| Arts & Culture
Food How Lunchbox TikTok Is Healing My Relationship With Food
Lunch-packing videos have shown me that, regardless of your age or your body size or how big of a breakfast you had, we all deserve to eat.
I’m standing in my kitchen, trying to cobble together a little lunch. Not so little that my stomach still gurgles with hunger when I’m finished. But not so big that my belly expands with the feeling of fullness that I still find so uncomfortable, so unbearable, even after all this time.
I am in recovery from an eating disorder that held a tight grip on me for most of my twenties, and I am still learning how to feed myself. Most of the time, I struggle to recognize my own hunger and fullness cues. Some days, I have an insatiable appetite; on others, the idea of food is nauseating. So every day, lunch is its own miniature battleground, a microcosm of the way I navigate food.
On this particular day, though, something funny happens. A thought pops into my head: “What would Tara make?”
Tara Clontz, or @tarasfarmtotable , is one of my favorite creators on TikTok. She posts videos of herself making her daughter’s lunch, packing a purple-and-pink lunch box with all kinds of delicious-looking foods. Her daughter eats chicken sandwiches and peanut butter roll-ups, mandarin oranges and black olives, kiwis, strawberries, cookies, mushrooms, green bean chips, carrots—and that’s only what I’ve seen from a handful of videos.
I love the energy Tara brings to TikTok. In a sweet Southern accent, she explains that she’s guiding her two kids toward healthy, positive relationships with food. She encourages her children to try new things, grows vegetables with them in her garden, and makes sure they have a variety of foods to eat every day.
The TikTok algorithm curates my “For You” page with a lot of videos like Tara’s. One of my favorite accounts is @wifedinnersandcatlickers , run by a creator who packs work dinners for their wife and makes licking mats for their cats. Another is @nanajoe19 , who makes elaborate Mexican-inspired lunches for her husband and his coworkers. I adore this kind of content, in which parents and partners lovingly prepare food for their families. It’s wholesome. It’s ASMR-inducing. And it inspires me to take better care of myself.
I have rarely thought of myself as a thing that needed to be cared for; my body’s need for food has always felt like an obstacle. But the care these creators show for their loved ones makes me want to tend to myself in the same way. I see beloveds giving their families permission to eat, permission to nourish their bodies, and I ask myself how I might pack my own lunch with the same nurturing intention. It’s easy to treat those we treasure with love and gentleness; why is it so difficult to show the same love to ourselves?
At the same time, I know that for so many people, myself included, social media has harrowing effects on mental health and body image. How can it be, then, that where talk therapy, yoga, meditation, CBT, CBD, and journaling have failed me, the thing that makes me feel better is TikTok?
I never thought I’d write something in defense of social media. From the day I made a Myspace page in middle school, being online has proven terrible for my mental health. I spent too much time perfecting my profile, too many hours curating an online presence that would allow me to be happy with myself—obsessions that made me hyperfocused on how I looked and what others thought of me. I’m more than twice as old now as I was then, and the urge to escape reality online hasn’t gone away. To this day, I’d rather take a thousand selfies to find the right angle for Instagram than talk about my body image in therapy.
Instagram was never particularly good for my eating disorder—not that I expected it to be. Late at night I’d scroll through the app and analyze my feed: Who do I follow who’s skinnier than me? What workout will give me those legs? What food group do I have to nix to get those collarbones? I’m not talking about influencers here, but about friends and loved ones, people I knew and interacted with in real life. The laws of friendship barred me from unfollowing or even muting them, but it killed me to look at my own body next to theirs—next to bodies I presumed to be better than mine.
I took three weeks off Instagram once a couple years back, at the recommendation of my therapist. You’ve seen the post: I’m taking a little break for my mental health. Text me if you need me! [Peace-sign emoji.] It was nice, that three-week break from constantly noticing others’ bodies, constantly comparing myself to them. Then the break ended, and everything felt terrible again. But I missed it too much to stay off permanently; comparing myself to everyone else scratched some horrible social itch, a strange addiction. It helps that I often use Instagram’s Close Friends story feature as a kind of diary of my mental health, posting real-time updates on how I’m feeling in my body that day. Self-absorbed as it sounds, when I took time away from Instagram, I missed being able to tell dozens of people at once that I wasn’t okay.
And Twitter? Twitter is where I pretend to be smarter than I really am by retweeting accounts that make me look informed and witty. Unless it’s a bad day; then, like Instagram, it becomes a stream of consciousness about my feelings and stressors, like a filterless scope peering into the messiest parts of my brain. Also, neither of my parents uses Twitter, an eminent perk.
How can it be, then, that where talk therapy, yoga, meditation, CBT, CBD, and journaling have failed me, the thing that makes me feel better is TikTok?
TikTok doesn’t feel stressful in the same way as these other platforms. Maybe it’s that I’ve curated my For You page so intentionally that I only get content I relate to: women of all sizes eating whatever they want, queer people loving on their partners, nonbinary people living their best lives. Maybe TikTok really does know what’s “for me.” Maybe the platform has enough people with similar tastes to mine that it uplifts this kind of content. Maybe it simply celebrates this type of content more than others. Honestly, I’m not tech-savvy enough to know.
But I do know that on TikTok, I see possibility models for the life I could be living—that content appears in front of me as soon as I open the app. I see ways I can take care of myself that I’d never thought of before. It’s probably helpful that I mostly see strangers—who I don’t have to worry about facing in reality—and that I can imagine that their lives are exactly as carefree as they appear on-screen, that what I see here is the sole truth.
Of course, that’s not always true. Social media can be a celebration of the most noteworthy aspects of our day-to-day experiences, or it can be a raw, unabridged documentation of life. For many of us, it’s a mask; even the most happy-go-lucky people on your feed have their own problems off-line. In my case, I’m reckoning with the fact that a perfectly packed lunch online doesn’t equal a perfect relationship with food in the real world. That doesn’t mean I can’t aspire to feeding myself camera-ready, nourishing meals anyway—and TikTok makes me want to try.
In my disordered body, I used social media to document my disappearance.
Outfit-of-the-day Instagram stories I have saved show how thin I used to be. In old selfies, I’m obviously jutting out my collarbones, bragging about how bony I can look. There are long stretches in my digital history without a single photo of a plate of food—something you’d think impossible if you looked at my camera roll now—because I ate the same three low-calorie meals every day for months.
I wish social media hadn’t introduced that “memories” feature, because I am constantly bombarded by these images now that I’m in recovery, haunted by how much work I used to put into the slow disintegration of my body. Maybe that’s another reason I gravitate toward TikTok: It’s new to me. I’ve only used TikTok while in recovery, so in every video I’ve posted, I look exactly the same as I do now.
This is not to say I didn’t, in the past, enjoy my body in the moment. To be frank, I loved being skinny. I got hit on constantly. People looked to me for advice at the gym. Taking up less space somehow made me more noticeable. And I got there, by and large, by eliminating food from my life—and with it, the joy of feeding myself.
So is it any wonder that now, years later, I struggle to keep myself nourished, to recognize that starving myself for the sake of societal clout is no longer an option? Is it so baffling that I long for a time where I actually liked how I looked, complicated as it was? Isn’t it obvious why I make my meals small?
That’s where TikTok comes in. Lunch-packing videos have become my lifeline, showing me that regardless of your age or your body size or how big of a breakfast you had, we all deserve to eat. That kind of realization hasn’t come naturally to me, but through TikTok, I’m learning it slowly—and practically for the first time, despite grappling with this for a decade. Because if someone’s child or wife or partner—someone worthy of care and love—deserves a multiple-course lunch, complete with carbs, fats, and a sweet treat, then why don’t I?
When I called Tara Clontz, the North Carolina mom behind @tarasfarmtotable, both her kids were home. It sounded like lunchtime; I heard her daughter comment on how much apple was left on her plate. It had been a while since I’d interviewed someone, but she was the one to say she was nervous.
“I never expected to create a platform around [food], but I did,” she told me.
Tara started on TikTok by posting recipe videos. The first time she shared a video making her then four-year-old daughter’s lunch last summer, it instantly went viral. But right away, comments rolled in criticizing what she was feeding her child.
“People were saying that I put too much food in her lunch box from the very first video, and it blew my mind,” she said.
It brought back memories of when she was growing up, when adults commented ceaselessly on what she ate. A family member oinked at her when she filled her plate. In middle school, she sometimes went days without eating. In high school, she ate meals in her car, away from the comments of grown-ups.
Since having her kids, Tara’s been careful about how she talks about herself and food. For example, she doesn’t say anything negative about her own body. Little ears are listening.
“Having a little girl and thinking about how I used to treat myself and how I grew up, my whole mindset just changed,” she told me. “I’m nicer to myself.”
Tara said she’s trying to teach her kids that all foods are okay in moderation and to never deprive themselves when they feel hungry. It’s a lesson I wish I’d heard more often growing up, and it comes through loud and clear in her videos.
“Someday, someone’s going to say something to hurt her feelings. My goal is that she will have the foundation to not listen to it,” she said. “But also, I will be her safe place. Home will be her safe place. She won’t feel like she needs to hide at home if she’s hungry.”
If someone’s child or wife or partner—someone worthy of care and love—deserves a multiple-course lunch, complete with carbs, fats, and a sweet treat, then why don’t I?
After I hung up the phone with Tara, I cried.
Because when it comes to my body, to food, I don’t yet feel like I have that safe place. TikTok is helping, but it cannot bring me safety. I can’t scroll away the guilt that comes from finishing a full plate of food. I can briefly alter my appearance with a filter, but I’m still just as sad and disappointed in myself when I turn it off and remember what I really look like.
Safety will not come through my For You page or my timeline or my newsfeed. Instead, these videos are a reminder that we must all create our own safe places inside ourselves, that we must trust ourselves when it comes to nourishing our bodies, and that safety will come when we are ready to welcome it in. I have to find my own safe place, somewhere to remind me that I am worth caring for. I am worth feeding.
When I open TikTok these days, I am not looking to be saved. I am looking for the ingredients that will help me move toward recovery, things like self-love and self-trust, the knowledge that I am getting better every day, and, yes, the encouragement to prepare myself a meal. I look toward other people’s lunches for bits of a foundation that will, someday, allow me to find joy in feeding myself again. I build that foundation, piece by piece.