Making School Cooking Class Safe for Gluten-Free Students
I will never forget the day—open house at my gluten-free daughter Emma’s school before the beginning of seventh grade. We went to the middle school, picked up her schedule, and then came the news: FACS class would begin in the fall, with the cooking segment. FACS is short for family and consumer sciences. Back in the day, we called it home economics, or home ec.
If you haven’t encountered this class with your gluten-free child and your school system offers it, it usually is part of the middle school curriculum or offered as an elective in high school. The goal is to give children a base knowledge of the kitchen—utensils, measurements and how to follow a recipe, make some basic foods, and clean up afterward.
As you can imagine, immersing your gluten-free child into this situation can be a little nerve-wracking for parents and even more difficult for the child. With a little extra legwork, FACS class can be made educational, fun and safe.
Cooking up gluten free in class
Eleven-year-old McKenna Juhnke of Fargo, North Dakota, was diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago. She just finished her first FACS class. Her brother, Austin, 15, also has celiac disease and went through FACS class—both did it successfully.
Their teacher provided a gluten-free alternative (flour or another ingredient) to make each recipe. “I always have an open line of communication with all teachers,” the kids’ mother, Stacey Juhnke, said about working with her children’s schools. She tells the teachers her children have celiac disease and have to eat a gluten-free diet. Juhnke made an arrangement with the FACS teacher. “If they couldn’t get the gluten-free ingredients they needed, then I would buy them. But [the school] had no problem buying them.”
The Juhnke children were able to have a successful gluten-free experience in FACS class because the teacher assigned one of the kitchens to be strictly gluten free. A few other kids in the class would cook with them and make only gluten-free foods. McKenna said she always tried the food she cooked and felt safe eating it.
Our experience was very different. When I emailed Emma’s teacher after open house (we were unable to reach her during the event), I explained Emma’s needs. The teacher suggested Emma sit in the library during the first lab, which involved baking cookies. While I didn’t like that idea, it was so early in the year I acquiesced, and Emma made her gluten-free cookies at home.
At the same time, I started working with the school’s 504 Plan coordinator to put a 504 Plan in place for Emma as soon as possible. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education.” If your child’s school receives federal funds, the 504 Plan will allow a child with special needs to have generally the same experience in class as everyone else. In Emma’s case, that meant having access to gluten-free ingredients in FACS class.
The 504 Plan was finalized after Emma’s first cookie-baking lab. In the plan, I requested the teacher talk to me about the recipes before every cooking experience so we could figure out how to make them gluten free. It also mentioned not using wooden utensils or used cutting boards, or sharing colanders and toasters, to prevent cross-contamination.
I also offered to buy ingredients for the teacher and made her aware our district nutrition department had access to gluten-free ingredients and said it was willing to help.
Unfortunately, the teacher didn’t contact me to prepare for any of the cooking labs. Inevitably, I would always call when Emma came home from school and told me she had a cooking lab the next day. The teacher didn’t buy ingredients for her, never asked me to supply any, and was fine with Emma cooking gluten-filled meals and “just not eating it.” I tried to make it better, but the entire experience was less than successful.
In the end, Emma decided she would not take any more FACS classes.
Making gluten free happen in class
FACS class doesn’t have to be a negative experience for gluten-free students. But it does take good communication between student, parent and teacher, said Kim Graybill of McAlisterville, Pennsylvania, who has taught FACS for 27 years. Her website, familyconsumersciences.com, offers ideas and advice for other FACS teachers.
Graybill has had two gluten-free students over the years, plus another with a wheat allergy. She says student safety is a priority.
When she learns about a student’s health issue, Graybill said, she meets with the parents, student and nurse to fully understand it. “Obviously, you want to know what they can and can’t eat,” Graybill said. She looks for recipes that are easy to make with a gluten-free substitution, and she usually will pick up the gluten-free ingredients.
Parents also should be available to talk about the class and any gluten-free needs that might arise, Graybill said. A good working relationship with the family helps in case the teacher has questions. If it is not an easy gluten-free recipe fix, she works with the parents to figure out how to make it work. “I consider parents to be the experts,” she said. In the past, parents have provided both advice and certain ingredients when needed.
Graybill said having a gluten-free student in class also offers the opportunity to teach all students about managing food allergies. Even if the students don’t know anyone with a food allergy, they could encounter food allergies themselves, or those of a loved one, later in life.
While Graybill does what she can to make the class work for gluten-free students, what if your child’s teacher isn’t so accommodating? Juhnke said, “I would go to the principal and see about getting the child into another class. Come up with some alternative so your child can have the full FACS experience.”
Other considerations include getting the nurse involved to explain to the teacher why this is medically necessary. If you already have a 504 Plan for your child, make sure it is up to date and covers cooking in FACS class. If you don’t have one, start one, and involve the plan coordinator in working with the FACS teacher.
“Sitting out of class has never been an option in my classroom,” Graybill said. But if the food allergy is severe, “I think I would err on the side of caution and have the student sit out if there were no other way around it.”
Whether parents and teachers agree on the full class experience, doing some labs at home or a different option, in the end it is about making sure your child receives a good education. “I want kids to have basic skills,” said Graybill. “The process is more important than the tasting.” Deciphering ingredient labels, learning how to substitute ingredients, and understanding cross-contamination also are vital.
These skills might be even more important for someone who is gluten free, she said. “If these kids need to make their own food, they are going to have to learn their way around the kitchen.” GF
Amy Leger is the family editor for Gluten-Free Living. Her website is thesavvyceliac.com. She recently moved from Minnesota to Colorado with her husband and two daughters.