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Centering Food and Family: Tomatoes for Neela

Tomatoes for Neela
Written by Padma Lakshmi
Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Published by Viking, 2021
ISBN # 978-0593202708
Grades PreK – 3

Book Review
This book is a celebration of sun-ripened tomatoes and the joy they offer year-round. Vividly illustrated by award-wining artist Juana Martinez-Neal and written by celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi, this delicious picturebook is set during tomato season when young Neela and her amma (mother) go to the kitchen to preserve the tomatoes for the upcoming winter months. On Saturday, they visit the local green market where they purchase a bag, “bursting with plump, juicy plum tomatoes,” the very best variety of tomatoes for making paati’s (grandmother’s) recipe for tomato sauce. Every year, for as long as she could remember, Neela and Amma make Paati’s sauce and store it in jars for winter. Every time they cooked together, which is often, Amma tells Neela stories that were passed down from her grandmother to her mother in India. The stories and the aromas of the kitchen make Neela feel closer to Paati. This day-in-the-life picturebook focuses on Neela’s excitement to cook the tomatoes and save a special jar of the sweet and savory sauce to present to her grandmother. A perfect addition for any kitchen bookshelf, the back matter of this picturebook features Lakshmi’s recipe for Paati’s tomato sauce. For the classroom bookshelf, Tomatoes for Neela is an excellent resource for centering and celebrating familial experiences and knowledge about cooking within instruction across the curriculum.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!

Sorting Tomato Food Products

To help establish the students’ background knowledge about tomatoes, generate a class list of familiar tomato food products (e.g., salsa, ketchup, tomato chutney, tomato soup, tomato juice, tomato sauce, tomato paste, etc.).  Consider printing images of the varied products to accompany the list. If possible, arrange to have an array of packaged, jarred, or canned tomato products in the classroom. Check for student food allergies and, if logistically feasible, facilitate a student taste-test of the varied food products.  Then, invite students to work in pairs or small groups to sort the list, images, and/or physical food products.  They could organize the products in terms of familiarity, sweetness, regional flavors and ingredients, or other criteria of their choosing.  Afterwards, students can describe their “sorts” to classmates.    

Is it a Vegetable or Fruit?

Invite students to hypothesize whether a tomato is a vegetable or fruit. To begin, ask students to create graphic organizers or picture lists/groupings of fruits and of vegetables that are familiar to them.  Then, ask them to describe all of the similarities between the fruits and the vegetables.  After, view one of the many online science education videos, such as this one by SciShow Kids, to explore the topic further and check the students’ hypotheses.  Pair this exploration with other  books about vegetables and fruits listed below.

Growing Tomatoes

Although the fresh tomato harvesting season is typically summer through early autumn, students could plant tomato seeds as a family, community, and/or class project between winter and spring.  Because tomatoes are extraordinarily versatile, they can grow both outdoors and indoors in a range of containers including buckets, window boxes, and upside-down hanging planters. For example, indoor tomato farms are located in regions like Maine and Iceland.  For this reason, there are a variety of tomato planting kits on the market that could be adapted for classroom use.  Over the late spring and summer months when many children are not in school, students could keep journals and write about their tomato-growing processes and progress. Then, when students return to school after the summer break, they could share their harvests and/or report on the fruits of their labor.  Consult the resource list below for more recommendations on getting started. Be sure to consult Harlem Grown for ideas and inspiration, too. 

Local Green Markets

Neela and her amma shop at a local green market where they purchase fresh tomatoes. Engage students in an inquiry about farmers and/or food producers in their state or region of the country. Are there any CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) in the area surrounding the school community? If possible, coordinate an interview or a class visit with a local farmer, large-scale produce gardener, and/or a different local green market vendor to discuss their work. Investigate why families like Neela and her amma desire produce from local vendors, even if the cost of the fruits and vegetables may be higher than the supermarket.  Pair this investigation with other books about green markets listed below. Explore the benefits of shopping locally.  

Foods of the Americas

Amma tells Neela that tomatoes originated in the “New World” and that the word tomato stems from the Aztec, ‘tomatl’.  Invite students to learn about other foods that originated in the Americas.  Read Pat Mora’s (2007) collection of haiku Yum! ¡Mmm! ¡Qué Rico! America’s Sproutings or Yum! ¡Mmm! ¡Qué Rico! Brotes de las Américas.  Also, view Mora’s reading of the  haiku, Tomato.  Alongside each of Mora’s haiku is a blurb about the history and/or legacy of each of the foods.  Notice that Mora employs the literary tools of metaphors and personification to bring her haikus to life. Invite students to read other poems about foods.  Then, welcome children to develop their own haikus or metaphoric phrases to express their thoughts about one of their favorite tomato food products and/or any other fruit flavored food. 

Storing Food for Winter

Amma explains to Neela that regional tomatoes picked in season, typically between summer and early fall, are tastier and healthier than tomatoes grown out-of-season and/or out-of-region for sale at supermarkets.  For this reason, Amma and Neela purchase many, many tomatoes from the green market during the summer, cook them, and store them in the jar for winter.  In fact, Neela saves a very special jar of tomato sauce she prepared from her paati’s recipe for her grandmother’s visit in winter.  Investigate the traditions of harvesting fruits and vegetables and drying, canning, jarring, pickling, fermenting, and/or freezing them for use throughout the year.  Be sure to examine the resources of the National Center for Home Food Preservation for food safety recommendations on engaging youth in varying processes of home food preservation.  If possible, also collaborate with school cafeteria staff to coordinate a food preservation project for students.  If fresh tomatoes are not available locally, consider other fruits for preservation like apples or berries, which could be preserved as jams.  

Reading and Writing Recipes

Neela has her own recipe book.  In it, she writes about everything she learned from her amma (mother) about the history of tomatoes and the making of her paati’s (grandmother’s) family tomato sauce.  Neela takes notes in her recipe book because she wants to remember and reference all of the stories and procedural information about making tomato sauce in the future. When Paati next visits, Neela wants to be able to demonstrate to her grandmother the knowledge she has gained around making sauce and discussing tomatoes.   

Invite students to bring to school a recipe and/or recipe book to share with the class. In class, also provide a wide variety of cookbooks from your local library or other outlets.  From this pool, students could alternately find recipes for dishes that appeal to them.  Welcome students into a conversation about recipes and the personal recipe book Neela keeps.  Encourage students to share any prior recipe experiences they might have.  Then, transition to discussing the elements and qualities of recipes and recipe books as informational or procedural texts. 

Encourage students to examine the recipes and cookbooks they have gathered in class. Just as Neela took notes in her book, invite students to take notes about the ways individual recipes are structured across the different resources and to compare and contrast the procedural elements of different recipes.  For example, some recipes might provide step-by-step images or drawing for completing a process.  Others might be completely text-based.   After examining the recipe resources, invite students to try their hand at creating a recipe and set of procedures for making their favorite sandwich, snack, or other food.  

Extend this set of activities to develop a class cookbook that includes a recipe from each child. Discuss with students how they would like to organize the recipes in the book. Would they, for example, prefer to group recipes around meal times (breakfast, lunch, dinner), by ingredients, or by other categories or themes?  The cookbook could then serve as a lovely holiday gift for children to present to their families.  Also consider hosting a class potluck in which families are invited to prepare a favorite recipe to share with other families.  

Familial Food Stories

Neela loved listening to Amma’s stories while they cooked together.  Encourage students to share food related stories from their families, friends, and/or communities.  Through this process students could cultivate their oral language and storytelling skills by retelling their food stories for audio and/or video recordings in addition to print.  They could also hone their interviewing skills. Students might develop a set of questions to guide a conversation about food stories with persons in their lives who love to cook.  Consult with a local librarian for recommendations and/or resources about conducting interviews for oral stories and histories.  Also visit the Oral History Association website The stories can then be curated in both a digital and print collection for the class and school community.  Pair this activity with Maillard’s (2019) Fry Bread, which is likewise illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. In this award-winning picturebook, fry bread is at the center of every vignette. 

Further Explorations

Relevant Books Featured on the Classroom Bookshelf

Ancona, G. (2013). It’s our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 

Galbraith, K.O. (2011). Planting the Wild Garden. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Books.

Kitamura, S. (2021). The Smile Shop. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.

Martin, J.B. & Lee, J.J. (2016). Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix. San Francisco, CA: Readers to Eaters.

Nargi, L. (2011). The Honeybee Man. New York, NY: Schwartz and Wade.

Root, P. (2016). Anywhere Farm. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Sayre, A.P. (2011). Rah, rah, radishes! A Vegetable Chant. New York, NY: Beach Lane Books.

Wellington, M. (2011). Gabby & Grandma go Green. New York, NY: Dutton.

More Relevant Books

Anno, M. (1984). Anno’s Flea Market. New York, NY: Philomel.

Aston, D. H. (2007). A Seed is Sleepy. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

Azarian, M. (2000). A Gardener’s Alphabet. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Butterworth, C. (2011). How Did That Get in my Lunchbox?: The Story of Food. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Child, L. (2003). I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Ehlert, L. (1987). Growing Vegetable Soup. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Gibbons, G. (1991). From Seed to Plant. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Gourley, R. (2011). The White House Garden and How it Grew. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Hall, D. (1979). Ox Cart Man. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Hartland, J. (2012). Bon appetit! The delicious life of Julia Child. New York, NY: Schwartz and Wade. 

Hayes, J. (2013). Don’t Say a Word, Mama / No Digas Nada, Mama. Houston, TX: Cinco Punto Press.

Henderson, K. (2008). And the Good Brown Earth. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Henkes, K. (2010). My Garden. New York, NY: Greenwillow.

Herrera, J.F. (2002) Grandma and Me at the Flea. New York, NY: Lee & Low.

Hillery, T. (2020). Harlem Grown. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Hodge, D. (2011). Watch me grow: A Down-To-Earth Look At Growing Food In The City. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press.

Hopkinson, D. (2004). Fannie in the Kitchen: The Whole Story from Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements. New York, NY: Aladdin.

Lin, G. (1999). The Ugly Vegetables. Watertown, MA: Talewinds.

Maillard, K. (2019). Fry Bread. New York, NY: Roaring Book Press.

Martin, J.B. (2013). Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. San Francisco, CA: Readers to Eaters.

Mora, P. (2007). Yum! ¡Mmm! ¡Qué Rico! America’s Sproutings or Yum! ¡Mmm! ¡Qué Rico! Brotes de las Américas New York, NY: Lee & Low.

O’Neill, A. (2002). Estela’s Swap. New York, NY: Lee & Low.

Pollen, M. (2009). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat.  Adapted by R. Chevat. New York, NY: Dial Books.

Raul the Third. (2019). ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sayre, A.P. (2012). Go, Go, Grapes!: A Fruit Chant. New York, NY: Beach Lane Books.

Schaub, M. (2017). Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market.  New York, NY: Charlesbridge.

Schuh, M.S. (2010). All Kinds of Gardens. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press.

Schuh, M.S. (2010). Growing a Garden. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press.

Swann, R. (2012). Our School Garden. Belleview, WA: Readers to Eaters.

 Zoehfeld, K. W. (2012). Secrets of The Garden: Food Chains and The Food Web in Our Backyard. New York, NY: Knopf.

Online Resources

Information about Growing and Processing Tomatoes for Market

Tomato Wellness Council

California Tomato Growers Association

Florida Tomato Council

From Field to Ketchup and Tomato Sauce

Growing Tomatoes at Home 


Growing Backyard Tomatoes as a Family

Growing Tomatoes Indoors – Time lapse Photography 

Cooking & Preserving Tomatoes at Home 

How to Make Tomato Sauce – Kids Cooking

Kids Cooking Tomato Sauce with Chef Jamie Oliver

Making Tomato Sauce as a Family 

Other Curricular Connections

Children’s Poems about Food

Tomato Harvest Lesson Plans – Vermont