How Struggle Meals Helped Us Cook Our Way Through A Changing World

Whatever's happening out there, dried beans will always be the way to go.

When cook and TV personality Frankie Celenza began hosting the cooking show Struggle Meals, recently nominated for its second Daytime Emmy award and banking over a million weekly viewers across several platforms, he never dreamed he'd one day be helping those viewers cook through a global pandemic.

The show, launched by media company Tastemade in 2018, already had a pretty broad appeal when it started: Each episode pivots on a set of inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients—many of which, like rice or dried beans, can typically be found in a sparsely stocked pantry—and offers several recipes that stretch each item as far as it can go. It offers, as the show's tagline proclaims, "creative, nutritious, and inventive dishes that won't break the bank."

"When we started [the show], we thought it would just be for college kids," Celenza said over the phone. "Turns out, [it was also for] single moms, truckers driving across the country—like, a lot more people than we thought."

The raison d'etre of Struggle Meals has always been to help viewers reduce food costs while eating well, drawing from a wide arsenal of different tactics: buying and breaking down whole chickens and beef tenderloins; soaking and cooking dried beans instead of buying canned; and buying fresh fruits and vegetables when they're in season, thereby ensuring that your produce is cheaper, better-tasting, and more nutritionally dense.

Yet the tone of the show is far from utilitarian. Filled with musical interludes, cartoonish sound effects, and Celenza's effusive onscreen charm, the show somehow makes recipes like celery soup seem inviting—or at least worthy of a watch.

From his new home in Connecticut (where he recently moved after doing a random Zillow search for a house near his hometown of New York City), Celenza recalled realizing, early on in the pandemic, just how much people now relied on Struggle Meals. The show already had a diverse viewer base before April 2020; as he mentioned, his audience consisted of much more than just college kids.

"When the pandemic hit, it became basically everybody," he said.

Struggle Meals' viewership increased by 40% between March and May of 2020, said PR company Civic Entertainment Group, which represents Tastemade. The pandemic meant a lot more people at home trying to learn to cook, and a lot more eyes on Celenza.

"It was the first time I really felt a responsibility—like a really big responsibility," he said. "And I was like, 'you know what? This really matters! It really does.'"

That responsibility was clear from the comments in the main Struggle Meals Facebook group, which boasts nearly a quarter of a million followers (there's also a second, private group with just under 90,000 members). In the group, a sort of mini-ecosystem made up of Struggle Meals fans, members can direct their comments and questions to Celenza himself as well as to the group at large.

"I bought a turkey last Thanksgiving, but our gathering was [canceled] due to Covid," said group member Lisa Ellis in December 2021. Even if the bird wasn't expired, Ellis asked, would the texture be okay? Could she maybe use it in soup?

While the Facebook page is peppered with complaints that the recipes Celenza makes aren't actually that affordable, and comments pointing out that buying ingredients like real parmesan cheese is still expensive upfront even if the cost-per-use is relatively low, the majority of members appear grateful that a show like Struggle Meals exists. When the crew was forced to take a months-long hiatus from shooting at the start of the pandemic, members wrote in asking when they'd get to watch the new season. Celenza addressed some of that restlessness with two 'Live From Quarantine' videos on YouTube, and a series of Instagram Live videos where he cooked remotely with celebrities like Shailene Woodley and comedian Ron Funches.

Aside from references to COVID, canceled gatherings, and pantries overflowing with canned goods, the types of questions and comments didn't change too dramatically once the pandemic rolled around: Struggle Meals fans still wanted to know how to maximize the ingredients they had available to them while eating well. What changed, Celenza said, was the sense of urgency he and his team felt to provide that advice.

"The beat that we were drumming made sense pre-pandemic," he said. "[The] pandemic hit, and I would just say that it sort of intensified; all the things that we've been saying on the show, all of a sudden made a hell of a lot more sense."

Celenza had finished filming an episode on the dry bulk aisle of the supermarket, and how to buy and cook with dried beans and lentils, just months before the pandemic hit, he said. It was pure coincidence that the problem of "what to do with too many beans" became a unifying problem for home cooks across the country, and it seemed like every food media outlet began offering new ways to use up excess legumes.

Perhaps that's a testament to the staying power of Struggle Meals: We're always looking to save money, eat well, and maybe even save the planet. Recipes like "rent-week lentil soup" were relevant way before the pandemic, and likely will be long afterward.

Of course, the content of Struggle Meals hasn't remained stagnant. With the overall rise in food costs over the past year, particularly of things like meat, Celenza has changed parts of the show to better reflect current conditions.

"We abandoned the 'under $2 a plate' concept," said Celenza over email, referring to the promise in earlier episodes that each serving of a dish would cost $2 or less. "[Now] we just aim for 'around $3.'"

Another strategy was to gradually, but significantly, reduce the amount of meat featured in the recipes.

"There's meat, but it's less than 20% of the recipes," said Celenza. "Besides—how many meatloaves do you really need to make?"

Struggle Meals Season 7 will be available to stream starting this fall.