"Struggle Meals" star Frankie Celenza: "The struggle is that we live in the future"

"Struggle Meals" star Frankie Celenza told us his "number one way to save money" on food

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 25, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Chef Frankie Celenza is host of the “Struggle Meals” cooking show. (Courtesy of Tastemade)
Chef Frankie Celenza is host of the “Struggle Meals” cooking show. (Courtesy of Tastemade)

The person who has done the most to popularize the term "struggle meals" is also easily the person who's done the most to demystify and destigmatize it.  As a recipe creator and the host of the Emmy-winning Tastemade series of the same name, Frankie Celenza is on a mission to make you feel good about eating on a budget. 


"At the beginning, we thought, okay, it's going to be jazzing up ramen noodle packages," Celenza, who recently launched the eighth season of "Struggle Meals," said during a recent conversation via Zoom. But soon, his audience was making the case that the struggle isn't about dorm food — it's about the challenges we all face trying to cook and eat well within the limits of our time, money and skill.  "The struggle is relative. That's what I would say," he says now.

With his familiar cheer and high energy, Celenza talked to us about what we can expect from this season of "Struggle Meals," his favorite tip to avoid sticker shock at the supermarket and how to avoid the budget busting perils of food waste.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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I feel like the phrase "struggle meals" meant something different a couple of years ago. What does it mean now for all of us, especially after going through the pandemic?

I was shooting all kinds of shows at Tastemade and trying a bunch of things. Someone came in from the office one day and said, "Hashtag struggle meals" is trending. We looked at it up and we were encouraged to build a show around it, which we did. 

At the beginning, we thought, "Okay, it's going to be jazzing up ramen noodle packages with some fresh ingredients and putting an egg on it," just like the really great Japanese ramen places. The beautiful thing about making a TV show in today's era is that it's interactive almost immediately, because of the internet and social media. We had an idea of what our audience would be going in and then we quickly found out it was a lot of people, because the struggle is relative. That's what I would say.

We try to do affordable food, which is what one assumes when you look at the title, but at the same time, the struggle could be to put multiple meals on the table; or to reduce food waste so that you reduce how much money you're spending; or the struggle could be that you just can't seem to get it right ever and you always burn X, Y and Z. I'm there for that. I teach you how to clean. I teach you how to save how to grow your own herbs, how to think of ingredients broadly, in categories.

"What does the struggle mean? I think the struggle is just life."

If something calls for lemon, a super novice cook would be like, "I don't have lemon ... I can't do this." But anyone who's watched my show and anyone who's cooked anything, realizes there's a bunch of other acids you could slot in for that. The same goes for starches and legumes. I just want people to feel like they can improvise in the kitchen. It does come through some practice. Practice makes that happen. 

So what does the struggle mean? I think the struggle is just life. Whether you're right out of school or leaving home for the first time or you've got a family and a bunch of kids to feed, everyone's struggle is different. We're trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Now with inflation, the show makes even more sense.

I go to buy eggs and get sticker shock. Things that I used to think were my cheap options are now exorbitant. How is the struggle meal changing? When you're looking at what inflation is doing to a lot of us right now, what are some creative ways that we as home cooks can get around that? 

The struggle is that we live in the future. This economy is designed for convenience in every single way. So you walk into a supermarket if you live in a big city like New York or Boston or San Antonio or anywhere that isn't a food desert, where there's a lot of people, you walk into any supermarket and they have everything all the time.

You can get winter vegetables right now. If you don't realize that things grow in season, because everything's available all the time, which is now how we're becoming accustomed, because we live in the age of convenience, you end up buying out-of-season things and wondering why they're expensive.

The price of eggs, for example, right now everybody's experiencing it. There is no seasonality for eggs. Chickens lay eggs all the time, but we had a little bird flu thing, we lost 25% of the eggs. Demand is still there, supply is down, cost goes up. Very simple.

The same thing applies to in-season and out-of-season vegetables. Right now we've got all the skinny asparagus because they're just sprouting where we are in the Northeast. They're all growing at the same time. These guys have fields and fields and fields of it, it's finally in season. Guess what, they don't cost a lot of money, because they have way too much supply and there isn't a whole lot of demand. Now is when you want to get the asparagus. They're also going to have more vitality and it's more green for the planet, because you're not shipping it long distance. When you get asparagus in November, it's coming from South America. It got on a plane or a boat. It's ten days old by the time you get it and the supply is low and it costs more. You have all of mankind's knowledge at your fingertips with this computer or the phone or whatever you have. You can see what's in season in the area near you. Eat seasonally, you'll start saving money right away and you'll get more nutrition.

What are some other things we can be thinking about seasonally right now that feel good for us home cooks and give it a lighter lift?

With Season Eight, I asked the question rhetorically and jokingly all the time, "What is cooking? Does it specifically mean applying heat to things?" I don't know because sometimes something is so easy to make you ask yourself, was that cooking? I don't even think the answer needs to be yes anymore. If it gives you joy and it's filling you up, that's wonderful.

We have one specific episode called "It's Too Hot to Cook." They're all dishes that don't require any heat at all that are extremely tasty. Inspired by the Spanish gazpacho, we went with chilled cucumber avocado soup. Is that cooking? I don't know, but it's a lovely meal and a hot day.

By the way, if you're turning on your oven and stove and cooking out of season by adding a ton of heat to your house; if you're fortunate enough to have AC, you're now rising your AC bill by counteracting it with the oven or stove. If you can avoid that, that's great.

We did a Green Goddess chopped salad. I love those. You put yogurt in it and the dressing becomes extremely filling with good fats. It's crisp with acidity and green vitality. There's a watermelon lime granita, which is the most primitive form of ice cream and you don't need any special equipment. You just freeze ice and as it's semi-freezing, you take a knife and scrape it and break it up to get Italian ice. 

I want to ask about reducing food waste, because it is one of the best ways to fight the struggle. It's also I think it's one of the hardest for a lot of us. I also don't want to be that person who's scared to throw food away. There are real concerns that we have about safety and foodborne illnesses. How do we balance all of that so that we're buying, preparing and eating in a way that is mindful and useful?

You kind of have to plan beforehand. If you're doing it willy-nilly in the moment and cooking is not something you've practiced, you're not going to do well. And food safety and all these things do become a problem. 

In some earlier seasons, we had this great idea where, if someone buys a sweet potato and we just show them one recipe with a sweet potato and then they don't eat all the sweet potato and they get sick of it, they're going to throw it out. So we did a whole season where we had a focal ingredient and I gave three completely different dishes for that ingredient.

The idea is twofold. One, cook it this way, make X dish and then get subsequent dishes from the way that you cooked it. The other one is, here's three different ways to cook this thing, because sometimes you get sick of eating the same thing. It's not that you're being lazy and throwing it out. It's that you're sick of the same thing. How can we spice that up? Again, it's practice, it's planning. Imagine you don't know how to walk and we just talk about the first step like, what can I do to make sure that I don't fall? I can describe it to you, but you're going to have to fall before you realize that walking actually is controlled falling.

"Thirty-plus percent of groceries go in the garbage."

I feel like it's the same thing with food waste. We try really hard with "Struggle Meals" to give people a whole bunch of options. You could do this and you could do that and oh, you know what, this would be really great for this. We have the scrap bucket that we've had for multiple seasons now. Every time a broth comes along, I'm always putting scraps in it because I think everyone should be saving the scraps. Should it be on a bucket on your countertop? No, it should be frozen in the freezer so it's ready for you when you're ready. But that's a great way to do it. Thirty-plus percent of groceries go in the garbage. So if you're spending a thousand dollars in any given time period, you're throwing $300 out. That's the number one way to save money, use everything you buy.

One of the things I really appreciate about your struggle meals is that they don't look like struggle meals. They are meals that you would actually want to serve to other people that you would want to eat for yourself. What are some of the things that we can do so that our meals look as good as they taste?

"The beautiful thing is we eat multiple meals a day."

Different colors helps a lot. The number one thing you can do to up the way your food looks is just go buy some herbal plants and keep them alive in your window, because putting some fresh herbs on the end look fantastic. It is silly to put fresh herbs on if you're buying them at $2.99 a bundle and then you only use a third of it and throw away the rest. Now that little sprinkle costs you three bucks. Not good. But if you buy plants and grow them, that's a great way to do it. Plating is its own art form, for sure. The beautiful thing is we eat multiple meals a day. If we're in a big city, there are a lot of chefs all over the country that are really passionate about the stuff they're making and they are trying to share a story with you through food. Every single day, it can be like going to an art gallery, even if it's a $5 dish. Look at everyone else's plating. If something looks appetizing to you, because we're all taking pictures of our food, try to copy it. Go for it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Budget Cooking Food Shopping Food Waste Frankie Celenza Home Cooking Interview Struggle Meals