Food

Here's the bleak truth behind TikTok's 'girl dinner' craze

While some praise the embracing of frugal meals, there is a concerning undercurrent to the girl dinner trend

A plate of unmatched food: cake, cucumber, cheese spread and wafers with cans of fanta

The fridge is empty. The cupboards house only non-perishables that have, until now, looked too unappetising to eat. The shop’s reduced section brought in a few random items, nothing enough for a proper meal. We mostly keep that to ourselves. It’s not light, pub garden chat to admit you can’t afford a warm meal most nights. Ergo, food insecurity isn’t the trendiest online topic. Or is it? 

Hidden within TikTok’s upbeat ‘girl dinner’ trend is a bleak truth. With 2.2 billion views, the trend welcomes women to show off their girl dinners – a meal consisting of mismatched foods thoughtlessly arranged on cute crockery. Think typical child’s school lunch only bigger in portion, or a charcuterie board if that’s more your taste. Bread, celery, carrot-sticks with dips, mozzarella, cold meats, olives – anything that means no cooking or washing up.

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While the trend appears upbeat, it may have a dark undercurrent. Research by The Trussell Trust has shown women in the UK are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, with more than half of those affected by food poverty and using food banks identifying as female. In their Hunger In The UK report, the Trust blames “a lack of affordable childcare” – which forces women to leave work – along with the instability and low pay of part-time work, with women making up 77% of part-time workers in the UK, as major drivers behind this inequality. 

“It’s ridiculously difficult nowadays to eat in a way that serves you while actually enjoying what you’re eating,” Karma Carr, who created the catchy Girl Dinner song that soundtracks so many of the trend’s videos, said. “Girl dinner has never had a price tag on it and that allows intuitive eating to be a more accessible concept that’s not just for whoever can afford to do it ‘right.’”

Olivia Maher, the creator of girl dinner, didn’t start the trend with its affordability in mind and was surprised at the response praising the meal’s accessibility. “I was having girl dinner one night and thought, ‘I can’t be the only person who does this.’ So I recorded the video that started it all. It took off immediately as women commented to say how they eat like this and how nice it was they’re not alone in doing so.”

Olivia believes so many women on TikTok rely on girl dinner due to both its affordability and the two fingers it holds up to the male gaze. “Women have been told what to eat and more so what not to eat their entire lives. Girl dinner is saying ‘forget that’ and encourages embracing exactly what you’re craving while using what you already have around you.

“You’re not going out to buy more but are finding joy in what you have on hand and not feeling bad about it. We all eat this way occasionally, either by choice or force, but never speak about it because it doesn’t seem ‘proper.’ But girl dinner is a celebration of food and lets us be grateful for what we have.”

The dinner may be crafted with random items but that doesn’t mean it’s not as nutritious as a home-cooked dinner. Laura Ghiacy, a TikToker and personal trainer, has praised the trend for removing the guilt that often accompanies cheaper and easier dinners. “We think our food needs to meet a certain criteria – organic, colourful, grown in the ground, not pre-packaged and displayed in an aesthetic manner. Girl dinner flips this on its head.

“Girl dinner is less about good/bad foods and more about being fed and satiated. Too often we see a ‘good’ meal but it’s not within our capacity to make because of skill or affordability of ingredients. So girl dinner lets us break away from food prejudices and simply be fed!”

Nicole Rodriguez gave girl dinner her own spin, using TikTok to show off her ‘Broke Girl Dinner’ and wasn’t surprised at how many people related to her meal. “The video was more about how rough living on a biweekly paycheck is than about girl dinner. Food is so expensive. It’s impossible to get enough groceries towards the end of those two weeks, so you get creative with meals.

“A lot of people felt the same, and it wasn’t surprising. With how little we get paid and how high food prices are, a lot of us are feeling the struggle. It’s great that girl dinner is an affordable trend because we’re all out here trying to get by and if that means making something that’s not an Instagram-worthy plate, but keeps you feeling sustained, there’s no shame in that.”

Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

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