Bright light & right tools: 4 cooking tips for the visually impaired

January 31 2013 | Guest post by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

For most of my life I've been afraid to cook. I'm great at baking because, for the most part, I don't have to see very well to do it. No, literally, I only see out of one eye. But with cooking, you can legitimately kill someone if you don't do it right. So I live in fear of myself in the kitchen — until now.

I'm visually impaired, and teaching myself how to cook has been one of the things I have decided to do this year to make myself a better person. I've done a few things to make my kitchen more blind-friendly than it was to begin with, and as a result I've managed to do things like roast a chicken for the first time, have it turn out perfectly, and only have one minor panic attack about it. (Seriously, they should write on the recipes that some chickens come with pop out timers. I didn't know what it was and was afraid it was going to melt into the skin of my chicken. Give a girl some warning!)

1. Lighting

We outfitted the apartment with some new lights in the kitchen. This was the biggest and most important step, because without it I really couldn't see anything at all in my kitchen, and was nervous I'd cut myself.

Small halogen lamps for under-counter lighting.
Small halogen lamps for under-counter lighting.
When we first moved in the kitchen had a single overhead light and two dark windows. At night it was a challenge to see anything in the kitchen at all. What we did was call in a friend who is a set designer and convinced him (with a bottle of bourbon and food) to let there be light. He set small halogen lamps underneath our cabinets so there was a lot of light on the chopping and cleaning areas. Then he set a three lamp head bar on a shelf above the kitchen table so that I could see my food while eating. It turned out to be brighter in there even with the original overhead light unlit.

2. Getting the right tools

On my wedding registry I registered for things that would help me feel more at ease in the kitchen. My vegetable chopper makes it so that when I need to mince things, or dice ingredients that are too slippery and I might chop myself, I don't have to.

Another simple one was getting clear prep bowls. In this way I can sort out everything I need for a single recipe without getting everything mixed up, and easily find things in the right order as I drop them into the pot.

Also, a large print meat thermometer was key. Even better would be if I had one that was backlit, but we didn't see one of those in the store.

I also use brightly colored plastic spatulas and spoons, because if I can see them better, I don't a) lose them, or b) find it difficult to lift things off a hot pan.

3. Using recipes

Slow cooking recipes are better than quick. It's much easier for me to slowly pay attention to something over time and recognize when it's done with timers, or with meat thermometers, than it is with something I need to sit on and watch carefully (except for shrimp because shrimp CHANGE COLOR!).

I've gone so far as to put the word out among my friends that I'd like them to send me recipes they like to use. Why? Because it takes away a lot of the struggle when I can look at a step by step guide for ease of cooking. Everyone kept telling me that cooking should be about improvisation, but for me it's about figuring out how it all works to begin with!

4. Conquering fear

Seriously, this was the biggest one for me. I had to learn not to be afraid of the kitchen, so what did I do? I roasted a chicken. A whole one. By myself. Then I made soup with the carcass. And both results were delicious!

I'm still working on things — like how not to freak out if a pan is hot, and how to make things tasty — but the learning process is on. And I'm slowly but surely becoming a good cook. All you need is a little red wine and some courage.

  1. You rock with your awesome cooking self! If this means I can now send you recipes: I SHALL NOW SEND YOU RECIPES!

    Things I found that make my life easier in the kitchen:

    a) Prep bowls: YES. I use tons of them, and they really help when I've got them all lined up in the order they'll get dumped into the pan.

    b) Color-Coded Cutting Boards: The green one's for veggies, the red one's for meats, and the blue one's for fishies. Easy-Peasy.

    c) Clear vacu-top canisters (like those OXO ones). We've got rice, sugar, flour, and coffee in them right now. I'm awaiting the day when we have more pantry space to get more for beans and such.

    1 agrees
    • 1) YES SEND ME THINGS I CAN COOK!

      2) I like the idea of color coded cutting boards for multiple reasons – one of them being that then the cutting board doesn't blend in with the wood counter. Hmm. I think this may need to be a new addition to my kitchen!

      3) My canisters actually have French words on them telling me what's inside!

  2. Elsa – Loved your posts on OBB, love this post. I have a lot of the same fears and issues in the kitchen. There's nothing I hate cooking more than raw chicken. Although, ground meat also isn't so bad because it changes like shrimp. The crockpot has been a great friend and confidence builder for me.

  3. YES! This is me, too!

    I'm partially sighted – bad in one eye, pretty much blind in the other – and my husband's been trying to teach me how to cook.

    The fear's certainly the worst part to get past. I'm terrified of using a frying pan, chopping anything at any speed other than glacial, and I'm just not confident telling whether meat's cooked through.

    I'm getting better though; so far I've been able to make pasta with (a jar of) pesto and bacon sandwiches by myself. I've also been able to make bacon to put into pasta. Bacon's good for me because it seems pretty obvious when it's cooked (changes colour) and shouldn't kill anyone if I've slipped up a little (certainly with smoked bacon).

    I'm helping out more with cooking, but I've still got to work up more skills and confidence to fly solo. That said, with a husband who's an ex-chef, I don't have to worry too much for now. And he says that I make a killer Pot Noodle (ramen) 😀

    2 agree
    • The reason why I've had to learn how to cook is because my husband happens to be an overworked attorney – and we're trying to eat better. Otherwise I'd probably continue to run screaming from my kitchen.

      And can we please be friends? I have no other visually impaired friends and I feel like I'm missing out on vital opportunities for sharing tools and coping mechanisms.

      • Hi Elsa!
        I would LOVE to know which recipes you enjoy cooking! I have been designing a chemical free barrier free homestead that is friendly to all! I have Stevens Johnson Syndrome which is not friendly to my eyes. Write me when you have a chance!
        Christine

    • In terms of red meat, theres a nifty non visual trick you can use, and it only requires your hand.
      Find the squishy part between your pointer finger and your thumb. With your hand relaxed, give it a poke. This is what rare steak should feel like if you poke it with some tongs. Make a soft fist, medium rare; tight fist, well done. Not an exact science, but its pretty good.

      2 agree
      • I've heard the same trick, except rather than making fists, touching the thumb with the index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers of the same hand in turn to feel the varied levels of "done-ness". I've yet to ask my grill-master hubs regarding its accuracy, but it seems pretty close to me!

        1 agrees
        • This trick works for beef steaks exceptionally well in my experience. Helped me make the awful switch from gas to electric.

          1 agrees
  4. This is an awesome post. Though my vision is ok I have really poor proprioception (awareness of where your body/limbs are in space) so some of this works for me too. I'm intreuiged by your veggie chopper, it sounds like a good thing to me (who has sliced her thumb along with a pepper so deeply I needed a stitch). What's it like?

      • How is the farberware hard to clean? One of the reasons I like the oxo is that it's relatively safe for me to take apart and clean by myself.

        • It's easy to take apart, but for some reason I can never get little bits of portobello and other things I chop finely off the blades. I think it's because the Farberware's blades have less space between them, maybe?

    • Proprioception? OH MY GOD THERE'S A WORD FOR THIS?

      My day got so much better. Now I have fancy words to trot out instead of just saying "I run into walls a lot because I have no idea where I am, and that's why I'm covered in bruises."

      3 agree
      • If it helps, it's also called "kinesthetic sense" or "kinesthesia". I remember learning in psych about people who had gotten injuries that damaged that part of the brain, and they could no longer do things like, say, picking up a glass without looking directly at it and their hand.

  5. There is nothing wrong with being a recipe cook! I love picking out a few recipes for the week and making sure that I have the ingredients on hand. It makes dinner time much less stressful. Over time, you'll probably be comfortable enough to change some things around, adding extra veggies or taking out spices, but for now recipes are your friend!

    7 agree
    • I've been cooking for years and I rarely freestyle in the kitchen. I have wonderful cookbooks full of foolproof recipes, so why not use them? It saves money, too–by making a list of recipes and ingredients, we know exactly what to buy. Viva recipes!

      3 agree
      • Yes, I am a converted and devoted recipe-follower. I find it saves a lot of money and time. It requires planning ahead but when you've already got the ingredients for chicken piccata, you don't have to stand in the kitchen wondering what to make after a long day at work.
        .
        And crock-pots + freezers are a seriously awesome combo. Afraid of crock-pot recipes because you're a single or duo and you can't eat 6 gallons of chili? Freeze them leftovers, yo! In suitably-sized portions? Hella yes. Future-self will thank you for the ready-made meals.

        4 agree
        • And that right there is why I want to get a crock pot. So much time saved for days when I'm busy writing and can't be bothered to leave my desk to feed us.

    • I only cook from recipes. Even if I've made the same thing 8 million time and KNOW how to make it, I still drag out the book and follow the steps. I have alot of anxiety about cooking and rarely do it as is- my husband is a 'little of this, little of that, I wonder what I could add this time, oh well we're out of _____ so I'll just substitute ______' kind of chef and I am a measure it all out down to the gram, follow the steps exactly kind of person. I do change things around (food allergies require it) but I usually do it exactly the same way every time.

  6. This is such a great post!

    Pro tip: when you're mincing things (such as garlic) with a chef's knife, have your non-dominant hand on top of the blade instead of on the cutting board. Use a rocking motion when cutting so that the tip of the knife doesn't really leave the cutting board. You can then use the side of the knife to move things around on the cutting board instead of your hand.

    #2: If you need to hold onto what you're chopping (ex. a carrot), hold the food with your fingertips pointing downward so that the tips are parallel to the blade, instead of sticking out. This greatly reduces the risk of cutting your fingers.

    Have fun cooking!

    4 agree
  7. Even as a fully-sighted person, I can't get over my love of digital food thermometers that a) have a little probe that is connected to the actual readable part by a heat-resistant wire, and b) have an alarm that goes off when it reaches whatever temperature you set it to.

    So you can jab a piece of meat with the probe, set the alarm to, say, 140 degrees, pop the meat in the oven, close the oven door, set the main part of the thermometer on the counter, and just leave it be until the alarm goes off! I love it!

    1 agrees
    • We have a digital kitchen thermometer and its AMAZING, with the probe and alarm when its done. I no longer cook by time, instead by temp. It makes a difference!

      • I hate to rain on the digital thermometer parade, but we've tried a couple and never had them work right. They often went off long before the meat was ready and were really picky about where the probe was stuck. We gave up on 2 different ones (can't remember the brands though…).
        Another thought: a steamer might be useful too – throw in veggies or meat or fish or rice, water in the bottom, turn timer and go. We have the black and decker flavour steamer (or somehting like that).

        1 agrees
  8. Congratulations! That's so awesome!

    My boyfriend is visually impaired, and in the last few years he's really gotten into cooking – and he is GREAT at it! So I love this article.

    Under counter lighting is SO key – most kitchens are really deficient in that department, but luckily it's usually possible to add some.

    I love the bright spatula tip – that's the one thing we haven't tried, but it makes total sense.

    Probably the crappiest thing for my boyfriend when he's cooking is bumping his head on the hood over the stove. I guess we should try taping foam to it or something.

    Thank you so much for this article, and rock on with your awesome chef self!

    1 agrees
    • The hood of the stove, opening the cabinets and forgetting they're open and smacking into them because I have no peripheral vision… Yeah, that's something which happens to me too. We also have a new rule that came after I'd submitted this article – I have to talk when I pick up hot things or sharp things. Scariest thing ever was burning my husband with a pan.

      Cheers to your boyfriend on his cooking success – and thanks!

  9. Hurrah I'm so glad to see another of your posts! I too am legally blind and have never enjoyed cooking much, but my new husband is a chef so he's been very patient and we've been trying new recipes together to see what works best for my comfort level. I also find the right tools incredibly important. My parents were nervous about showing me cooking methods when I was younger, but they had to because I was the eldest and had to make supper often. So the first time my Dad shows me how to cut an apple he gets out a butter knife from the drawer, "So she doesn't cut herself." he tells my mother. Thank goodness that was short lived. I find that knowing the proper se for my tools has been very helpful, colour-coding, turning off the fluorescent light and turning on the halogens and the stove light – something I always forgot at home – and having a well-organized spice cupboard so when I'm feeling adventurous about adding a little of something, I can 1: find it, 2: not dump it over by grabbing it by the wrong end. If I come across a recipe I've found particularly helpful I'll definitely send it! Yay blind solidarity

    1 agrees
  10. My dad is blind and my mom is legally blind, so I've seen a lot of interesting kitchen products. Independent Living Aids is kind of pricey sometimes, but they have a lot of cooking products. Some of the stuff I saw and liked were the measuring spoons and cups that are color coded and the bagel guillotine. Their website is http://www.independentliving.com and they also have a catalog.

    1 agrees
  11. Congratulations on your cooking! Nothing wrong with cooking with a recipe – I do that too, I rarely freestyle in the kitchen. The BF on the other hand – I have almost never seen him use a recipe.

    I do love my crockpot a lot though, it comes in super handy and all you really have to do is throw a bunch of stuff in it (adventurous is ok here, like if you need to get rid of some meat and veggies, throw it all in there with a sauce of some kind and turn it on) and stir once in awhile. Then dinner is done, and clean up is a breeze, especially if you get the kind that the insert can come out and go straight into the dishwasher.

  12. I am vision impaired, too, but I bake a ton. Bake my own bread, make and decorate cakes etc. Fortunately for me, my mother and grandmother were cooks for a living and I learned to cook before I got Macular Degeneration. The crockpot is a life saver, I have tons of recipes. How do I send them to you? I would totally be your vision impaired buddy!
    (Oh, I found your website! Off to read!)

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