Feel-Good Baking With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Chef Melinda Winner shares her winning secrets for baking with rheumatoid arthritis.

Melinda Winner

There’s no need to let arthritis pain stop you from making delicious home-baked treats, says chef and cookbook author Melinda Winner, who beat out thousands of entrants to appear on the Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown (in the dessert competition, naturally!). If there’s one thing this award-winning baker has learned since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) 25 years ago, it’s this: With the right techniques, you can still partake in the pleasures of rolling dough and making colorful cakes. Here, she shares her story:

When you’re in the mood to bake, invite your loved ones and friends to join you. What’s baking really about, anyway, but making memories in a warm and heavenly smelling kitchen? And bake with gusto—don’t get hung up on calories! Your favorite homemade treats can fit into any healthy diet. Who am I to say that? Well, I lost 100 pounds more than 15 years ago and have kept it off ever since. And that was before I started baking like a fiend!

In a nutshell: When I was first diagnosed with RA, I thought it was no big deal, that it was just a few aches and pains that I could handle. I was wrong. Because I didn’t take the medication my doctor recommended, my disease progressed quickly and I ended up with a lot of deformity. I was later diagnosed with four more rheumatologic conditions: fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease and a nerve-pain syndrome called reflex sympathetic dystrophy. I felt sorry for myself and kind of gave up, which led to the enormous weight gain.

My low point was when I couldn’t get down on the floor after my 3-year-old asked me to play cars with him. At first I cried—then I got mad. How did this happen? I certainly didn’t choose to develop RA, but I did make all of the bad choices that had led me to that moment.

From then on, I took baby steps by going on short walks with my son. And slowly, I cut portion sizes and began to get creative with food again. (I had gone to culinary school years earlier.) I also worked with my doctor and, after a lot of trial and error, found a biologic medication that improved my symptoms and allowed me to keep cooking. Eventually, I left my desk job, started a catering business and wrote two cookbooks (with a third on the way). I guess you could say my RA had a silver lining: It spurred me to get creative, and also to keep finding ways to pursue what I love most. So please do me one favor: Never let arthritis stand between you and your passion!

“My no-fail tips for bakers”

Here, Melinda Winner, executive chef at American Truck Group in Gulfport, MS, tells how you, too, can enjoy baking like a “winner”!

1. Think “spin.” My biggest timesaving tip: Get a cart with wheels for moving your ingredients and baking supplies from counter to counter.

2. Stake your claim. When I’m baking a lot, especially during the holidays, the top shelf in my refrigerator is off limits to everyone but me. I keep all of my baking items there so I don’t have to bend and hunt.

3. Stop the spice search. You can eliminate stretching and bending even further by putting your spices on a lazy Susan on your cart or counter.

4. Wear long oven mitts. Using long mitts allows me to add weight to my forearm and stabilize a dish as I’m removing it from the oven. This takes a little practice, so start by removing lighter dishes until you get the hang of it.

5. Get a thumb ring. I wear a plain band or ring on my thumb to open everything from sour cream to yogurt. You simply slide the band under the rim and pop off the top.

6. Wrap it up. You can make a comfortable, thick grip for any utensil by wrapping the handle with a dishcloth and rubber band.

7. Go electric. Invest in a stand mixer and food processor. Both are inexpensive these days, and you don’t need to buy a top-of-the line model. Believe me, the payoff of not using your hands to mix and chop is worth it.

8. Plan ahead. Never shop and bake on the same day—it’ll wear you out! Instead, make a list of what you need and shop a few days before you plan on baking.  

9. Go old school. Wash your dishes by hand. There’s something soothing about soaking your hands in warm, soapy water after all the baking is done.  

April 2013