Cooking with Caregivers: A Guide

Cooking dinner is a participatory event for Joe

Some people eat to live and some live to eat. I’m one of the latter – I live to eat. As a foodie, I spend a small fortune dining out. But eating at home can be just as delicious, and far cheaper.

As an adult living independently with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), I unfortunately can’t just whip up a gourmet meal on my own. But I have learned to cook for myself with the help of others.

Having caregivers help me prepare food isn’t quite as luxurious as it sound. Cooking through the hands of someone else is a talent. I can’t just tell my personal care assistant what I want to eat and expect it to magically appear and taste exactly how I like it. I have to guide their hands.

It’s true that I’m a tough critic. Growing up, eating out was a rare treat. My mom always insisted a home-cooked meal was better than anything crafted in a commercial kitchen. So she taught my sisters and me how to cook. Unfortunately, not everyone learned how to cook like I did.

Joe and his caregiver Alex prepare pasta

I try to hire caregivers who know how to cook, but I’ve come to understand that almost everyone thinks they know how to cook. So I’ve turned to asking people “what” they like to cook. If potential caregivers respond by saying they like cooking breakfast foods, sandwiches or spaghetti, they really don’t know their way around a kitchen. These are super easy things to make. Not to mention, I kind of hate spaghetti.

Anyway, cooking with caregivers can be tough. Here are some tricks I’ve learned along the way to help you create a finger-licking good meal with your helpers:

  • Be specific: Since everyone has different cooking styles, and not everyone was trained in the kitchen by my mother, it’s important to be as specific as possible when you’re vocalizing how you want your food prepared. This is especially true of adding spices. Remember, a pinch of salt to you might be a tablespoon of salt to someone else.
  • Participate: Having caregivers cook for me doesn’t give me license to head to my room and listen to Beyoncé while they toil in the kitchen. My personal care attendants are my hands, so I sit there with them, right by the stove, telling them exactly when to stir the fry, when to flip the chicken breast, how to chop the veggies and how to plate the meal.
  • Communicate: I know micromanaging to the degree I described above could be seen as a major no-no in most workplaces, but, when it comes to caregiving, it’s just how this job works. I have to communicate exactly what I need and want, because people can’t read my mind.
  • Find your favorites: One method that minimizes some of the micromanaging I typically have to resort is mastery through repetition. That is, if I like a meal, and I like the way the caregivers prepare it, I have them make it several times. Once they become proficient with it, I can start to trust them to cook more on their own.
  • Know when to call for delivery: Lastly, if your caregiver has trouble cooking and all hope seems lost, it probably is. I suggest sending them for take-out and calling it a night.

Bon appetit!

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