Linda Heggedal-Gust is a big believer in the idea that food can bring people together.

As a family and consumer science teacher the past 28 years, she has seen it happen in her own classroom at Litchfield High School, where students have collaborated over a wide variety of cooking experiences.

So when the students disappeared from that classroom because of COVID-19 pandemic precautions, Heggedal-Gust knew she needed to find a different way to connect. And like any good cook, she improvised, using limited ingredients and the help of a few kitchen assistants to mix up a winning recipe.

She called it “The LHS Cooking Show,” videos featuring Litchfield High School administrators and staff making some of their favorite recipes while being interviewed by Heggedal-Gust about culinary ideas and life in general. Each of the episodes was then shared with students in Heggedahl-Gust’s cooking classes as part of a distance learning lesson.

“The goal was to connect in a different way with the kids,” Heggedal-Gust said. “And food, food brings people together.

“It seemed like a natural to bring some LHS personalities into the mix and inspire kids to cook,” she added. “And also to get some insight into the lives of people that they see in the hallways, typically. They miss that (during distance learning), and we definitely miss that. So this is a way we can increase connectivity.”

Heggedal-Gust recorded eight shows, each featuring different members of the LHS staff, including Principal Jason Michels and his wife Andrea, a health and physical education teacher; Activities Director Justin Brown and his wife, Litchfield Middle School Principal Chelsea Brown; LHS counselors Laura Nelson and Jolene Nelson; and band director David Ceasar and his wife Shelly, a member of the LHS kitchen staff; math teacher Bill Huhner; social studies teacher Darin Swenson; industrial tech teacher John Spanos; and Amber Schindeldecker, special education instructor.

“The LHS Cooking Show was a light-hearted and fun way to connect with students,” Heggedal-Gust said. “I think all the LHS personalities enjoyed doing it too.”

While the featured guests seemed to enjoy themselves, students also commented favorably on the shows, Heggedal-Gust said. Of course, for her, it wasn’t just about having fun.

There’s serious work done in and around the kitchen, a message that Heggedal-Gust tries to instill in all of the students who take one of her culinary classes, even those who might first be attracted to the class because of stories they’ve heard from other students about food created — and eaten — as part of the class.

Heggedal-Gust taught four culinary classes during fall semester, with about 180 students enrolled in all of the classes she teaches. Her culinary classroom includes six kitchens, with students typically working in groups of four at each kitchen.

“I always tell the kids, it’s not just about the food that you get to make and evaluate through eating, there’s a lot more to it,” she said. “It’s about collaboration. You’re working together with somebody else to make the results happen.

“And we talk about your number one task management skill in the world is your ability to get along with others, and you need that in any type of work you do in the future, but especially in family,” she added. “And we work with the character education of ‘got your back,’ type of thing — if you see somebody that is going to have an issue, and whether it’s with your gas oven, stop them, you have to work together.”

She also spends a great deal of time in the culinary classes discussing the importance of sanitation and food safety in the kitchen, along with nutrition and consumerism — the kind of everyday skills that students will need when they’re on their own, as well as making them valuable assistants to their parents and siblings while still in school.

“We have to talk about budgets. Food is a big portion of families’ budgets these days,” Heggedal-Gust said. “And so we try to make economical meals, and we do it efficiently, in 47 minutes (the length of a class).

“We start out with the basics, and then we gravitate to more complicated things,” she said. “It might look like a cookie recipe, and it might taste like a cookie recipe. But there’s a whole bunch that goes into them — resource management, inventory, efficiency, working together.”

And, Heggedal-Gust says with a smile, by the end of the first quarter, those culinary students are making creamy garlic penne with chicken and stir-fried vegetables. And they’re doing it the right way, stir frying the chicken to ensure there’s no pink that could lead to a food-borne illness, preparing the julienned carrots and cut broccoli so they’re ready to go in the pan with the chicken at just the right moment, preparing white sauce for the pasta that pulls the meal together.

“It’s pretty amazing when you see a ninth-grader come in and they’re excited, ecstatic,” she said. “They go right to the kitchen because they know it’s creamy, garlic penne pasta at the end of this.”

That enthusiasm was difficult to generate when schools went to distance learning late last school year. After buildings closed to students in mid-March and stayed closed through the end of the school year, Heggedal-Gust looked for ways to keep students engaged, without the traditional kitchen-lab time.

“First of all, it was really hard,” she said. “I’ve become accustomed to this room, and we couldn’t come back.”

As a self-described “rule follower,” Heggedal-Gust said, she also tried to comply with shelter-in-place guidelines, venturing to the grocery store only when necessary. She inventoried her freezer and pantry, and when her son came home from college, she employed him as a video assistant to record kitchen lessons, which she shared with students for distance learning.

It worked well enough that when Litchfield schools went to hybrid, then distance learning models this past fall, Heggedal-Gust decided to bring back the video lessons, only bigger and better.

“I thought … they need to see more people cooking than just me,” she said. “We need role models that show family relationships. Because a lot of times the kids may or may not have those things, but it gives them a little insight into how other people live.”

Seeing the Michelses and Browns cooking together added the family dimension that took the shows beyond simply following a recipe for cooking, and into the ingredients of family dynamics, Heggedal-Gust said.

“You see how they interact together, because the kids have only seen them separately, typically, in school,” she said. “And they’re a lot of fun together, and how they interact and how they complement one another. Those are seeds for the future and understanding what healthy looks like.”

Some of the featured chefs admitted some brief apprehension about appearing in the cooking videos, but wound up enjoying the experience.

“I think it’s good for the kids, anybody who watches the videos, whether it’s in class or publicly … just to see that’s teachers, principals, whoever is, in a normal light,” Principal Jason Michels said. “I think that resonates with a lot of kids.”

Added Activities Director Justin Brown: “It’s a fun experience for us, because it is something different than us sitting in our offices. And the Browns, we, Chelsea loves to cook. ..."

The menus ranged from burgers on the grill, to appetizers, to hot dish, and the conversation sprinkled among the cooking was almost as varied — and in Heggedal-Gust’s mind — at least as valuable to students.

“With Mr. Huhner (Bill, a math teacher), it’s about adventure when he’s not in school. What is he doing? He’s a sports addict, yes, but he is also a traveler,” Heggedal-Gust said. “He can teach geography just by all the places he’s gone.

“When you talk about Mr. Swenson (Darin, a social studies teacher), oh my goodness, look at he’s navigating teaching full-time with three kids and his wife is a teacher, too,” Heggedal-Gust said. “And he’s helping with homework, as well as doing his own online. That’s a lot of balancing. And how do families do it?”

And that all came together as parts of the lessons taught through “The LHS Cooking Show” during the first semester of this school year. As LHS students head back to the classroom on a hybrid learning schedule, the show is on hiatus — for now. But maybe not for long.

“Future episodes are being discussed,” Heggedal-Gust said.

There are more cooking — and life — lessons to be learned.