On a recent Monday morning, high school students, ages 18 to 21, sit patiently around the table taking turns reading recipe ingredients for the day’s menus.

Fruit smoothies, personal pizzas and chocolate banana pudding are the featured recipes, and the class is eager to get started.

“In the fruit smoothie recipe, we’re not going to use ice cubes because we are using frozen fruit,” says Kate McDonald, nutrition education coordinator for Second Harvest Food Bank and instructor for the program’s Cooking Matters classes.

“We’ll also be using Greek yogurt because it has more protein and is thicker,” she adds.

McDonald, of New Orleans, has been meeting weekly with the students from the Lafayette Parish School System Community Skills Program, which offers training to special education students with intellectual and/or physical disabilities. The classes are held in the Daigle Hall kitchen at the Affiliated Blind of Louisiana headquarters in Lafayette.

Usually, Cooking Matters classes, which run for six weeks, target low-income individuals, groups and families, teaching them how to prepare easy, nutritious meals. The class also shares information about selecting healthier foods to eat, knife skills, food safety and reading nutrition labels.

Jennifer Huggins, instructor for the Community Skills Program, heard about the cooking classes while she and the students were volunteering at the food bank in Lafayette and thought it would be ideal for them.

“Some of these kids will be living on their own soon,” says Huggins, whose students are exiting seniors from Carencro High, Comeaux High, Acadiana High and Lafayette High schools. “This is a great way to teach them cooking skills and healthy eating habits.”

The course is not a lecture format. During the cooking demonstrations, everyone has a job.

As she whirls between the students and their cooking stations, McDonald explains, “You learn better when chopping along.”

Although cooking is the favorite activity of the students, McDonald drops in nutritional lessons during the class.

“It’s not rocket science,” McDonald says. “It’s basic information, but a lot of people don’t know it.”

During the “blubber burger” lesson, students gathered fast-food menus from area restaurants and read the fat grams contained in the meals.

“Four grams are in a teaspoon. So 40 grams of fat equals 10 teaspoons of lard, or three tablespoons, plus one teaspoon,” McDonald explains.“When you see and measure out those teaspoons, you get a visual on how much fat is in that hamburger.”

McDonald says she encourages the students to decide how to make the meals healthier with just a little modification. Not adding cheese or mayonnaise or selecting a turkey burger all cuts down on the fat content.

“We can’t all eat tofu and lentils everyday, but we can have foods that meet our tastes and with some modifications can be healthier for you,” she says.

The students have been taught how to make a list and stick to a budget and also how to cut up a whole chicken, which is more cost effective than purchasing one already cut up.

Julian Comeaux, 20, says he’s learned a lot during the class.

“I learned how to compare the unit prices on the shelf and how to look for sales,” he says.

It was 20-year-old Hazey Gary who wanted the chocolate banana pudding recipe.

“I’m enjoying the class,” she says. “It’s really fun.”

Some of the weekly take-home challenges for the students included:

  • Make a recipe with foods from at least three food groups. Eat from all five food groups each day.
  • Show a friend or family member how to use a knife safely.
  • Convince a friend or family member that healthy eating is important. Make a pact to work on eating healthier together.

The students celebrated their last class on May 12 with a few more recipes, games, a cooking contest and, finally, a graduation.

The students will be able to keep their Cooking Matters softbound textbooks, which contain all of the recipes they mastered during class.

The Lafayette Cooking Matters program is funded by a grant from the Pugh Family Foundation.

McDonald, who has been traveling from New Orleans to Lafayette to conduct the classes, says she hopes to provide more cooking programs for communities from Lake Charles to Baton Rouge — funding and manpower permitting.

“I really get so much satisfaction in what I’m doing,” she says.

To volunteer to help with the Cooking Matters program or inquire about taking a class, call McDonald at (504) 729-2840 or email her at kmcdonald@secondharvest.org.