Hosting an Exchange Student Gluten-Free

Is it difficult to host an exchange student on a gluten-free diet

Absolutely not, according to Joanne Nichols. This recently-retired high school teacher has been gluten-free for 27 years due to celiac disease. And now she and her husband are happily hosting two students with the same condition.

Creativity mural at schoolLetizia (Italy) and Berta (Spain) dreamed of spending a year at an American high school, living with a real American host family. Celiac disease almost stopped them from making their dreams come true.

Expert Gluten-Free Tips and Tricks

Joanne is a specialist in home economics. This makes her the perfect person to share gluten-free tips and tricks for any family wishing to host students (or simply live) gluten-free. Stay tuned for Joanne's very special gluten-free flour, granola and banana bread recipes as well as top gluten-free cookbook recommendations and more.

Gluten-Free-Products-1Hosting gluten-free does not require investing in expensive, gluten-free packed or frozen foods. These can be occasional, fun treats, but eating gluten-free is all about simple, real foods.

Hosting Gluten-Free Students

It all started on Facebook. Joanne couldn't believe her eyes. ICES needed families for three foreign exchange students with celiac disease. "I felt terrible these students would miss out (on a year in the USA) just due to diet." 

Arrival with foster kids tooLetizia and Berta arrived in Michigan and were met by the Nichols' and their foster children. It was the start of an adventure for students and host family alike.

In the year 2000, Joanne and her husband thoroughly enjoyed hosting Roger, a college student from Australia. "He is part of our family," she states with affection and pride. So, even though she hadn't planned to host during her first year of retirement, it felt like the right thing to do.

And Joanne offered to host all three gluten-free exchange students! This was not possible. Unfortunately, two's the limit. And that's the rule. So, Letizia (Italy) and Berta (Spain) were the two lucky young ladies who landed in Saginaw, Michigan with the Nichols.

Easy Gluten-Free Living

"The (gluten-free) diet is very easy," says Joanne. "Cook meat plain with no seasonings. Cook vegetables plain and let the student add salt and pepper, herbs and spices." It's as simple as that!

Helping preserve vegetablesBerta and Letizia helping to preserve vegetables and learning about life in rural America, living on a farm, participating in daily tasks.

"It's just simple cooking. And then fruits and salads. Some salad dressings contain gluten, so you have to check the ingredients." And the same goes for seasonings, which may contain even just traces of gluten. But it really is as easy as that: enjoy plain, simple, real foods.

Note that some people who cannot tolerate gluten (those with celiac disease are one example), must avoid cross-contamination. This means that their food must not come into contact with gluten. Joanne, for example, not only suffers from celiac disease, but is also allergic to wheat and rice and cannot even tolerate airborne sources of such allergens.

Inexpensive Gluten-Free Living

"You don't need to invest in gluten-free frozen meals," Joanne points out. "Those are expensive." And so are many other specialty, gluten-free products. Just one more reason to keep it simple!

Gluten-Free Desserts

However, Joanne enjoys adding a creative touch to gluten-free living. She puts a wide variety of simple foods on the table in her home. And she enjoys making gluten-free desserts of all kinds: cider donuts, fruit pies of all kinds, cakes and cookies...

baking gluten-free-1Letizia and Berta love eating gluten-free desserts, and also learning how to make them. However, they quickly learned to limit desserts - even gluten-free - to special occasions. 

"My husband has a sweet tooth, so he has to have dessert after every meal." Letizia and Berta loved first. Probably right up to the gluten-free gingerbread house at Christmas. "One of the girls said, "I'm not eating dessert anymore," laughs Joanne. "They were both gaining weight."

Positive Gluten-Free Feedback

In the midst of a fun-filled year with Letizia and Berta, what is one of Joanne's most memorable moments so far? A compliment from Letizia. "You're a good cooker!" was the adorable comment this host mom will cherish forever.

Letizia corn on the cobLetizia loves her corn on the cob. She also loves Joanne's cooking in general and appreciates how easy it is to eat gluten-free in the USA.

In fact, both girls are thrilled with food and eating this year in the USA - living with the Nichols. "They feel they don't have to worry about anything they eat," Joanne reports with pleasure. "They've talked about opening up gluten-free restaurants in their countries. And there's a need for that."

making tortilla de patata BERTA SPAINBerta made a naturally gluten-free Spanish omelette to share her culture with her host family. If you'd like to try this tasty dish, check out our Spanish omelette post (and consider hosting a student from Spain, of course!)

Gluten-Free Travel

But what happens when a gluten-free family leaves the safety of their gluten-free home? "In all our travels we haven't had any problem," assures Joanne. And once again, she speaks from experience.

Picazzos Italian Kitchen Gluten Free! - Sedona AZ

The Nichols have travelled with Letizia and Berta to Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina, as well as Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam in Nevada and New Orleans in Louisiana. Eating gluten-free all the way? Absolutely!

Eating alligator in New Orleans

These adventurous teenagers were happy to try alligator meat in New Orleans. 

Berta and Letizia have thoroughly enjoyed eating out in the USA. As they travelled from state to state, they delighted in gluten-free menu options at one restaurant after another. No doubt this has inspired their dream of going home to open GF restaurants.

Bryce Canyon there are no wordsBryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon left both girls speechless. "There are no words," they concluded. They have treasured each trip and every chance to see the USA.

Fun Hosting Gluten-Free Students

But hosting students with celiac disease or gluten intolerance/allergy is not all about food and eating. Hosting is an international exchange. It is about sharing cultures. It's about building bonds between people from around the world.

matching pajamasLetizia, Berta, host sister and boyfriend in matching pajamas for Christmas. One more fun, American-style experience in the USA.

Traveling with the Nichols has given Letizia and Berta a chance to see the USA. But it's also a bonding experience for the whole family. And that includes Roger, from Australia. Today he living with his American wife in Georgia.

Hiking with Roger from AustraliaThe girls enjoyed visiting their Australian "host brother", Roger, in Georgia where he settled with his American wife after attending college in the USA.

"We feel like we have two more family members," Joanne explains. "That's why we took the girls to meet Roger, our other exchange student. They really hit it off. They'll stay in touch." And that makes the Nichols a truly multinational family blending cultures from the USA, Australia, Italy and Spain into one big international tribe.

Gluten-Free Fun at Home

Berta and Letizia have experienced a radical change in the USA. They left urban lifestyles with easy access to public transportation to land in rural America. "We live in a small farming community," Joanne notes. "We go everywhere by car, not biking or walking or taking public transportation. Even the mall is a 20-25 minutes drive."

Girls with halloween pillow casesHalloween and trick-or-treating with the pillowcases the girls learned to make thanks to a host mom who loves to sew.

In this way, Berta and Letizia are just like so many teenagers from around the world who leave big cities to live with American families in small towns and rural areas. In fact, even those who land in suburbs usually find they depend on cars to get around. Either their host family gives them a ride, or they need to learn how to arrange one. And this often comes as a surprise...

Letizia Italy - sewing pajamasLetizia learning to sew, and learning to keep busy at home. Both girls made their first pillowcase before progressing to (matching) pajamas. 

So just like most other exchange students, Joanne's girls are learning how to embrace rural living, American-style. This means learning how to chill at home, and slowly coming to appreciate why so many Americans love living in rural areas.

Berta with halloween pillow casePillowcase made by Berta. This was an achievement worth writing home about. One of so many new experiences in the USA.

Joanne loves to sew and offered to share her expertise with her girls. Much to her delight, they have loved learning how to make their own clothes. And, not only were they learning how to sew, but also how to enjoy life at home in the countryside.

Letizia modeling the pajamasLetizia modelling her brand new, homemade pajamas.

Even a simple task like ironing clothes has been a learning experience for the girls. This is an example of how easy and fun it is to entertain exchange students by sharing common, everyday tasks and skills that might be new to them.

Learning to ironBerta and Letizia learning how to iron together. Proof that a simple task can be an interesting, useful, new experience.

Gluten-Free Recipes

Time now to accept Joanne's kind offer to share some of her favorite gluten-free recipes. Are you looking for a gluten-free flour that tastes like the real thing? How about a delicious, healthy, gluten-free granola? Or top-notch GF banana bread?

pexels-alleksana-4114141Joanne's gluten-free banana bread is easy to make and deliciously gluten-free. Keep scrolling for this recipe and more.

Remember, Joanne is not only gluten-free herself, but also a former home economics teacher. She has the experience, and a knack, for discovering and developing excellent recipes (gluten-free or otherwise). 

Joanne's Gluten-Free Flour Recipe


1 cup rice flour (or substitute with cassava, amaranth, or almond flour)

1 cup cornstarch

1 cup tapioca

1 teaspoon potato flour

8-12 ounces powdered milk (buttermilk or regular)*

*This gives the flour a nutty, wheat-like flavor.


Mix thoroughly and use for baking cakes, cookies, pastries and more.

Joanne's Gluten-Free Banana Bread Recipe

pexels-polina-tankilevitch-5419302 (1) (1)This gluten-free banana bread recipe is simple, quick and easy. Is it too good to be gluten-free? Try it for yourself and see!

1/2 cup shortening

3/4 cup sugar

1 egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup mashed bananas (approximately 3 bananas)

1 cup nuts (optional)


Cream the sugar and shortening. Add the egg and beat well. Mix all dry ingredients together and add to egg mixture. Stir in bananas, lemon juice and nuts. For banana bread, pour into greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 60-70 minutes. For muffins, line muffin tins with cupcake paper, fill each 2/3 full and bake for 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and frost (muffins) with cream cheese frosting.

Joanne's Gluten-Free Granola

pexels-polina-tankilevitch-3872429 (1) (1)
As Joanne says, "This is my gluten-free granola recipe that I have to quadruple to last one week!" One more tasty way to eat without wheat or other sources of gluten.

2 cups gluten-free oatmeal (Bob's Red Mill Old Fashioned Rolled Oats Whole Grain available on

1 cup pecans

1 cup cashews

1/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

a pinch of salt


Mix the oats and nuts. Place mixture in an oiled, deep-dish baking pan. In a separate bowl, combine the oil, syrup, spice and salt and pour over the oat/nut mixture, then mix everything together. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake 15 minutes. Mix and bake 15 more minutes. Shut off the oven and let the granola cool in the oven.

A note from Joanne:

"This is eaten for dessert over gluten-free ice cream (ice cream that does not contain natural flavorings). We only use Lactose Free Breyer's Vanilla or homemade ice cream. Natural flavorings can contain gluten. Also the food coloring annatto can cause problems with celiac or gluten sensitive diets."

Best Gluten-Free Cookbooks

Which are the very best gluten-free cookbooks according to our gluten-free veteran home economics teacher?

Here are Joanne's top three favorites:

First place goes to the "How Can It Be Gluten-Free Cookbook by America's Test Kitchens".

How can it be gluten free cookbook (1)

Then, two "regular" cookbooks tie for second place. Both offer excellent recipes and ideas for gluten-free eating. Check out Keto Meal Prep and 5 Ingredient, Semi-Homemade Meals, both by Flavcity.

Hosting Gluten-Free Bottomline

What's the bottom line when hosting gluten-free? 

It's as easy and inexpensive as eating simple, real foods - and, in some cases, avoiding cross-contamination, to protect the student's food from exposure to gluten.

ScrapbookingBerta and Letizia scrapbooking their amazing year in the USA. The memories they create will impact them for a lifetime.

But there's another bottom line...

Youth exchange is about much more than food. Youth exchange is an experience that changes the world one student and one host family at a time. It's about sharing lives, comparing cultures and creating international relationships that will last a lifetime.

USS Alabama - Mobile AlabamaBerta and Letizia with the USS Alabama in Mobile Alabama. One of many exciting all-American experiences.

Are you interested in hosting an exchange student? ICES sponsors students from around the world. Each one is different, but they all share the same dream: live and study in the USA like a real American teenager, with a real American family, just like yours!

For more information, contact ICES.


Tags: Host Families, Host an exchange student, Gluten-Free

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