Learn how one woman single-handedly took on RA—and four other types of arthritis—and created culinary art.
When Melinda Winner heads for the kitchen, miracles happen. Despite having five types of arthritis—including rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—and limited use of her right arm, she is an accomplished cook who has devised creative ways for people with arthritis to succeed in the kitchen. Last year, she published her secrets in a book, A Complete Illustrated Guide to Cooking with Arthritis. “You can cook with arthritis,” she says. “You just have to learn new techniques.”
Melinda started learning early. Her first creation was a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. She was just 10 at the time, and instead of just slapping a couple of pieces of bread together, she cut off the crusts and configured each sandwich into the shape of a pinwheel, which she topped with powdered sugar. “My parents had friends over that day,” she says, “and everyone raved.”
As the youngest of 10 children, Melinda loved being the center of attention. Her skill in the kitchen helped her shine. “I began by making food look beautiful—from basic hamburgers piled high with lettuce and tomatoes to breakfast plates with toast cut into triangles and garnished with citrus slices and parsley.”
She soon realized that she wasn’t cooking just to get attention. “I truly loved it,” says Melinda, now a 48-year-old single mother of three and grandmother of five, who lives in Zephyrhills, FL.
The truly amazing thing about Melinda’s cooking is that she prepares all her food single-handedly—literally. “A birth injury to my shoulder and arm caused irreparable nerve damage,” she explains. “I am unable to extend my right arm, or to lift it any higher than my waist. It’s also several inches shorter than my left arm.”
When she was a child, other kids often taunted Melinda. But cooking was her refuge. “Escaping into the culinary world,” she says, “allowed me some peace and tranquility.”
Arthritis warning signs
When she was 8, Melinda started having unusual aches and pains. “My legs began hurting,” she recalls. “My mother and the doctors thought I had growing pains. When my neck started to hurt, they assumed it was because my arms were uneven. When my knees began to swell, they said it was from playing too hard.” The pain was so bad that Melinda’s parents had to take her to the hospital more than 20 times.
Undaunted, Melinda continued her education. “Supermarkets, farm stands and bakeries were my favorite places,” she says. She also did research on food and cooking at the library. But mostly, she modeled herself after her mother, Dorothy, whom she calls the world’s finest cook. “She taught me things, like the fact that the perfect cooking time for a cupcake is 22 minutes. And that most soups taste better with tomato added, even if you don’t love tomatoes.”
A difficult blow
Following her passion, Melinda enrolled in a culinary arts program at age 23. Two years later, a rheumatologist finally diagnosed the symptoms she’d had for so many years. She had severe RA and osteoarthritis (OA). On top of that, Melinda had a condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSDS), which many experts believe is triggered by RA. As if that weren’t enough, she also had degenerative disc disease and fibromyalgia.
Learning that she had five chronic health conditions in addition to her birth injury was difficult. “I thought Why me? and, Will I ever be able to have a normal life?” Melinda recalls.
Doctors prescribed medication to help her manage the pain and inflammation. She also underwent several surgical procedures. But it wasn’t until doctors prescribed a tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blocker that she finally found relief. TNF blockers work by suppressing the immune system, thereby slowing the progression of RA. Melinda also takes pain medication, when needed.
Savvy cooking strategies
Melinda left the culinary institute in her final academic year to care for her ailing mom, who died in 1994. Although Melinda didn’t complete her degree, she kept right on cooking, working in small mom-and-pop joints and fine restaurants, honing her craft.
Along the way, she developed ways to make cooking with arthritis easier. Melinda discovered many of her techniques by chance. “After my divorce, I started wearing my wedding band on my thumb,” she says. “One day, I couldn’t open a yogurt container. I accidentally caught the ring on the rim, and the container opened,” she explains. “Now that ring is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets.”
Other “tools” also were born of necessity. “Sometimes, I’m in too much pain to slice and dice, so I use an apple corer instead of a knife,” she says. Melinda places the corer on top of potatoes, squash, and other fruits and vegetables and then uses her forearms and the weight of her body to slice. Having an arthritis-friendly kitchen also helps. “If you set up your kitchen so the things you use daily are accessible,” she says, “learning the special techniques comes easy.”
Melinda believes that cooking fresh food at home is beneficial in many ways. Instead of relying on takeout or frozen meals, she can eat a healthier menu, she says. Cooking also helps you remain active, which Melinda believes is crucial. “The most important thing if you have arthritis is to move. It doesn’t matter how slowly you do it,” she says—just keep your joints moving. “Otherwise, they will become stiff and painful, and you’ll lose mobility.”
Cooking toward the future
Looking ahead, Melinda has her sights set on hosting her own “cooking with arthritis” television show. This, she says, could enable her to help many of the 48 million people in the U.S. who are living with arthritis. “I want to get people back into the kitchen,” she declares, “feeling pain free and fearless.”