How to Cook up a Storm With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Learn how one woman single-handedly took on RA—and four other types of arthritis—and created culinary art.

Chrystle Fiedler
More Sharing +

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.” 

April 2013