When Tommy Winkler first blew up on TikTok for his "What I eat in a day" videos, he was eating half a pack of rice cakes a day. He'd take a large bite, look into the camera and nod.
“People love watching me eat food for some reason,” the 21-year-old tells TODAY Food.
The Chicago native now has 8.8 million followers on the platform and his “What I eat in a day" videos have evolved into daily food challenges.
At first, Winkler’s food challenge videos focused on American fast food. Now he likes to get creative and have a little more fun with what he eats. He travels the country — and the world — exploring new foods and cultures, all while posting about it on TikTok.
Some of Winkler's favorite food challenge videos he's filmed include those with his family or girlfriend, and ones where he eats "Stanger Things" and "Friends"-related foods for a day.
In the "Friends" video, Winkler re-enacts the scene where two of the main characters, Chandler Bing and Rachel Green, eat cheesecake off the floor.
"This one was just fun," Winkler says. "I can get creative. I can re-create some of the scenes with it. And that's the parts that people don't realize. People think I just take a bite of food and nod my head when really, I'm trying to also replicate stuff like that."
Recently, Winkler embarked on a challenge in which he ate emoji-themed food for the whole day.
For breakfast, he made pancakes. While he could have just eaten one pancake with butter on it, Winkler says he has to go all in.
“I have to make the five-pancake stack with the butter that’s kind of melting," he says. "It just has to be perfect, or I have to make the perfect burger that fits the exact emoji, or the burrito. So, there’s a lot that I have to visualize that goes into it.”
Winker plans out his challenges the night before filming. While each day looks different depending on the challenge, his morning routine stays the same.
When Winker wakes up — usually around 6 a.m. — the first thing he does is work out. From there, he finds breakfast. If a restaurant's breakfast menu closes at a certain time, Winkler will rush over to get his meal. And, if his day is busy with behind-the-scenes meetings with his team, he'll grab lunch at the same time and save it for later.
Throughout the day, Winkler meets with people about merchandise, brand deals and spends time coming up with new video ideas. By 5 or 6 p.m., likes to have his dinner made and dessert ready to eat.
"Normally once it gets nighttime after seven, eight o'clock, I just sit down and watch TV and then you know back in bed by 10 p.m. and just kind of restart the next day," he says.
Winkler dropped out of college after his second year to pursue being a full-time content creator. His parents, Deb and Jon, are supportive of his aspirations. Winkler says his family helps make sure he's making smart decisions — especially when it comes to the amount of money he spends on food.
His mom says he's had to learn a lot in order to manage his business from negotiating contracts to keeping track of his finances.
"He does two videos a day," Deb says. "People would think it's easy to eat food but it's not."
Winkler says it's harder to come up with video ideas than people think.
“People think, 'Oh just go to your comment section and pick a comment,'" he explains. “For me, it’s more when I see the comment, I need to visualize a whole video because I like to get creative within my videos. I like to throw in jokes.”
Winkler had never traveled out of the country before his TikTok career; now, he's been to 10 different countries, including Thailand and Singapore, to sample cuisines direct from the source.
Over the summer, he went to Italy with his girlfriend Jessica Pappas and her family. While there, Winkler filmed a food challenge video where he spent a whole day eating the same foods as Pappas' mom.
"The day before, he asked my mom, 'Do you mind tomorrow if I eat what you eat for the day?' And she was like, 'Oh my gosh.' She was like, 'I got to get ready for tomorrow,'" Pappas tells TODAY. "So, then we kind of planned it out the day before and then he just said like whatever you get I'll order two of."
Although Winkler has loved being able to travel and eat, he says it's all taken a toll on his body — especially during his 50-state series that he filmed last winter.
Within two and a half months, Winkler traveled to every state to try the region's best foods. He drove to 48 states and flew to Alaska and Hawaii. On average, he was on the road eight to 12 hours a day.
"I would go to the next state. I would get to a restaurant and get to another restaurant to like to find you know the state's most iconic foods," he says. "Some were very difficult to find. But then it's like, I'm going down the whole East Coast. I find myself eating so many like lobster rolls, oysters and crab."
And yes, Winkler has discussed his food habits with his doctor. He says that doctors will always advise to eat healthier, more nutritious foods, but Winkler says he often gets caught up in his challenges that he pushes that advice to the side.
He says he never wants to promote an unhealthy lifestyle and is aware of the food he consumes. Off-camera, Winker works out multiple times a day. He also eats a substantial breakfast which he doesn't always film — usually scrambled eggs, bagel or a protein shake.
"I get caught up in wanting to just keep pushing myself, which, you know, over the last week I've been doing challenges for a year and a half now," Winkler says. "Just kind of mind blowing, and it is like starting to hit me where my cholesterol levels are getting higher. I have a bit higher blood pressure."
Winkler’s parents have been encouraging him to weave some healthier days into his video schedule.
"He'll have to look at other options as he gets older because that kind of stuff does catch up with you," his dad says.