip of sauce or whatever is completely carbonized and superglued on the metal, requiring major soaking and hard scrubbing. I could use oven cleaner on them, but I don’t like using cleaning products that require Hazmat gear, so this is my accomodation. I trade favors with a friend to scrub out my bathtub; I cook dinner or bring a special wine in return. Bending over the sink, stove or countertop can be really uncomfortable. I take a very wide stance, with my feet farther apart than my hips/shoulders and with a straight back bend my knees and therefore lower my body to better suit the work surface height. It may not look lady-like but it really helps reduce strain on my back.
FOR THE OUCHY DAYS
Some days there is no getting around it and overuse means just that. Despite what intellectually you think you are capable of on any given day, if you push past your limitations, or ignore them (oops, guilty), there are things you can do to feel better.
First, and foremost, is rest, rest, rest. Don’t do any irritating repetitive motions of any kind. Give yourself a break! It can be so hard to just stop when you know you have a million things to do, but tell yourself, “my job now is to rest and recover, nothing else.” and then hold to it. If that means takeout or a sandwich for dinner that night, so be it but just rest.
Ice can really help with ouchy parts and to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Icing the affected area for 10 minutes can really help, it is not fun, but it helps. Bagged frozen Lima beans are great ice packs, they hold the cold longer than frozen peas and are moldable around the area that needs icing. I wrap a thin linen or cotton cloth around the bag to protect my skin.
Immersion baths are an effective way to improve circulation to an area, like the hands or wrists. Fill the sink with warm-to-very warm water and then next to the sink place a dishpan or pot with cold water with an ice cube or three. Alternate soaking in the warm then the cold water for 3-5 minutes per basin about 4 times.
An immersion bath of warm water mixed with 1/4 cup Epsom salts, two drops of essential rosemary oil and five drops of lavender oil is also very helpful. If you want to take a full bath, double these quantities and soak for 20 minutes, and be sure to rinse off with tepid water.
Massage, especially trigger point or shiatsu or active release, is wonderful to aid in recovery from injury. It increases circulation, helps lactic acid and toxins to dissipate and helps knotted muscles relax. You need to know what kind of massage you are comfortable with, and having a practicioner who is familiar with repetitive motion injuries is best. When I can afford a massage I consider them as important as any other kind of medical treatment. It may be a bit granola-head of me but I truly believe in the power of hands-on healing via massage, there is just something to it.
NSAIDS like Motrin or Aleve can help if taken at a steady dose for several days in a row to build up the level of the medication in your bloodstream. I am allergic to these so I use alternatives.
I don’t care for Tylenol products because frankly they don’t ever seem to do much for me, but if they work for you, wonderful, just be mindful of how much you take. They are really hard on the liver and there is still debate on how much is “safe” to take. Aspirin, when taken with food in the stomach, is my preferred choice. Aspirin has been around a long time and I found its occasional use to be comforting. Arnica gel or spray is a great option too, and has helped me on many an occasion. My doctor prescribed lidocaine patches which gently adhere to the skin and are left on for 12 hours. This is my last resort pallative but I am very grateful to have a few of these patches on hand when I need them.
ANOTHER GREAT RESOURCE
My friend The Wheeling Gourmet has a gorgeous site and his recipes and photography are amazing. His section on accommodating a disability in the kitchen has fantastic tips.
So, now my secret is out. I hope you find these tips and treatments helpful if you get or have an injury, so you can keep cooking. What do you do in your kitchen?
DISCLAIMER: The treatments and remedies in this article are what I do to help myself feel better. It is important that you consult with your doctor to find out which treatments or remedies are appropriate for your situation. Everyone is different and you may have special circumstances that require a different approach.