• The healthiest thing you can do for your family is to prepare and eat food at home.
  • While limiting trips to the store, pick one day to buy fresh vegetables and cook them all with salt, pepper,  olive oil, and store in the fridge for later use.
  • Kids are more likely to eat food if they make it, so get your kids cooking in the kitchen at an early age.
  • The new Hulu show, "Taste the Nation,"  explores the diverse food cultures across communities in America. 

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

Today we have a very special guest, best-selling author, television host, and executive producer, activist, and self-proclaimed foodie, Padma Lakshmi. Padma, thanks for joining me.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Thanks for having me. You guys have been great.

JOHN WHYTE: And you graced the cover of our magazine.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Twice.

JOHN WHYTE: Yes.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Yes.

JOHN WHYTE: And you have a new show premiering this week, June 18, on Hulu called Taste the Nation. I had the opportunity to-- to look over it, and it's fantastic. You talk about what it means to be American and how it relates to food. What made you decide to do the show?

PADMA LAKSHMI: Well, you know, um, about 3 and 1/2 years ago in early, early 2017 I started working with the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, on immigration issues. I am an immigrant, and what I saw at the border with family separation was, you know, really disturbing. And, um, I wanted to get involved.

And slowly as my work got deeper with them, you know, I became an ambassador. And I, you know, do go to rallies or I'll make a keynote address or something, and I kind of got sick of just talking about my own personal story to frame what I think about immigration.

So I started researching other people's stories. And I, you know, was going to do a cookbook, which I'm still going to do. And that cookbook project of immigrant food turned into a show.

I think, you know, we love to eat these foods, but we don't often go a step further and delve into who our neighbors are in this country. And so I wanted to give a platform to communities who don't often get to tell their story themselves in mainstream food media.

JOHN WHYTE: You talk about it from the framework of food, of being an immigrant and how food is so important and how it might even change when-- when you come here. Um, how has it changed for you?

PADMA LAKSHMI: It often changes. Uh, well, because you're coming to a country where you may not get the same ingredients, so you do what humans have always done. You make do.

For instance, there is a South Indian dish called upma. And when-- it's made with cracked wheat or just whole wheat. But, um-- and lots of vegetables. When my mom came to New York in the '70s, you know, she couldn't find exactly what she needed, so she used Cream of Wheat, you know? And then later when I was out of college, I would make it with couscous.

Now today for my family, I make upma, but I make it with quinoa because, you know, now we've discovered this ancient grain. So every generation shapes eats their own food from what their parents or grandparents taught them but also from their own experience. So in-- you know, in America we have immigrant food which may or may not be the exact same thing that we see in whatever the origin country was.

JOHN WHYTE: The show profiles the role of the immigrant community in the restaurant business. And-- and here we've been talking on the show about the impact of coronavirus on different businesses. And let's be honest, the restaurant community has, in many ways, been devastated. What's the impact on-- on those, um, you know, immigrants who are, you know, trying to make their restaurants work, um, and surviving it in kind of this new normal?

PADMA LAKSHMI: It's so difficult. It's devastating. You know, the restaurant business across this country has been made by the immigrants. That's who works in the back of these restaurant kitchens. But those mom-and-pop restaurants, those little Thai holes in the wall, the-- the, you know, Indian hole in the wall, the Mexican taqueria, those are hit the hardest. They don't-- they don't often have a margin that's very great, and a lot of them had to shutter.

I have checked in with, um, several of the restaurant owners in our series and just made sure to see where they are. Um, you know, the Persian kebab place, Shamshiri Grill, they're doing takeout. But Lotus of Siam, you know, the Thai restaurant in Vegas, is completely closed, at least when I checked--

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

PADMA LAKSHMI: --a couple weeks ago. So everyone is trying to deal with it as they can.

And we-- I partnered with the James Beard Foundation to start a relief fund, along with several other people. And we offered $15,000 grants, just first come, first serve just to give a little band-aid at least. But the-- but the need was so great that we had to shut down the application, um, process because we did have some corporate sponsors, but the money ran out. It just evaporated so quickly, and the need was so great.

In order to fill the requests that we just got in that short window of a couple of days or something when we had it open, we would have had to have $57 million, and I'm sure the actual figure is several times that. Um, I think it'll be a long time before these restaurants get back on their feet. I think a lot of businesses will go out of business, sadly.

But I also think that they'll come back. You know, our hunger for good food and good food from all over the world, um, has been pricked now in this country. You know, so, um, people who come here and often can't find other jobs go to the restaurant industry because, you know, you don't need to speak the language that well to, like-- the point of entry is easier.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah.

PADMA LAKSHMI: So I think they'll come back. I just think we have to reinvent the system a little bit. Hopefully it will be-- it will mean better hours and-- and a better work environment, but I don't know about that.

JOHN WHYTE: You know, the fact is, as we talked about, a lot of people aren't going to restaurants. They're cooking at home. Any tips you have, um, for listeners in terms of, you know, what can be easy to do at home. Maybe with kids you showcase, you know, what you've been doing with your daughter.

PADMA LAKSHMI: I always say get kids in the kitchen participating in the preparation meals as quickly as you can. Even if they're toddlers, have them hanging around because they need to see that. They need to be part of-- they need to be involved in making the food they'll eat because then they'll be more likely to eat it because it's something they made.

Um, and the healthiest thing-- the one healthiest thing you can do for your family is to eat at home. So, you know, while I'm sorry for restaurants, I think it is healthier for Americans.

Because we are all not going to the grocery store as often-- you know, just to kind of limit the outside contact we're having-- I would say buy a lot more vegetables than you usually do. And then the first Saturday or the first afternoon you can that you have free, actually cook them all. Just, you know, with salt, pepper, and a little bit of olive oil, um, and they'll keep in your fridge. If you cook them right when you buy them, the vitamins will still be intact. Obviously don't overcook them.

But you know you're going to use, you know, your normal staples like diced onions, um, bell peppers, some carrots, some celery. You can add a few herbs like thyme or a bay leaf. You can add a little chicken stock or vegetarian stock just to, you know, uh, give it a little bit of a sauce.

And then put those in containers in your fridge so that you can use it and add it to other dishes or sauces, um, without some of the vegetables going bad because, you know, at first I didn't know what I was going to be able to get, so I was buying a lot of vegetables. Also my family, we try to eat 50% vegetables and fruits for every meal.

Um, and so, you know, I also love beans because beans are really, really good for the environment. They're inexpensive. They're shelf stable, and they're great sources of protein for you.

So that's one tip I would say, like, buy your vegetables and roast them. Like, you don't even have to stand at the stove. You can turn your, um, oven on to 400 degrees. Cut all the vegetables around the same size. Know that the bell peppers will cook faster than, say, the cauliflower or fennel. So have vegetables on two trays, one that take less time to cook, and throw them in there with nothing, just a-- just, like, a dousing of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix them all up in a bowl, and then arrange them single file on cookie sheets. And-- and those will keep in your fridge, and you can add those things.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to thank you, Padma Lakshmi, for taking the time for all that you're doing in trying to raise awareness or the role of the immigrant community in the restaurant industry, reminding us what it means to be American, especially in the context of food. And thank you for all that you're doing in terms of keeping us healthy.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Thank you so much, and thank you guys for always featuring stuff about endometriosis. That's a cause that's really important to me. And, you know, you guys are great. Thank you so much for your support.

JOHN WHYTE: And again, your show is Taste of the Nation on Hulu.

PADMA LAKSHMI: Bye.