An article published in May in the New York Times titled “Sorry, There’s Nothing Magical About Breakfast” thoroughly rounded up the flaws in much of the research championing breakfast. The story was likely welcome relief to the countless Americans who don’t regularly eat “the most important meal of the day.” But that the piece referred to the “magical” and “mystical” powers of breakfast is telling of the national mythology surrounding the meal. Eating a healthy breakfast is not just a good nutritional choice; it is an indicator that a person has time-management skills, solid priorities, and a personal commitment to wellness. People who eat healthy breakfasts, in short, have their shit together. And nowhere do these beliefs about breakfast play out more explicitly than on Instagram.
As of July 31, the hashtag #breakfast was attached to over 46.6 million posts on Instagram. Though #dinner has slightly more at 52.8 million posts, dinner is also a meal eaten by far more people (a market research study from 2011 found that 31 million Americans skip breakfast each day, even though they maybe shouldn’t) and is more likely to be a social event. Dinner also tends to be the largest, most elaborate meal in the average person’s day so it makes more sense to show off the results of all the work that went into it. Breakfast, in contrast, is usually the most solitary meal of the day, often eaten alone before leaving home or en route to the day’s activities. So why does this often-skipped, usually straightforward meal get so much love on Instagram, both in terms of the volume of posts and in the positive response gathered through hearts, comments, and general engagement?
Though Instagram is only a few years old, the story of breakfast’s cultural importance is much older. In her book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, historian Abigail Carroll explores, among other things, how breakfast came to hold such a coveted spot in the hierarchy of mealtimes. “Breakfast has, since the mid- to late nineteenth century, carried moral imperatives having to do with health. Since the dyspepsia epidemic that had Americans fixated on the evils on indigestion and the possibilities for its cure and prevention, breakfast has occupied a ‘cure-all’ role in American eating culture,” Carroll explained via email. For example, breakfast cereal brands were especially well-positioned to proclaim the nutritional superiority of their products for much of the 20th century. Remember those cereal commercials that said, “Frosty Grain Marshmallow Wheats are part of this balanced breakfast” and the setting they showed was covered in a bacchanal’s worth of extra toast, orange juice, and grapefruit halves? Yeah, well. That might have been a lie. But as promises made by major corporations find themselves under increasing scrutiny, consumers find their trust shifting to a more diverse range of resources and messages. And there are few more compelling destinations than the bright and bountiful photos featured on Instagram.
Mackenzie Kruvant is the editor for several of BuzzFeed’s Instagram accounts, including one devoted 100 percent to food that has 2.4 million followers. “The most popular type of breakfast photo is of a healthy breakfast (as opposed to breakfast carbs), so it's often colorful and bright,” Kruvant says, noting that avocado toast outperforms almost every other breakfast item, with smoothie bowls also making a big impact. Kruvant sees the popularity of healthy breakfast posts as an indication of a larger Instagram lifestyle trend. “Everyone wants to look like their life is put together, clean, uncluttered. These breakfast shots are the perfect microcosm of it,” she tells me. This is nowhere more evident perhaps than in the Instagram accounts of people like Lee Tilghman, who turned her love of plant-based cooking and overall interest in wellness into a career built around nutrition, wellness, and the appeal of a fabulous breakfast.
Tilghman’s account was recently the impetus for one of The Cut writer Gabriella Paiella’s “I Want This Bitch’s Life” columns, wherein Paiella jokingly surmises, “From what I can tell based on following Tilghman for the past year and change, she used to live in New York until her beautiful smoothie bowls propelled her to fame and Los Angeles, where she now makes even more beautiful smoothie bowls and does yoga on the beach for a living.” This summary doesn’t actually seem especially off base: Tilghman’s Instagram account boasts 46.3K followers just 2.5 years after she made the decision to turn her interest in photographing food into a career styling food and developing recipes. Tilghman’s breakfast photos regularly prompt good-natured envy in the comments and regularly outperform most of the other food images on her account. Tilghman says there is indeed something optimistic about feeding yourself a big, appealing breakfast but also notes that these perfect images are made possible by a list of clients who help create this reality. “You could eat a bowl of cereal and be very content with it. But, if you open up Instagram after eating that bowl, you'll see this girl who just ate two pieces of sourdough with avocado on top, smoked salmon, poached eggs, and homemade hot sauce and it looks and probably tastes 10000x than your breakfast,” Tilghman says. As someone who sees eating a Siggi’s Icelandic-style yogurt at an actual table rather than standing in front of the trash can into which I will soon discard the container as a triumph of discipline and a commitment to wellness, I can confirm that, yes, her breakfasts look ten thousand times more appealing.
Katie Buttress-Grove, a Sydney-based writer at Food to Love and the mind behind a 62.1K-strong Instagram account featuring photos of colorful healthy meals, says that beautiful breakfasts are not only sources of aspiration; they bring people together. “By beautifying your breakfast dishes with food styling, colourful garnishes, and complementary ingredients that you describe in an enticing manner, it makes breakfast seem like something special (that other people want to be a part of),” she told me via email, noting how her breakfast posts invite more commenters than other posts. They ask her what foods to eat, where to shop, which restaurants to visit, and also regularly tag friends with whom they want to make certain dishes.
Though professional accounts attract a great deal of attention, the vast majority of breakfast photos comes from personal accounts chronicling their first meal of the day. Their motivations are not as immediately evident as those whose lifestyle content has a professional incentive behind it. Like, isn’t one of the most enduring (though admittedly bad) complaints about social media from cantankerous Boomers that “no one wants to see what you ate for breakfast”? Why is such a solitary part of their day such a popular category on the social network, especially when it’s also bogged down by this cliché? Sami Main, a 25-year-old in New York City whose account has just under 1,000 followers and features food photos almost exclusively, says that it is precisely because we’re alone at breakfast that we’re compelled to share it. “Breakfast is eaten in the quiet part of the morning. It’s a solitary part of the day. Showing someone your breakfast ends up being a very intimate revelation about your day and your life,” Main says. By elevating the otherwise ordinary experience of eating breakfast into a social event, even if that socializing is all digital, the solitude of many breakfasts becomes more bearable. BuzzFeed’s Kruvant shares the belief that the act of chronicling breakfast is a way of affirming its reality. “Because people are alone for the meal, they want proof of it. They want to share that memory. They want someone else to be aware of it existing,” Kruvant says. “It's an experience that you had. Something you made for yourself. You did it, but if you didn't show anyone, did you?”
While some may wring their hands at the decline of civilization hearing that young people now have to document their meals to know they existed, there is a more optimistic takeaway. “Most of the food Instagram accounts I follow are breakfast pages, and many of these are what inspired me to get started with my own account a few years back,” Buttress-Grove said. Unlike the envy-inducing trips to Ibiza and designer outfits and outrageously expensive weddings that get so much play on Instagram, a reasonably attractive and healthy breakfast is something many people can achieve.
“Breakfast is one of the most attainable parts of any lifestyle platform that tells us, ‘This is what the good life looks like,’” Main says. “Because anybody can slice a banana and put it in a bowl of something and all of a sudden, it looks amazing.” It’s true: Her comment actually made me go to my kitchen and make my first attempt at a breakfast shot using bananas, peanut butter, and toast on my favorite plate. The concoction turned out to be unworthy of social sharing, but realizing how much easier breakfast is when I put a few minutes into it made me feel less hostile toward all of the pro-breakfast research that had me on the defensive. And then I could take comfort in knowing that even the pros aren’t doing breakfast perfectly all the time. “Of course, if I am cooking for myself, my breakfast looks like mush or is a granola bar on the go,” Tilghman says. “Life is not what it always seems.”