Living with chronic fatigue can feel like every day is the day after running a marathon. When my chronic fatigue flares, I feel like I’m using momentum to fling myself around the kitchen rather than intentionally opening the refrigerator or lifting bowls. King Arthur’s Associate Social Editor Annabelle Nicholson says it can feel “like my entire body is heavy ... like my mind is moving at its normal pace but my body is walking through water.” For bakers, it’s not just frustrating: It can pose a range of challenges and safety risks.
Chronic fatigue is a broad term covering pain, weakness, and exhaustion across conditions ranging from myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), to long COVID, to musculoskeletal disorders like my own. The unifying factor, according to Registered Dietician Katie Mednick, is persistent fatigue “that worsens with exertion,” even the exertion of day-to-day tasks like cooking and cleaning.
Chronic fatigue manifests in the kitchen in a number of ways. “Grocery shopping, chopping, stirring, lifting, and washing can feel exceptionally difficult,” Katie explains. Occupational therapist Emily Rich also points out that, for those with chronic fatigue, "Temperature and ventilation can be an issue, and overheating is common.”
During the holidays, spending long days in the kitchen, lifting larger-than-usual dishes, and experiencing added stress can aggravate symptoms. One way to manage is by simply paring down the menu. Another is to go for impact: Focus on making that one dish from scratch ... then simplify the rest. But we’re bakers, and sometimes we want to go all out. So when the baking bug bites, here are some strategies for conserving energy in the kitchen.
Stay in tune with your body
Pacing and planning: Acting proactively, versus reactively, is one of my biggest disability learning curves. So plan ahead! Create a baking schedule that clearly blocks off time for sitting down, eating, and drinking, which ensures you’ll take a break before your body forces one. Try adding natural pauses via recipes with a rise or rest. Use mobility aids, compression clothing, and other assistive devices before the pain begins to help preserve energy.
Move meaningfully: Body mechanics and good positioning are crucial for reducing exertion and staying comfortable. When standing, keep your ankles and elbows at around a 90-degree angle; when sitting, hips and knees also join this rule. Neck, jaw, and shoulders should stay neutral and relaxed. When whisking or cutting, keep elbows tucked in towards the body with wrists relaxed, using the larger muscles in your upper arm and shoulder to do the work. When moving, engage your core muscles and pivot from a central, stable point. All of this will reduce the amount of energy expended on holding your body upright and will allow you to spend more energy on baking (or help to prevent an energy crash afterwards!).
Manage chronic fatigue’s sidekick, brain fog: Brain fog and mental fatigue often go hand in hand with chronic physical fatigue, since all types of energy are related. Managing (or flaring) one can impact the other, so see these previous tips for baking with brain fog.
Adapt your space
Make your space your own: Whether just for the holidays or more long-term, experts recommend rearranging your kitchen to place commonly used and heavy items at counter height to decrease the amount of walking, reaching, and lifting. Neck pain? Adjust your height in relation to your work surface by using desk-top risers or stools.
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Get comfy: Consider items like a pair of ergonomic kitchen shoes (Crocs and Dr. Scholl clogs are my go-to); anti-fatigue mats to take pressure off the feet; and stretchy, breathable clothes for easy movement and temperature regulation.
Lean back, relax!: Sitting while I cook might be my favorite adaptation, and apparently I’m not alone: Every person I spoke to for this article recommended a kitchen stool, particularly for stationary tasks like chopping or stirring. A height-adjustable stool with wheels makes it easy to adjust to your counters and roll between surfaces to give your body a break.
Invest in (or make) the right equipment: I used to covet heavy glass mixing bowls and sleek-handled utensils. Now I’m choosing lightweight plastic and metal bowls and utensils with thick, chunky handles (like OXO) to reduce tension on my fingers and wrist. Modify thin handles with part of a pool noodle (officially sold as “foam grip tubing”) or athletic grip tape. Buying tools that make slicing and dicing easier can also reduce energy output — kitchen shears and food processors are my favorites. Any blade will be easiest to use when it’s sharp, so invest in a sharpener too.
Avoid unnecessary labor
Cut out the cutting: Though traditional around the holidays, large, hard vegetables such as winter squash and sweet potatoes require strength and energy to cut. Instead, consider going with pre-chopped or diced ingredients to cut down on work (pun intended).
Enlist support: Sourdough stuffing is my signature, but cubing stale bread is hard on my hands and arms. Asking for my partner’s help in the prep allows me to still make this dish every year, something I once saw as too hard. Enlisting the help of a friend or family member to take on tricky steps or handle any dishes you’re not attached to making is especially important for those with chronic fatigue. Communicate a clear plan to your cooking companion beforehand to eliminate any confusion that arises from brain fog or other forms of mental fatigue.
Turn to tech: Even the most old-school baker would admit that Microwave Lemon Curd sounds easier than stirring by hand. Your microwave, air fryer, and countertop pizza oven can produce delicious, impressive bakes ranging from cheesecakes to yeasted breads with less physical discomfort on your part. These appliances bake in less time, produce less heat (which can exacerbate fatigue), and are at a more comfortable height than most ovens.
Think way ahead: Start your planning and prep a few months or weeks ahead of the main event. Utilize your freezer, create dry mixes, and start outlining your recipes and schedule.
Make the most of mixes: Sometimes a boxed or dry mix is really the best option, whether it’s for taste, time, or energy conservation. Whether you make your own mixes ahead of time or purchase one at the store, dry mixes are a handy shortcut. Try using mixes to create base recipes that can be riffed on (such as turning brioche mix into festive cranberry orange buns), replicate tricky, time-consuming showstoppers (like holiday panettone), or make holiday favorites (including gingerbread cookies).
Ditch the dishes: Bakeable paper pans, aluminum foil, and parchment paper can make mass holiday baking and cleaning up a breeze, especially in place of heavy, cumbersome dishware. Having fewer pans to wash (and pick up, dry, put away, etc.) may not seem like much, but every drop of energy counts. Reusing parchment and foil, or investing in silicone mats, are ways to stay mindful of the environmental impact of disposables while honoring your access needs.
Even with endless practice, it can be difficult to manage chronic fatigue, especially in the kitchen and around the holidays. While there are strategies, remember that when a crash does eventually happen, it's OK to rest; your kitchen and cookbooks will be there on a better day.
See additional tips to make baking more comfortable: Tips for baking with arthritis and other hand-related chronic pain.
Cover photo by Mark Weinberg; food styling by Liz Neily.