“Healthy alternatives,” says Kashia Cave, founder of My City Kitchen, “that’s the key.”
Providing healthier food options for kids has been the goal since Cave began offering classes at My City Kitchen in June of 2009. It’s not just as a place for kids to learn how to cook though, it’s somewhere they can learn to be healthier individuals.
“We know what kids like,” she says, referring to the hamburgers, French fries, and ice creams that make up a big part of almost any kid’s diet, “and we can’t change that. We just want to make it healthier for them.”
Cave, a mother of two teenage boys herself, came to the United States in the mid-1990s after growing up on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. There, alongside parents, grandparents, aunts and cousins, she developed a passion for cooking. It was more than food preparation though, it was a way of bringing the family together, she says. That’s another part of what she tries to bring to My City Kitchen.
Samples, ingredients, and recipes of everything she cooks with the students get sent home to parents for them to try.
“Food is always about bringing people together,” Cave says. “Even if it’s just getting the kids to help set the table, that’s something.”
Working at Diaz Barbeque—the family restaurant—or the kitchen at home, Cave mastered the basics by the time she was 12. The subtleties of cooking, she picked up in America at the Connecticut Culinary Institute (now renamed the Lincoln Culinary Institute).
After graduating, Cave pursued her passion by working both as a cooking teacher and a chef. It wasn’t long before she realized that the rigorous demands of the culinary world were incompatible with her goals as a wife and mother though.
With that, she decided to open My City Kitchen.
“It’s a miracle I opened this place,” Cave says. “There was no credit, no financial backing when we first rented the space. We invested our own money. It was all prayer and fasting and listening to the word of god.”
From her work as a cooking teacher and as a paraprofessional at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, she realized that most kids had no idea how to cook. Beyond that, she realized that a growing number of kids were having problems with obesity.
“I wanted to incorporate a fight against childhood obesity because it was something I grew up with,” Cave says. “Every Saturday morning from 9 to 12 we always had to work out—do track and field, play basketball, cricket, soccer, or something like that.”
That’s why you’ll find a fitness area offset from the dining room in My City Kitchen. Stocked with weights, stationary bikes, an elliptical, and instructional videos, Cave encourages all her students to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes a day.
The emphasis on nutrition and activity has mirrored Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative in large part. Launched about eight months after the opening of My City Kitchen, the program essentially nationalized what Cave had been doing in Meriden.
Getting children to eat healthier isn’t always easy though, she says. Cave will give blind taste tests to her pupils, laying out a variety of familiar ingredients alongside some more wholesome alternatives. They’ll taste each one, discussing flavor, texture, and overall preference before she reveals which is which.
“They usually like the healthy one better,” Cave says with a smile, “but when I tell them its goat cheese or something, they run to the garbage and spit it out.”
“They’ll try it again though…after some convincing.”