Veggie-heavy, effort-light meals go viral
A lunchbox neatly packing a few pieces of steamed broccoli, three baby carrots, a slice of cheese and half a boiled egg—this culinary "feast" is now trending on Chinese social media. Young netizens from all over the country are posting pictures of similar minimum-effort maximum-veggie meals online as a demonstration of their (often newly adopted) low-effort lifestyles. The hashtag unifying their posts—bairenfan, literally "white people meals"—has become one of the hottest phrases on various platforms and local media in the past two months. The views expressed under the tag have since also made their way onto Twitter, where many English language users found them hilariously true. But what's the underlying life philosophy here? Is it really about "white people" and their "meals"? No, it definitely goes a deeper than that.
Mu Jiayu, an office worker in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, usually prepares her breakfast and dinner for the upcoming week on Sundays. "Prepares" might be stretching it because all she needs to do is go to a nearby supermarket to get a bag of sliced bread, a packet of cheese slices and some eggs, she will boil around 10 of them at once—fewer than two a meal—and put everything in the fridge. Slapping cheese between two slices of bread, packing the boiled eggs and pouring herself a thermos cup of coffee, she can get her meals ready in no more than three minutes.
"I don't like getting up early, but I do need breakfast to wake me up. So I came up with this handy 'recipe' and I stick to it almost every weekday," Mu told Beijing Review. "On weekends, I get up around noon and don't need breakfast at all."
Mu said her long workdays have diminished her appetite for more elaborate meals which require more effort to prepare. "As long as these light meals keep the hunger at bay, I'm happy," the 26-year-old added.
Convenience and speed in preparation are the main features that have attracted more people to join the fad in the first place. Some joke that even a meal that light can be further simplified. "A potato and a cucumber will suffice. No dishwashing, no packing any lunchboxes," a netizen captioned her picture of the two ingredients on Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), China's answer to Instagram.
"The key is to get stuff from the supermarket that you can eat without having to go through the trouble of cutting ingredients or anything," another post said on Xiaohongshu.
"It's very healthy; also, I don't have to worry about gaining weight," Mu added.
Some people also pack their light meals for lunch at workplace, instead of eating at restaurants, opting for online food delivery or going to the company canteen, the most common lunch choices for Chinese employees. Lin Kai just graduated from university and now works in finance in Shanghai. The young man, who doesn't know how to cook, is a huge proponent of the easy-peasy meal trend. "Different from oil-heavy dishes that you usually get when you opt for food delivery, the vegetables, fruits, proteins and sometimes coarse food grain makes me less sleepy during the day and thus more efficient at work," he told Beijing Review.
As an old Chinese saying goes, "Food is the paramount necessity of the people." Typical Chinese food, while differing from one region to the next, generally requires more processing. People are more used to dishes being cooked in different ways, from stir-fried to stewed, incorporating many ingredients and going heavy on the seasoning. Of course, these meals take up more time and energy.
While light meals are trendy for their convenience, they are not warmly embraced by everyone. Many Chinese, especially among the older generations, frown upon them, believing that a minimal-effort meal is a way of making do. "Even a rabbit would shake its head when seeing such a so-called meal. And it's cold and raw, not good for your health or soul," Hu Ya'nan, an office clerk from Huizhou, Guangdong Province, told Beijing Review. Like many people from China's southern regions, Hu doesn't eat uncooked vegetables and sometimes she even heats fruit before eating it. It is widely believed that people living in the more humid and hotter parts of China developed a habit of eating all cooked foods to avoid diarrhea or other diseases stemming from eating spoiled fare.
For Hu, preparing a well-cooked meal is a relaxing way to enjoy life. "I will never eat those uncooked celeries. It's torture," she added. "Life is already bitter enough."
But not everyone enjoys cooking or has plenty of time to cook. Many relate the popularity of the packed light meal to the 996 work culture, working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—an intense working schedule often rampant in the hi-tech and Internet companies, which makes eating a more time-consuming meal a sheer luxury.
"It depends on the person. I'm a hard worker, but I still somehow manage to make decent meals for myself or 'go through the trouble' of going somewhere—where I like to eat," Hu said.
As light meals have been gaining increasing attention online, some netizens are rolling with the trend to showcase their wit by coming up with their own versions. A poster on Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, showed a serving of plain crackers, cheese and ham, although the consumer disliked its taste, saying: "I took two bites and it was just so bad..."
China's bairenfan fad has also been picked up by the media and the public outside the country, with "white people meals" becoming a hot hashtag on TikTok and Twitter.
The trend really took off in China in May, but there are posts with the hashtag dating as far back as last October, when a Chinese netizen posted about her astonishment when she saw a woman on a train in Switzerland making her lunch with just a bag of lettuce and slices of ham. The woman bundled them together, added mustard and dug in. The Chinese passenger couldn't believe what she was seeing and the phrase "bairenfan" was born.
Some say the origins can be traced in part to a fascination with healthy eating in the West. Megan Elias, food historian and gastronomy director at Boston University, said there's a historic reason behind it. In early July, she told CNN that as the Global North urbanized and industrialized in the mid to late 19th century, markets emerged for people to sell lunch to factory workers and office clerks.
"The standardization of the lunch hour in factory settings gave people less time to eat and urbanization meant they might be working far from home, so they were not able to cook. Lunch wagons and quick-serve coffee shops emerged especially in America to provide cheap and easy lunches that people could eat outside or inside their places of work," Elias said.
A few years ago, similar prep-friendly meals became popular among many Chinese students studying overseas. Adrift in a foreign country, they had to balance their studies and life; some didn't know how to cook, others wanted to save time. "Even ice cream bibimbap is not unacceptable for them," Chinese netizens teased at the time.
Zheng Su, Director of the Nutrition Department at Hangzhou Third People's Hospital, said whether a light meal is healthy or not depends on what exactly it consists of. "If it's just cheese, ham and bread, then it is unhealthy and I would not recommend people just eating that," Zheng said, adding that a nutritiously balanced meal comprising vegetables, fruit, whole grains, healthy fats and proteins is what people should stick to. That's a bonafide recipe for good health. Bon appétit!