From girl dinners to little treats and energy drinks, the gamification of our eating habits reflects our sad little lives under late capitalism
A girl dinner is a dinner eaten by a girl who eats on her own. A girl dinner is uncooked and low-labour – sometimes low-cal. It’s an assemblage of snacks on a plate, or platter, intended as a full meal – and, with over 30 million views on TikTok, it’s clearly catching on. “We're embracing low effort over over-exertion. Who has time after an eight to ten-hour workday to follow a 25-step recipe that requires 20 ingredients? Not me,” says creator Alana Laverty, who regularly posts her girl dinners on TikTok.
The girl dinner is one of many snack-related trends taking over social media – and our eating habits. Another trend is getting a little treat in – maybe it’s a jar of olives or a platter of cheese and bread to graze on. It’s short-term gratification – a £3 coffee en route to work posted directly onto the feed. With no economic stability or stable job prospects on the horizon, and media headlines on the climate crisis predicting the End Times, the rosy promise of an adult life where a house and mortgage are possible if you work hard enough (or have rich parents), the gamification of our eating habits seems like a decent way of getting through each day – or, at least, keep us satiated until our next little treat.
There’s also the fact that most of Gen Z live in flatshares, spend a high proportion of their income on rent, and the loneliest generation on record. Giving up home-cooked meals and family dinners makes sense when it feels like there’s not enough time in the day – and no one to share them with. In contrast, snacking or arranging an assortment of food bits on a plate keeps things fun and fresh: you can neatly curate all the shapes and colours and textures – even the phrase “little treat” has a playful, child-like spin adjacent to making silly abbreviations online.
“To me, a girl dinner is a fun celebration of the ‘snack plates’ we so often make when we get home from a long day at work, when we can’t be bothered to make dinner, when we’re not sure what we want to eat,” says Katherine Kofoed, a health coach and nutritionist. “I’ve seen some criticism online because it’s a gendered term. I don’t feel like girl dinner is gendered at all – it just comes from that fun, playful energy you have as a kid when you're putting together a yummy snack plate for yourself. Bringing out your inner child and enjoying your food guilt-free.”
“I love that I don’t need to go near the stove, that I can eat intuitively based on my cravings and hunger levels of the day, that I can easily work around my food allergies and still be satisfied, that I can grocery shop less (as I use a lot of pantry / jarred items and just some fresh produce, meats, cheese that I buy once a week) and use up what I already have,” adds Laverty. “Most of all, I love that this has resonated so much with so many people who thought they were the only ones who ate like this. The sheer number of comments and messages I've gotten saying, ‘Wow! I thought I was the only one’ – it’s so cool to see.”
Almost half of US consumers have three or more snacks daily – up eight per cent in the last two years, according to the Wall Street Journal – and it’s mainly millennials and Gen Z driving this trend. Just-add-water powder meal replacements like Huel are proving hugely popular, sustainable alternatives amid rising food costs (“Huel helps keep money in your pockets,” reads one particularly Dickensian ad). The grey slop is inherently joyless, though convenient and functional – stripped-back like recession-core, as soulless as Ozempic.
In a recent article for Dazed, James Greig traces our downward spiral into becoming giant babies, from Disney adults to the rise of cuteness as a dominant aesthetic category and people throwing tantrums when their Gorillas rider is five minutes late. Similarly, the food we consume, and the language we use to describe it, is inherently child-like. Like the sludge content we consume online and the Lost Marys we smoke, it’s designed for a quick dopamine hit – overstimulating yet effectively empty. Perhaps structuring our days around little treats is akin to protecting our inner child against the pulverising daily grind. Or maybe the conditions of late capitalism have simply regressed us to the point of becoming adult babies who eat soylent slop, because we simply can’t afford to do anything else.
Another key player in the meal-to-snack pipeline is the surging popularity of energy drinks among young people, with beverages such as Monster and Logan Paul and KSI’s Prime functioning as meme-friendly status symbols (an official Instagram account for Monster Energy Girls currently has 370k followers). If coffee was the driving force behind capitalism, keeping workers chugging along to a newly globalised world, then today’s stimulant of choice is the energy drink, which has no doubt been turbo-charged through gaming culture and our 24/7 need to stay connected. Its synthetic stimulation is an exaggerated boost far superior to anything (legal) that came before it – and mirrors the growing labour demands put on us to survive in an increasingly chaotic and over-stimulating world.
But what does this all say about Gen Z’s eating habits? Sure, we’re exhausted and despondent, but do we really need to trade age-old food rituals with Huel shakes and little treats? Personally, I don’t think it’s that deep. I’m a big supporter of snack culture – it’s easy and affordable – and Monster Ultra keeps me motivated to stay on top of the daily hamster wheel, while maintaining a social life. This might sound depressing – and, to an extent, it is – but if assorting snacks aesthetically onto a plate is what it takes to cope with late-capitalism’s grind, who am I to say otherwise?