Why Facebook’s “struggle meal” groups are the most wholesome place on the internet

Recently, it’s struck me as increasingly worth probing the cultural inclination to think about “struggle meals” as a stopgap measure for the youthful. The term — which began as a hashtag in 2017 and was further popularized by chef Frankie Calenza in his show of the same name — is even defined by Urban Dictionary as “a cheap meal [or] snack bought at the store, usually eaten by broke college students.” 

I mean, it’s a familiar enough narrative: generations of young adults have certainly sustained themselves through school on a steady diet of Top Ramen, crappy beer, handfuls of dry cereal and the occasional slice of cold pizza lifted from a grease-soaked cardboard box in a desolate faculty lounge. Or, as comedian John Mulaney succinctly put it in his 2018 “Kid Gorgeous” special, he spent $120,000 on college just to live “like a god**n Ninja Turtle.” 

As such, when many people talk about “struggle meals,” especially online, it’s often with a kind of carnival barker mentality, touting promises of the bizarre. “People reveal their worst cash-strapped ‘struggle meals,'” one headline teases, while another advertises news of a struggle meal so “alarming” that “critics [were] repulsed.” To be clear, this isn’t particularly unique; there are lots of salty little pockets of the internet for “food shaming.” One of the largest Facebook groups dedicated to the activity, which has nearly, 65,000 members, describes its purpose like this: 

We are not here to give you advice on your dish, we are here to shame ugly and nasty foods. Post with discretion, we are not responsible for anything that might happen or be said after you post. If you can’t take the heat, then don’t post it. While we are a food shaming group, we require all members to treat each other with kindness and respect. Keep the shaming to the pictures.

For food lovers with a snarky bent, these groups can totally provide a fun place to blow off some steam. In fact, some of the photographed dishes, one could argue, even “deserve” to be roasted, like chicken sushi, countertop spaghetti and meatballs, and a “demon cake” made using only a dozen eggs and a bundt pan. (That is if you actually believe those images are real meals that real people made, rather than a content farm that churns out gross food “hack” videos in exchange for outraged clicks.) But then, there are the dishes that, if you’ve ever faced food insecurity, or even just found yourself coming up short on the rent one month, likely look a little more familiar: microwave-quesadillas made with a single flour tortilla and a melted slice of Kraft American, noodles coated in ketchup, SPAM eaten straight out of the can. 

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And when photographs of those meals pop up, especially as global food costs hit a record high just last year and more than 34 million Americans currently face food insecurity, the whole exercise of food shaming feels a bit like a particularly pernicious kind of classism dressed up as food criticism — which is why I’ve also increasingly found myself drawn to groups on Facebook and Reddit specifically dedicated to sharing one’s struggle meals. 

“Everyone has hard times every now and then,” reads the page description for Struggle Meals Cookbook, an 89,000-member Facebook group. “This page was created so those that are on a strict budget or have a bit of a bare cupboard can come and make their vittles for cheap.”


While, as discussed, the general public sometimes tend to dismiss struggle meals as something left behind when one graduates, the Struggle Meals Cookbook — and other similar online groups — seem to recognize that a lot of its membership is dealing with pretty “adult” issues: eviction, fleeing domestic abuse, medical debt, illness. Even those who aren’t in the throes of outright tragedy indicate that they find themselves increasingly anxious about rising food costs, general inflation and a market that is seemingly bracing itself for a crash. 

It’s clear from the tone of the posts that the group’s admins and members also understand that there is something inherently more dire-feeling about searching for struggle meal ideas rather than your typical easy weeknight meal. This isn’t really about trying to source sheet pan suppers that you can pop into the oven between your last Zoom meeting and picking your kid up from soccer practice, nor is it about endeavoring to break your reliance on Grubhub (though both are noble goals). 

Struggle meals are created from desperation. It’s woven into their very anatomy. They are a product of not having enough of something — sometimes energy, but more often, resources or money. 

With that in mind, the magic of these groups is actually two-fold. The first appeal is this overwhelming collective creativity and scrappiness. I’m thinking of a recent, but since-deleted, post in a smaller, private struggle meals Facebook group. A poster wrote about how she and her partner had moved into a new apartment after a period of living in shelters. They both had jobs and were doing well, but with the costs of moving (first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a deposit) and needing to buy some basic furniture, they collectively had $7 to get through the next two days until their next paycheck. 

Struggle meals are created from desperation. It’s woven into their very anatomy. They are a product of not having enough of something — sometimes energy, but more often, resources or money.

The couple also hadn’t finished furnishing the kitchen, so they didn’t yet have a microwave or any cookware, just a few utensils. Group members quickly jumped into action, however. Several commenters shared places where one can typically find a microwave to use: truck stops, gas stations, some community centers, public university lounges and libraries. 

Then, as always, people provided some really great recommendations on how to find food for cheap and utilize it well. There are so many ways to stretch basics if you know how and these groups are about making sure everyone does. Menus suggestions abound for multiple meals made from just a few ingredients. Have flour tortillas, a few cans of black beans, some cheap jarred salsa and eggs? You could make black bean quesadillas, breakfast tacos, black bean soup topped with tortilla chips, chips and black bean dip and huevos rancheros

When you do and decide to post photographs of your creations there, you’ll be sure to find a tremendous amount of support — which is actually the second element that I find so magical about these groups. 

Recently, someone posted a photograph in a struggle meals group of a dish they’d made: instant white rice tossed with jarred Alfredo sauce and some canned tuna. The poster, a man in his mid-30s, called it his “struggle casserole.” It was unapologetically processed, very beige and haphazardly scooped into a paper cereal bowl under a fluorescent kitchen light — essentially bait for anyone who likes to food shame. Here, however, the actual responses were different. 

“Here you dropped this, king,” one commenter wrote, punctuating their thought with a crown emoji. Another said, “Man, that looks bomb. If you ever make it again, a 99-cent bag of frozen peas takes it to the next level.” 

Observing those moments of quiet recognition — little exchanges that, each in their own way, communicate “I see you doing your best and it’s beautiful even if it’s all very hard” — remind me of KC Davis’ “How To Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing.” One of the main tenets of the book is that care tasks are morally neutral, which means that mess has no inherent meaning. 

“When you look at a pile of dishes i the sink and think, ‘I’m such a failure,’ that message did not originate from the dishes,” Davis writes. “Dishes don’t think. Dishes don’t judge. Dishes cannot make meaning — only people can.” 

Camaraderie has a really potent way of mitigating shame. 

Living in a country whose DNA is heavily interwoven with “by-the-bootstraps” myth-making, it’s easy to feel that things like struggle meals should be a source of hidden shame because they denote some kind of failure. Failure to save, failure to launch, failure to thrive. It ties into the cultural stereotypes perpetuated about people in living poverty — that they are somehow inherently lazier or less intelligent than those in a higher income bracket. 

But, as Davis writes, the food we eat cannot judge us, only people can. Simultaneously, camaraderie has a really potent way of mitigating shame. That, to me, is what we at large can learn from these  struggle meal groups. So much of food media is aspirational to the point that it becomes really easy to feel like you aren’t quite measuring up. And, if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that sometimes just surviving is struggle enough. That ties into the rest of Davis’ point. She argues that if care tasks, like cooking and cleaning, are morally neutral, then “good enough is perfect.” 

“‘Good enough is good enough’ sounds like settling for less,” she wrote. “‘Good enough is perfect’ means having boundaries and reasonable expectations.” 

In the realm of housekeeping, that may mean leaving the dishes in the sink overnight or realizing that you will always have a junk drawer and that neither of those things makes you a bad person. And in the realm of cooking, it means that some weeks, when money is tight or your energy is depleted, dinner is going to look like Top Ramen, a tortilla topped with peanut butter or a scoop of struggle casserole. 

That doesn’t make you lazy or pathetic or otherwise morally lacking. It just means that you’re struggling, and when you’re struggling — good enough is perfect. 


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