Who wrote this?
Hi! I did. My name is John, I’m a disabled food enthusiast and former chef. I live in a Jewish household in Manchester, England, with my husband. I grew up in a house where everybody cooked, and I was always fascinated by food, even when I was an extremely picky eater. When I was old enough to have control over my own food, I stopped being picky and fell completely in love with food and cooking. I went to catering school as a teanager, and worked in the food industry for a number of years, before trading it in for a less stressful job wrangling small children, but I kept cooking at home. Later, I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband (also disabled), who’s Jewish and has a lot of food allergies, which changed the way I cook.
Disability has always informed my relationship with food: I’m hypersensitive to taste and texture, I have speech and swallowing difficulties. In adulthood I became chronically ill, which makes standing up, and sometimes sitting up, very difficult: cooking and eating became a lot more complicated. It’s been challenging, but I’m getting back in control of my kitchen and my food, and food is becoming a joy again, rather than a chore.
This document is all the tips and tricks I’ve collected to make food and cooking more accessible. Some of them I’ve worked out myself, a lot of them come from conversation with other disabled people, a few of them are things I learned in the food industry and only later realised were more accessible. Not everything here will be right, and nothing will be right for everyone, but I hope it will help you find the right solutions for yourself.
Setting up your kitchen
Most of us don’t get much of a choice in what our kitchen is like. I live in rented accommodation with an atrociously layed out kitchen. It’s far too small, everything is high up, and I can’t open my freezer with my wheelchair in the kitchen so I have to crawl along the floor to get things out without assistance. I can control which appliances I have, where they go, which cupboards things go in, and what labels I put on things. I try to keep everything I might need to use without assistance on or under the counter, which is where I can most easily reach.
Storing things where they can be seen: there’s a few reasons you might not want to shut things away in cupboards and draws. You might have trouble remembering where things are or that they exist. You might want to be able to point them out to other people who are cooking for you. You might want to display decorative or cultural items. You might want to avoid open cupboards or drawers becoming a trip hazard. You might not have enough space to open your cupboards while using a mobility device.
A row of hooks on the wall can hold commonly used utensils, strainers, and pan baskets, and make them easy to reach with a grabber. A panstand can make your cooking pans more accessible. I have a large bookcase in my kitchen that holds a whole bunch of cooking related things and a teapot collection (and some books too).
Label your kitchen cupboards. This is helpful for carers, brain fog, and if one person’s more in control of the kitchen. It makes it easier for other people to put things away as well as fetching things. I label many of the storage boxes inside my cupboards too. As I have speech difficulties (and agency carers don’t always pay attention) all my cupboards also have numbers.
Think about where things go in the fridge. In the food industry, the standard is that unprepared food goes below prepared and ready to eat food, so it can’t spill onto food that might not be washed or cooked before eating. Raw meat goes lowest of all, prepared dairy, eggs, or salad go at the top. If cross-contamination is something you need to be careful of, such as if one person is allergic to something, put the contaminant near the bottom of the fridge or cupboard so it can’t spill on other food or equipment.
An overlap table can help with food preparation if you can’t stand for long periods and don’t have a regular table nearby. I wheel mine into the kitchen sometimes when I’m struggling with the counter height.
Not all food and drink preparation has to happen in the kitchen. There’s a tray on my dining table with the kettle, teabags, some mugs, and the timer we use for brewing tea (more on that later). Because it’s a lot lower than the kitchen counters, and there’s no cupboards in the way, it’s a lot easier for me and my husband (both wheelchair users) to use. And the tray means I can slide it all back out of the way if I want to use the table.
Love your microwave! Microwaves are good for all manner of foods, and can be combined with specific gadgets. I eat a lot of microwave rice, as it’s quicker and easier to cook (and easier to direct a carer to cook).
Microwave steamer: a plastic contraption where hot water goes in the bottom, food goes in the middle, and a lid goes on the top, and a whole thing goes in the microwave. It cooks food pretty fast without drying it out.
Microwave plate warmers: rubber disks that are put on plates and microwaved. This is useful if it takes you longer to eat food and don’t want it to go cold. They only heat the center of the plate not the edges, making it safer than heating in the oven.
Slow cookers are great for dumping everything in and leaving it alone. I sometimes get a morning carer to start it off, and then the evening carer can serve the food that’s cooked, it saves time on the care package and lets me cook more things. They can also heat things up that are already made. They’re also useful if you don’t have access to a proper cooker, as they plug into the electric and are portable. They are usually very heavy, which can make them difficult to move and clean.
Cooking and barbecue tongs make excellent washable, food-safe grabbers, if you have grip strength. Non-metallic tongs are a good way to get things out of the toaster without burning yourself.
Pans: pans with good non-stick are much easier and quicker to clean. My favorite non-stick is anodised metal.
Big pans are useful if you can make and store large batches of food, or if someone can do it for you. Pressure cookers are larger than most saucepans and can be used for regular cooking. If you find yourself wanting even bigger pans, catering suppliers sell very large stew or stock pans.
A pan basket is a wire basket that fits in a pan, quite like a fryer basket. You can fill a pan with water, put food in the basket, and use the basket to put food in and out of the pan, then leave the water to cool or wait until someone else can empty it. You can reuse the water if you’re cooking two things that need boiling.
There is a device called a pan-stirrer which goes in a pan and stirs it while it cooks. I haven’t used one before so I don’t know how good they are, but I hope to try one in the future so I have to move around and reach up less while cooking.
Keep your knives sharp! Sharp knives take less energy to use than blunt knives, need less grip strength, and are less likely to slip and cause injury. If you can’t keep them sharp on your own, you can find a professional sharpener. Most of them offer at-home service.
There’s a lot of gadgets out there that cut food, or help you cut food. I find some of them very useful, and some of them very difficult. Because I had so much practice with knives before getting ill, I haven’t tried very many, so can’t really give any advice here.
Non-slip shelf liner, available from hardware shops, is very useful in the kitchen. Use it on shelves to stop stuff slipping, underneath gadgets to stop them slipping, underneath chopping boards to stop- you get the picture. It also makes the most effective jar-and-bottle opener I’ve ever tried.
Thermometers. Thermometers are useful for storage and cooking. Food thermometers tell you if food is cooked through – useful if you or the person helping you isn’t sure how to tell if something is cooked. You can get “speaking” thermometers that say the temperature too, if reading a screen or dial is difficult.
Timers. If you have any kind of difficulty processing time, staying focused, or remembering to come back to a task, timers are a wonder. My tea-tray has a timer that we only use for brewing tea! Partly because my ADHD swings between “cannot wait must remove tea bag immediately” and “I started making tea half an hour ago and got distracted”, and partly to avoid “carers tea”: half a cup of water that once touched a teabag and half a cup of milk.
Oven cloth. A holdover from my industry days, I use an oven cloth rather than oven gloves. An oven cloth is sort of like oven gloves, but rectangular and the size of a large hand towel. I find the cloth better for my grip, as my hands are very hypermobile, and it protects my arms if the oven is very hot.
It doesn’t have to be beige!
Living aids intended for disabled people can be unreasonably expensive and, to be frank, quite ugly. Catering suppliers sometimes have similar things at lower costs, made with less beige plastic; they’re also a good place to look for colour coded utensils and storage (useful for allergies), date labeling systems (which are useful if you have cognitive or memory problems, or there are several people coordinating food preparation), fashionable melamine or polycarbonate crockery (light and hard to break), non-slip trays, and long food tongs, which can be used as food-safe washable grabbers. You can also check out camping supply shops for light, durable crockery and cups, and things to keep food hot or cold during the day. Before I started using my wheelchair, we had a bright purple, height-adjustable, rotating bar stool in the kitchen, which made it much easier for me to use the kitchen than a fixed perching stool would have.
Keep your shopping list somewhere handy. I have a lot of memory problems and so keep my shopping list on the notes on my phone. This means I can write something down as soon as I realise I need it, and never forget to take the list to the shops, and I check things off the list as I go. You can use shared notes and documents to share the list with other people, and let them add things on. When my memory was better, we had a whiteboard on the fridge that we wrote the shopping list on, but when I got more ill and tired I started forgetting to take it with me.
Making meal plans in advance makes it easier to plan a shopping list in advance, and you can plan what days you need to go to the shops.
Be mindful of how much you can carry at a time! When I first got ill, I would frequently forget how much I could carry and buy too much, then struggle to get it home. If you can’t carry very much, think about a shopping trolly (some of them have seats too), or fixing bags to your mobility devices. Bag-holders for buggies can be really useful to hang bags on a rollator, walking frame, or wheelchair.
There’s no “right” way to shop. If you find it easier to go with help, do that. If it’s easier to go on your own, do that. You can shop every few days or once a fortnight. You don’t have to go as a family or household. My husband and I have conflicting access needs in supermarkets, and going together is very stressful for us both, so we always shop separately.
If you’re shopping for someone with a dietary requirement you’re not familiar with, or have a new one yourself, do some research first. Gluten free isn’t the same as wheat free, lactose free isn’t the same as dairy free, vegetarian isn’t automatically kosher or halal. If you need, find out what the labeling requirements are where you live, and what the different labels mean.
You don’t have to do your shopping yourself. Most supermarkets will let you order your shopping on the internet, and you can pick it up from the shop or have it delivered. A lot of supermarket websites let you save shopping lists and add them to your order every time, which is helpful if you have memory or cognitive problems. Websites like amazon and ebay let you order food. Amazon does ‘subscriptions’ so you can have something delivered every week, month, or few months. When I was struggling with food I had protein bars and dried fruit delivered every month so I always had something easy to eat, and didn’t need to remember to order it every month. There are services that deliver frozen meals; I’ve not used them so I don’t know very much about them.
Cooking and preparing food
This is probably the most important thing I can tell you: cut as many corners as you need. If pre-cut vegetables, fresh or frozen, make cooking easier, use them. If pre-cooked, microwavable rice helps, use it. If instant mashed potato helps, use it. If ready cooked meat, grated cheese, or bagged salad helps, use it. If having someone else prepare everything helps, do that. If having someone else cook while you direct them helps, do that. There’s no such thing as good food you can’t eat, or good food that makes you sick cooking or eating it. Good food is food that nourishes, whether it’s vegetables you grew and cooked yourself, or pizza and chips from the takeaway, or anything in between.
Make food when you have the energy and means. This doesn’t have to be right before you eat it! I have care in the morning and evening, I get the morning person to make lunch in advance and then I can get it out of the fridge or microwave it later. You can make large batches of freezable food on good days or when there’s help, and eat it on bad days, when there’s less help, or when you need to spend your care time on other tasks. You can also have someone do some of the preparation, such as chopping vegetables, to make it easier for you to cook later, or you can chop in the morning and cook in the afternoon after a rest.
I find it helpful to have a few foods that are easy to prepare, and combine them with things other people have cooked for me. If a carer makes enough chilli, I can heat up mocrowave-rice to go with the leftovers a day later. I find things like couscous, frozen mashed potato, and microwave-in-the-bag vegetables easy, other people will have other things they find easy.
Making meal plans in advance means you don’t need to spend as much time thinking about what to eat every day. This is useful if you have memory or cognitive problems, and helps you shop for what you need.
If possible, eat lots of different types of food, especially different types of fruit and vegetables. Getting as many different colours of vegetables into your food as you can. This means you get more types of vitamins and nutrients.
Timers are useful, especially if you have memory problems. If I need to keep stirring or checking something, I’ll make the oven timer go off every few minutes so I keep going back to stir or check. They’re also good if you need a carer to do other things while food is cooking, so they don’t lose track.
In my home we have a thing called “pre-food”. Pre-food is easy, convenient food you eat before you go make a meal. This is good for if you forgot to get food before you got hungry, which I do a lot, or if you have unpredictable energy levels.
Eating and drinking
I like pasta plates (wide, shallow dishes) and use them for just about everything that isn’t a liquid. They have an edge that makes it easier to scoop up food with only a fork or spoon, and harder to accidentally knock the food off.
Height adjustable tables let you put your food closer to your mouth, so you don’t have to move your arm as much. I always need to lean my elbows on something because of problems in my shoulder joints, so I need a higher table or chair with armrests.
If you find eating with conventional imploments difficult, find alternatives. I find it difficult to coordinate a knife and fork together, so I mostly just use forks or spoons, or eat with my hands. There is cutlery that has large grips, cutlery that’s off-set, cutlery that works for people with tremors, non-metallic cutlery, light cutlery. There’s a lot.
There are a lot of different cups and mugs too. You can get mugs with two handles, cups with lids or drinking spouts, cups that stay steady when your hand shakes. Travel-mugs are less hot to the touch than regular mugs, and are less likely to break if dropped, and spill less. Plastic picnic cups are lighter than glasses, and don’t break when you drop them. Heat-proof mugs and cups that keep things hot and cold are useful if it takes you a long time to drink things, or if you have your drinks prepared in advance by people who aren’t always there.
Staying hydrated can be hard if you struggle to get drinks and don’t always have help.
Squash and cordial can go in small bottles or bottles with a pump to make them easier to use. You can buy juice concentrate (the stuff that makes juice “from concentrate”) from health food shops to mix with water, so you don’t have to carry heavy cartons of fruit juice around. Single portion cartons and cans of drink are lighter than bigger packs and can usually be kept around the house or taken on outings.
If you find lifting and pouring difficult, consider things like pump bottles, drink dispensers with taps, and spirit pourers. Spirit pourers are stoppers that fit in the top of bottles and make it easier to pour out small amounts. They are designed for making cocktails but are useful if you have poor motor control. You can use them to pour our squash or add milk to tea. Bottles with a spirit pourer have to be tipped further than bottles without one so might not be good if you have low strength or weak grip. You can also get ones that will only pour out a specific amount before you turn them back upright, which might help if you have tremors.
I use a lot of straws. Mostly for drinks, but you can use them in broth or soup. “Jumbo” straws meant for smoothies and milkshakes work with thicker soups or soups with small chunks, but I recommend steering clear of croutons. Bendy straws let you drink things while lying down or reclined.
You have to be careful using straws in hot drinks or liquid, as it’s easy to burn your mouth. This is partly because straws take liquid from the bottom, which cools off slower than the surface, and partly because you get more liquid through a straw than if you sip from a cup or use a spoon. I found that anything under 55OC was ok for me to drink through a straw, which is the temperature I started being able to drink full mouthfuls rather than sips (for those wondering if I found that out by sitting with a hot drink, a thermometer, and a straw, the answer is yes. Yes I did). Other people might have fragile skin, or be at risk of burns, so you should work out what’s safe for you. Plastic straws have a melting point above the boiling point of water so you don’t have to worry about them melting in your drink or food.
I have water bottles with long drinking tubes, designed to help people stay hydrated independently in hospital. One lives on the back of my wheelchair, and one on my bed, and carers fill them up for me every day. You can also get water “bags” with drinking tubes designed for sports and outdoors. They don’t need to be kept as steady, but are harder to clean. Bottles and bags with drinking tubes let you drink without having to pick anything up or being upright, or even without moving your head much if the mouthpiece is near your mouth.
A really important part of staying hydrated is things called electrolytes. Your body doesn’t just need water, it needs electrolytes to absorb the water you drink into your cells. Electrolytes are things like salt, sugar, and some minerals; they come from food and drink. Electrolytes are complicated and medical, so I won’t say much about them, but if you struggle with hydration, or do a lot of exercise, you need to pay attention to them.
Minimal energy food
I was originally going to call this bit “bad days”, but I realised that my bad days are some people’s normal, and my normal is some people’s bad days, and it seemed wrong to define a bad day by one person’s experience. This section is mostly about when you’re stuck in bed, or upstairs, or out of the kitchen. Before I got my wheelchair I spent a few months not able to be out of bed for more than an hour at a time, so I got very good at stocking a bedside table for food and hydration.
Keep shelf-stable food in a place you can easily reach. Cereal bars, crackers and oatcakes, dried fruit and nuts, individual pots of jelly, custard, or applesauce, individual cartons of fruit juice, peanut butter. Squash keeps well, and you can get “travel” packets which are small and light. You can keep a packet of disposable plates or bowls there too, and disposable spoons.
If you have a source of water nearby, keep a few cups or bottles nearby to make drinks. If you don’t, have bottles or flasks you can get someone to fill up and bring to you that will last through the day. If lifting them is hard, consider getting a flask with a pump dispenser from a catering supplier, or a water bag with a tap from a camping shop.
If it’s safe to have a kettle nearby, you could get a mini kettle to make drinks or snacks like instant soup. If not, you could have someone fill up a heat-proof flask for you. You can get heat-proof flasks with a pump dispenser if lifting and pouring is difficult. You can put cold milk in a heat-proof container for making tea and coffee, but you need to use it within a few hours and make sure the container is well washed afterwards. Ice pops and lollies stay frozen for a little while in heat-proof containers and insulated travel mugs.
Dining out, ordering in
There’s no such thing as “fully accessible”, and any place that says they’re fully accessible doesn’t know what it’s talking about. A lot of places claim to be wheelchair accessible without knowing what that actually means. A good way to find out if somewhere is actually accessible for you is to ask what accessibility features they have, and get them to list them. Of course if you can get information from other disabled people you trust, that’s probably more accurate.
There’s no such thing as “allergen free” either, as people can be allergic to anything. Waters and people working in cafes, bars, restaurants, and takeaways don’t necessarily know how allergies and ingredient labeling work! It’s ok to ask to speak to a manager/chef if you’re not confident, especially if it’s not a common allergy or intolerance. A lot of businesses in the UK will send a manager or supervisor to speak to you if you tell them you’re allergic to something.
Businesses in the UK are required by law to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate disabled people. This might include moving the furniture around a bit to fit a wheelchair user in, taking things out of a meal if someone’s allergic to them, letting you use your own cutlery, and letting you have a PA with you even if they aren’t eating or drinking anything.
I find that bigger or chain restaurants are more predictable. They’re more likely to be wheelchair accessible and more likely to have people that are trained about allergies. Some chains have a book or folder with every single ingredient of every single thing they serve available. They’re also more likely to have their menu online so you can decide what to eat beforehand, or use a screen reader to help you understand it.
If you’re asking about ingredients, explain why you’re asking. Some places, especially health food or organic places, spend a long time telling me how ‘natural’, organic, or ‘chemical free’ something is when all I want to know is if it has tomato in it! “I need to check some allergies” goes a lot quicker than “what’s in this”.