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Back pain shouldn't stop you from cooking at home. Here's how to adapt


Cooking can be a physical activity - bending, lifting, twisting just to boil a pot of pasta. For people with back pain, it can also require a lot of wincing and moaning. NPR's Pien Huang tells us about a new cookbook with recipes designed to place less strain on the cook's back.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: It's called "The Healthy Back Kitchen," and it's published by America's Test Kitchen, that cookbook empire. It's for people like Julie Bozzo Cote. She's had back and neck pain for the past 15 years that seriously limits her ability to cook. A typical dinner for her and her family is...

JULIE BOZZO COTE: Frozen pizza. It's a lot of frozen pizza and salad or mac and cheese and salad or angel hair and salad.

HUANG: Cote works for America's Test Kitchen. She wasn't involved with making this book, but she got an early copy to review. She wants to cook more, but with back pain, it seems out of reach.

COTE: Chopping up a chicken for soup, which is something I love to do, or for just a weeknight, roast chicken is very daunting - thinking about trying to use that knife to get leverage and standing and pushing.

HUANG: One possible solution is to get a small chicken from the grocery store spatchcocked by the butcher. It's one of many suggestions from the book to reduce the strain that cooking puts on your back. Along with clear recipes and glossy food photos, there are lessons in spinal anatomy. It was written with Dr. Griffin Baum, a spine surgeon at Northwell Health in New York City. He says it addresses two realities of life.

GRIFFIN BAUM: All human beings have to eat. So you have to eat. And all human beings will have back pain. That's just, like, part of - like, there's no person who goes their whole life without back pain.

HUANG: The book speaks to people with chronic back pain, often caused by arthritis in the neck and spine. That can't be cured, Baum says. It can only be managed.

BAUM: So that's the approach that we have, which is not, like, how do you eat better to cure back pain? No, it's how do you make modifications in the kitchen? How do you approach the act of cooking and the act of eating in order to manage your back pain?

HUANG: You do it by prepping ingredients while seated, using a rolling cart to schlep tools around the kitchen. Baum says they spent weeks figuring out how to load an oven without bending.

BAUM: You know, we ended up coming up with what I think is pretty cool, on, like, you know, how do you pull out the rack when it's, like, searing hot, 350 degrees, and using tongs? And how do you set up a stool, and what's the right size stool, and how do you set something on there?

HUANG: Baum says standing for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time can aggravate back pain, so the recipes have built-in breaks. On good days, you can chop extra onions and freeze them. On bad days, you can be extra gentle with yourself and even toast nuts in the microwave. This could be useful for people with other conditions. Dr. Linda Xu is a primary care physician who teaches patients to cook at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.

LINDA XU: I think the same idea of, OK, let's simplify this recipe. Let's, you know, give you kind of lighter, easier-to-use cooking equipment. Those sorts of streamlining things would apply in many cases, actually.

HUANG: Where people are recovering from surgery or dealing with mobility issues - anyone who struggles with the stamina to cook. For Cote, the book offers more than just tips and recipes. It gives her hope that she can cook a healthy meal and still have the energy to do other things.

COTE: So we can have dinner and then go outside and play or be able to go on a bike ride before dinner and then quickly put it together, and, again, not just be frozen pizza.

HUANG: Today, her neck pain is pretty bad, but she plans to spend 15 minutes chopping onions and leeks this morning. She'll take a long rest from standing before pulling together a lush, creamy cauliflower soup for dinner.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOROTHY ASHBY'S "COME LIVE WITH ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.