I have a Sunday night ritual: I order takeout and watch videos in which YouTube stars chronicle the food they eat. The videos I gravitate toward — generally labeled “What I Ate Today” and often tagged with the buzzwords “healthy” or “vegan” — depict meals that are generally the antithesis of what I’m eating, which is usually something like a mozzarella-heavy pasta dinner for two, but just for myself. I ogle the curated display of food while trying my best not to spill red sauce on my bedsheets. I can click through for hours, half-listening, like someone else might binge-watch Real Housewives. It’s like the easy introvert version of having a friend rambling on next to me — company without the energy drain.
The clips adhere to a tight formula. We see the video star in a brief intro, if at all. Then there’s a switch to a POV format; we hear a chatty voice-over or bouncy music as disembodied hands, reminiscent of Buzzfeed Tasty videos, arrange ingredients. Breakfast, in a startling proportion of videos, consists of avocado toast. (I’m not sure you can be a person who makes these videos without also being a person who makes avocado toast.) The disembodied hands guide the viewer through the rest of the day: chopping, arranging, plopping things into high-powered blenders. This involves lemon water, green juices, plenty of quinoa, and very little gluten. Often, I wonder, do people actually eat like this — breaking out a juicer and Vitamix several times daily — or is it all a performance geared toward audiences weaned on Instagram-worthy smoothie bowls?
The tendency to share everything online has been lamented as exhibitionism or narcissism, but artifacts like “What I Ate” are a reminder that there’s also an eager audience for such offerings. Our voyeurism represents some combination of simple distraction and validation, and even aspiration and anxiety. “What I Ate Today” videos can rack up a million views or more; there are hundreds of thousands of results and more uploaded daily. Many come from food and fitness vloggers (Blogilates has the most viewed “What I Ate Today” clip on YouTube). Others are the work of lifestyle vloggers, like Kalel — videos like “10 Easy Ways to be Prettier” and “My New Nose!” have earned her close to 2 million subscribers — for whom food is a part of a brand. There’s a niche for everything: raw vegans, paleo folks, and the gluten-free contingent. We food voyeurs make up a hungry market, yet I’ve never met anyone else who acknowledges watching these videos, at least not in real life. If our online voyeurism is a place where our hidden desires, insecurities, and curiosities meet, maybe it’s just not something anyone wants to admit.
One of those video bloggers is Lauren Toyota. Previously a television host on Canada’s MuchMusic, which is a bit like MTV, Toyota now runs a vegan food blog called Hot for Food and maintains a personal YouTube channel with 100,000 followers on the side.
Toyota’s videos are some of my personal favorites. She doesn’t follow the same formula as everyone else. Longer and chattier, her videos feel personal and less staged — more relatable, maybe, than aspirational. Toyota appears puffy-eyed and holding a tissue; she reheats yesterday’s French press coffee; she smells leftovers to make sure they haven’t gone bad.
“Like I’ve said a million times, I eat terribly — why do you watch this?” Toyota joked. “But then, that’s the endearing part about it: I haven’t thought about it.”
Though she’s uploaded 24 “What I Ate Today” videos to date, she told me that they were more of a response to viewer demand than anything else.
“I sort of ran out of ideas and I thought, I’m already eating all day,” said Toyota, who doesn’t watch “What I Ate Today” videos herself. “So I did it, and, of course, it was the most popular thing I ever posted, and then I did a second one and that got even more views, and then I started seeing people leave comments about how helpful it was so I kept doing them.”
While the YouTube food community may be a boon for some, Signe Rousseau, author of the book Food and Social Media: You Are What You Tweet, sees this constant exchange of food information as something less benign. She brought up the South Korean trend of mukbang as a parallel. Mukbang consists mostly of pretty women eating large amounts of food on a livestream channel, while viewers — who can even send payment to the star if they’d like — interact in a chat room viewable by the video star. Mukbang videos show internet stars eating, talking, and even savoring their food. In contrast, the ones I watch on Sunday nights are somehow simultaneously peppy, detached (they almost never actually show anyone eating), and procedural.
“Both mukbang and these YouTube videos, they’re kind of cashing in on a massive cultural anxiety around food rather than actually empowering people to feel more comfortable about how and what they eat,” Rousseau said. Perhaps the draw for viewers is a combination of anxiety, envy, and curiosity. Are our choices correct? Are others choosing better?
I’m not looking for meal ideas or inspiration to go vegan. I think it’s validation, aside from the simple need for background sound, that makes these videos so compelling to me — validation that what I’m doing offscreen is right, and at least I can do it the same or better than that person. For me, unlike more serious food media (Netflix’s Chef’s Table comes to mind), “What I Ate Today” doesn’t arouse insecurities about culinary inadequacy or remind me of the financial instability that prevents me from eating at places like Alinea. “What I Ate Today” is amateur and I come back because of that: For once, I don’t have to aspire. As I watch a random YouTube star clumsily chop vegetables, I think that at least I know how to properly hold a knife.
Regardless, Rousseau shares my apprehension that what we see in these videos — the vast majority of them at least — is real. “It’s much more of a performative thing than it is, I think, anything that looks realistic,” she said.
A blurred shot of a candle fades to a woman with a coy smile, carefully ignoring the camera, twirling a forkful of leafy greens, for example. Though we’re supposed to believe that this is her daily life, implied in these few seconds of video are conscious decisions of multiple camera angles, scene transitions, and even acting.
Sometimes creators themselves fail to maintain the ruse. “For today’s video, I thought I would share with you all what I ate today,” says Kalel as the introduction to a video she uploaded recently.
“But to be honest, this isn’t what I ate today,” she says a few seconds later. “I don’t think that would be as inspirational as if I just shared with you guys some of my favorite recipes that I’ve been making lately.”