‘Girl dinner’ is much more than a social media fad

by Leticia Miranda

TikTok has been taken over by “girl dinner,” which is a cultural reference favoring no-fuss snack plates instead of a full meal. But girl dinner is more than just a social media trend; it reflects a larger shift in our eating habits that began before the pandemic. We’re simply snacking more these days. In a country known for oversized entrées, this change represents an inflection point for food companies that could be as significant as the impact television had on our eating habits. It’s hard to imagine American food culture without a TV dinner. Soon, it may hard to imagine food culture without the girl dinner snack plate — and food companies are taking notice.

The US snack market is booming. Between 2018 and 2022, sales of salty snacks grew by 42% to $35.3 billion, according to Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm. And those sodium-stuffed treats, such as pretzels, chips and popcorn, were the best-selling specialty foods last year for the first time, Axios reports, citing the Specialty Foods Association. Overall, about 27% of consumers said they were snacking more last year than the year before, according to Kelsey Olsen, a US food and drinks analyst with the market intelligence firm Mintel. Some 20% of female consumers reported that they were replacing more meals with salty snacks and 45% said they were snacking more in general.

Snacking or choosing smaller meals throughout the day may be a reflection of how consumers are managing their budgets. As Sean Connolly, the chief executive of Conagra Brands Inc., whose dozens of brands range from Healthy Choice foods and Slim Jim meat sticks to BOOMCHICKAPOP popcorn, said on the company’s recent earnings call, people may not be buying as much food, but they “aren’t eating less.” Connolly should know, as Conagra’s snacks and grocery business helped keep the company’s latest earnings report from becoming a disaster. Although Conagra’s frozen and refrigerated food volumes fell 11% from a year earlier, snacks only declined by 5%.

Sure, food prices have soared during this era of inflation, but don’t assume that consumers are drawn to snacks just for their relatively lower costs and convenience. The pandemic ignited fresh interest in healthy eating. Two snack products that saw significant growth in both dollar and unit volumes in 2022 were Simply Good Foods Co.’s Quest Protein Chips, a crunchy high-protein snack, and Hershey Co.’s Pirate’s Booty, a cheesy puffed corn chip. Both snacks are either rich in nutrients or made with higher quality ingredients than conventional processed food.

Frozen dinners have yet to win over health-conscious consumers who are skeptical of processed foods that contain high levels of sodium. A plate of Stacy’s Pita Chips, Applegate Farms sliced ham with some grapes from Kroger and cheese from Whole Foods appears to be a higher quality meal that one can assemble more conveniently than waiting 10 minutes for a high-sodium Marie Callender’s pot pie to heat up in the microwave.

This all bodes well for savory and salty snack giants PepsiCo Inc. and Mondelez International Inc. as well as the Hershey Co., which is looking to expand in this area. The iconic confectionary maker has been on a salty snack binge, snapping up companies such as SkinnyPop, Dot’s Pretzels and Pirate’s Booty in recent years. The results of those acquisitions are promising. Hershey’s North American salty snacks business grew 119.7% in the first quarter of 2023 from a year earlier, driven by higher prices and sales volume. The company expects its salty brands will achieve double-digit growth over the next few years and has been investing in its supply chain to meet growing demand. Hershey reports earnings next week.

Think of snack plates as the TV dinner of the TikTok generation. As for girl dinner, the fad challenges many of the assumptions about women and their family roles. After all, the use of the infantile word “girl” speaks to the reality that even adult women don’t always “have it all together,” which previous generations may have been hesitant to admit. In essence, the popularity of girl dinner reflects broader anxiety about what it means to be a woman in the post-pandemic era and a time when women’s rights are under attack. In this world, a plate of baby carrots, cheese, salami, hummus and pretzels is just fine for dinner. Food companies would be wise to fight for their place on that plate.

Leticia Miranda is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering consumer goods and the retail industry. She was previously a business reporter at NBC News and a retail reporter at BuzzFeed News.