RALEIGH — Walking into Tom and Rachael Sullivan’s kitchen is a little bit like coming home — especially for a college student away from home.
The smells of smoked chicken, pork and freshly grilled asparagus envelop the senses. Odin, the Sullivans’ generally laidback Siberian husky, ecstatically greets visitors and then returns to his spot on the kitchen floor over the AC vent where he can see the whole kitchen.
Rachael Sullivan’s open smile and bubbly laughter immediately break down any barriers, quickly making strangers feel like an old friend.
Tom and Rachael Sullivan are a young couple in Raleigh that have started offering free meals for college students after they went viral on TikTok — twice.
“It is super organic, and I didn’t even mean for this to be anything,” Rachael Sullivan said in an interview with The News & Observer.
What began as Tom Sullivan’s secret Instagram account to keep track of his wife’s favorite meals, MealsSheEats, has attracted more than 71,000 followers in the past two months. It grew after Rachael made a viral video of her own on TikTok when she learned of her husband’s account.
And then in May, Rachael Sullivan posted another TikTok video, this one detailing their “adoption” of Kevin Gallagher, who is an incoming junior at N.C. State. He had been receiving meals to-go at the Sullivans’ house throughout the pandemic.
The video went viral as well, drawing 13.8 million views as of July 12. The couple received hundreds of messages from area college students asking if they too could be “adopted” for a healthy, home-cooked meal.
Today, thanks to social media, the Sullivans notify over 120 college students, as of July 5, whenever they are able to make a meal. And they’ve earned more attention from outlets like NBC’s “Today” show.
“The Sullivan’s are the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Gallagher said on a recent evening as the Sullivans fed a stream of college students. “I’m just glad that they’re in the spotlight.”
Diagnosed with PCOS
Tom and Rachael Sullivan, originally from Chicago, met after college and were married four years ago; they moved to Raleigh in 2020. Tom Sullivan works in medical sales, and Rachael Sullivan works as a flight attendant. In their free time, Tom is an avid cook and Rachael enjoys running their social media pages.
Tom Sullivan began cooking for himself after graduating from college and moving away from home to begin his career.
“I was six hours from home and didn’t know anybody and needed a hobby, so I came home and started cooking because I knew I couldn’t go out to a bar every night,” he said.
He started with a Crock-Pot and his mom’s trusty recipes. Over time, his hobby has developed into a passion for making good food under the constraints of a diet that meets his wife’s unique nutritional needs.
Shortly after moving to Raleigh, Rachael Sullivan was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, more commonly known as PCOS, which is a hormonal imbalance affecting between 6% and 12% of women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
PCOS can manifest in a multitude of symptoms, including irregular menstrual cycles, hormonal acne and insulin resistance, which frequently results in obesity. It is characterized by cysts forming on a woman’s ovaries, meaning that many women are infertile if it is left untreated.
While there are many ways to treat the disorder, diet has proven to be one of the most successful in Rachael Sullivan’s case.
“I had known for so long that something was wrong. I always had the worst bloat, like ever, and I had really bad hormonal acne,” Rachael Sullivan said.
“We did a Whole30 diet the summer we were married,” she said, referring to a 30-day “cleansing” diet that cuts out dairy, grains and legumes, among other foods. “That’s the best I had ever felt.”
Although her doctors initially informed her that they didn’t think she had PCOS given her weight, she was convinced otherwise. In October, she asked her doctor to test her hormone levels and to conduct an ultrasound. The tests confirmed her suspicions.
“There are so many women going through what I’m going through. It’s nice to know you’re not alone, and that you’re not crazy,” Rachael Sullivan said. “You know your body better than anyone else. If something feels off, it probably is off.”
Using diet to manage PCOS
Diet has played a huge role in the way Tom and Rachael Sullivan have combated and managed her PCOS. Eating gluten-free and dairy-free is an integral part of the diet, but they’ve gone beyond the typical dietary requirements.
Two photocopied images from “Women Code” by Alisa Vitti are pinned to the side of their fridge, detailing which foods are best for four major periods of a woman’s cycle.
Vitti’s book seeks to balance hormones using whole foods, and divides women’s cycles into four major periods. Within each period she recommends specific foods that help to supplement nutrients the body is losing in order to help balance the hormones.
“During your menstrual cycle you’re losing a lot of blood, so there might be a lot of foods that include iron,” said Rachael Sullivan. “It kinda just takes stuff your body is naturally depleting and finds the foods that supplement that.”
Tom Sullivan uses the list during his planning and tries to work foods into the menu to complement the stages she’s in. They’ve found that she frequently craves the foods that are most helpful to her during those periods of the month.
“When I’m craving something but don’t feel like eating anything, Tom will know corn is the best thing, for example, so he’ll suggest like ‘taco night,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, that actually sounds good,’” Rachael Sullivan said.
They have also worked to adapt Rachael Sullivan’s diet to her busy schedule as a flight attendant. They prepare meals beforehand, and she has worked to find the best places in airports to get gluten-free and dairy-free meals at the airport.
“At the end of the day, if I can’t eat exactly what is in the phase then I always just try to be gluten-free,” she said.
The secret Instagram account
As Tom Sullivan experimented with different foods, he found himself wanting a way to organize and remember all of the meals Rachael really enjoyed, so he started an Instagram account with the name: MealsSheEats.
“I needed to save my recipes, because she’d be like, ‘I loved that meal that you cooked,’ and I’d have no idea what I made. And I kept it secret because I didn’t want it to be nice, I didn’t want her to take it over and make it all pretty,” Tom Sullivan said, laughing.
Rachael Sullivan discovered what her husband had been doing when MealsSheEats popped up on Instagram’s “Suggested For You” accounts feed. She clicked on it, curious as to who the “she” in the account name was.
“It was all these recipes he had made for me, and it just melted my heart. I was so touched by it,” she said.
“I just love the space that he’s created so far,” Rachael said. “It’s just all these women brought together. I love the following is like 90% women, 10% men, it’s phenomenal.
“It’s great, all these women are taking, like, advice from Tom on menstrual cycles,” Rachael Sullivan said and laughed.
Adopting college students
On a Monday night in early July, a constant stream of college students kept the Sullivans busy.
Due to Rachael Sullivan’s job, the feeding schedule is somewhat sporadic, but in the last three months students have shown up with empty Tupperware containers at least once a month.
The meals offered to students are cooked to conform with Rachael’s diet restrictions.
Gallagher and one of his roommates talked about the time they had chomped down on the spiciest set of buffalo wings Tom Sullivan had ever made, and won a premium cut steak out of the challenge.
Across the kitchen island, a student pursuing a master’s in nutrition quizzed Rachael Sullivan over her experience with diet and PCOS.
One of the first-time students laughed as she filled her Tupperware container and said she told her father she’d bring him some of the food.
“Well, get a to-go box, you’re going to need another one,” Tom says.
The Sullivans’ passion for bringing people together has led them to discover ways to make feeding college students a widespread and more permanent reality.
The Sullivans initially bought all of the food, but in early June they established a GoFundMe page that has raised over $3,500 to allow them to continue to plan and cook meals — well over their goal of $1,000. They said they also receive donations from local farms and charities.
“Right now we’re just taking it organically,” Tom Sullivan said. “Cooking her PCOS meals turned into feeding college kids, which has brought other people reaching out. We know for sure that we want to bring people together. If I could cook for a living that would be my dream, and Rachel’s dream is entertaining and bringing people together.”
Their experiences have proven to them that good food can be life-changing, they say. After seeing how Rachael Sullivan’s diet change was able to improve her life, they say it may allow them to have children in the future.
“It’s our time in the kitchen, it’s where we share our days, it’s how we bring people together,” Tom Sullivan said.