Padma Lakshmi, cookbook author, memoirist, and host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation, says it was only a matter of time before she wrote a book for children. She’s always found children’s books “magical” and remembers forming deep emotional bonds with the books she read as a child.

At the end of August, Lakshmi is making her first foray into the world of picture books with Tomatoes for Neela (Viking), illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. This vivid and warmhearted story about the joy of creating and sharing delicious meals shows how food can bring families together even if they’re on the opposite sides of the globe.

Lakshmi says that Tomatoes for Neela grew organically out of the way she and her young daughter shop for food, cook what they buy, and spend time together in the kitchen. She believes “you set healthy eating patterns in the first four or five years of a child’s life and that it’s important to give the gift of good eating habits and inspire kids with an appreciation of food.” She adds, “There are so many life lessons that can be learned through food.”

As shown in the book, cooking is also intergenerational, connecting Lakshmi and her daughter with Lakshmi’s mother and grandmother, neither of whom lives nearby. They cook together over Skype.

Martinez-Neal was Lakshmi’s first choice as an illustrator. Though they didn’t meet in person, Lakshmi sent Martinez-Neal a scrapbook of photos of her and her daughter to use as inspiration. She’s pleased with the collaboration and the way that the illustrations, in her words, “breathe life and joy into my words and my experience as a single mom cooking with my young daughter.” She calls the illustrations “warm and rich, full of embellishment.”

Lakshmi would like Tomatoes for Neela to inspire other families to cook together and to encourage kids to experiment with food. She hopes kids will ask for a recipe book of their own and say, “This looks great! I want to learn to cook.”

When it comes to books for children, Lakshmi says that she’s just getting started. “I’d love to do more kids’ books, maybe a kids’ cookbook. What a wonderful medium this is!”

Lakshmi will be in conversation with Tamar Brazis, editorial director of Viking Children’s Books, on Thursday, May 27, 12:30–1 p.m. ET.

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