Try Comfort Foods in Trying Times

A few months before coronavirus took over our lives, I was already planning an article on comfort foods, edibles that could offset the familiar discomforts of winter-- your car sliding into your hostile neighbor's vehicle, your new boots refusing to keep snow from freezing your toes, your kids (and even the dog) all getting drippy noses that last  for the duration of the season. 


Nowadays, you may have an even greater need for comfort food--if you can find the ingredients to prepare them either in your supermarket or on the Instacart screen.   Frustrating examples beleaguering your life seem endless--your bank (at least, mine) closed its doors, its drive-thru, even its ATM machine; your doctor and dentist have no office hours, only phone appointments.  Worst of all, your closest relatives run away when you venture a quick hug.


Before COVID-19 arrived, I asked two Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board scientists-- food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser and food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein--to comment on comfort foods, give me a definition of the term, tell me what foods qualify and why, tell me what their favorites were and why. What I learned I've passed on to you in the Q/As below.  I'll also share with you some quotes on this subject that I found in Wikipedia, the Harvard Health Letter, and other sources.


What's the definition of "comfort food"? Can food really provide comfort? 


Dr. Regenstein: "Comfort food is something I enjoy eating, particularly when stressed or unhappy."


Dr. Bowser:  "For me, comfort food  is whatever my wife is cooking  (or whatever we cook together). Food cooked at home always tastes better to me and is more filling when family and friends are around to share. 


"I  believe that food can provide comfort to the consumer, probably in many ways, including these: 1) a reminder of secure and trouble-free times, typically from  childhood; 2) a full belly, giving a general feeling of security; 3) the activity of eating with friends/family in a safe space, which is often accompanied by feelings of security and contentment." 


Wikipedia's definition of the term "comfort food" suggests both body and mind: "Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation.  The nostalgia may be specific to an individual or it may apply to a specific culture." 


Examples:  1) When, just a week after my mother's death, my aunt arrived with the same chocolate chip cookies my mother often made, my daughter greeted her and her offering with delight and said, "I never thought I'd see those cookies again." I think she loved those cookies because she loved my mother, not the other way around.  Happy memories that include love often lead to a lifetime of favorite foods.


2) In his Chicago Tribune column about books, John Warner begins his April 5 article this way: "When it became clear that I would be sheltering in place for an extended period, I knew I needed three things."  What were they? Of course, books. But also "Baskin-Robbins chocolate chip ice cream" and "Baskin-Robbins chocolate chip mint ice cream."


3) Half of the Kraft macaroni and cheese sold in the U.S. is made in a factory in Champaign, Illinois.  The plant manager, Dilton "Dee" Gibbs, says mac and cheese has gained renewed popularity recently. Why? Perhaps because people quarantined at home are seeking high-protein, easy-to-make, inexpensive products to serve.  According to a Chicago Tribune article, macaroni and cheese sales were up just 1.6% in 2019, but, mac 'n cheese sales rose 27% during the 13 weeks that ended March 21, 2020  (compared to the same 13 weeks in 2019). Similarly, supermarket shoppers had trouble finding pastas and pasta sauces in stores during early and mid-March this year.  


The Food Network called potatoes "an ultimate comfort food" however they're cooked. Wikipedia points this out: "A substantial majority of comfort foods are based heavily on simple carbohydrate, which has been postulated to induce an opiate-like effect on the brain." In other words, the dictionary states, "Comfort food may give comfort simply because of the effect of easily-and-quickly digestible carbohydrates on one's blood sugar."  


Many people have told me that a toasted cheese sandwich is what they turn to for a quick, easy, delicious, and soothing snack or meal when they feel worried, anxious, fearful, or depressed. Several years ago, Shelf Life Advice ran an article stating that cheese is, to some extent, addictive. You'll find it here: That may explain why hot dishes that include cheese are so beloved.  


However, to play the devil's advocate, I must mention this article: "Can Food Really Boost Your Mood?" in Consumer's Reports on Health. It discussed an article in Psychosomatic Medicine that reported on 16 studies that concluded this: "Adults who followed overall healthy diets, such as veggie-focused eating plans, were less likely to have depression symptoms."  Another study discussed in the same Consumer's Reports on Health article found that men who consumed the most sugary foods and beverages were almost 25% more likely to have depression.


Are comfort foods generally or always unhealthy? 


Dr. Regenstein:  "There are very few foods that are unhealthy all by themselves. It is the amount and what you make as your meal that goes to a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle."


Dr. Bowser: "No. Some comfort foods may be healthy.  The health problem may result from overconsumption of comfort food."


Is one's choice of comfort foods an individual matter, related to cultural influences, or other factors?  


[Editor's note: All of these. On my birthday, I expect a birthday cake.  On Halloween, my taste buds yearn for pumpkin pie and chocolate candy.  When Hanukkah comes along, I eat the traditional potato pancakes (latkes). When I have a cold, I count on chicken soup to relieve my symptoms, and there's some evidence that it helps to thin mucus  relieve congestion. Dr. Bowser pointed out that even the time of day influences what foods we crave. Dr. Regenstein mentioned that comfort foods are likely to vary quite a bit from one country and/or ethnic group to another.  And, as we all know, our tastes change with the seasons. In winter, I want hot, heavier foods---stew, pasta, hot chocolate, or maybe a hot toddy; in summer, watermelon, a black cow (root beer with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in it), and Sangria.]


What specific ingredients are likely to be found in comfort foods?


The Harvard Health Letter says comfort foods generally contain saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, salt, sugar, and/or potatoes.  In its article, entitled "Comfort food without the guilt. " the Health Letter reminds us that these foods "are easily digested and can rapidly elevate your blood sugar."  They may, therefore, make the diner feel good. However, many folks have sadly noticed, too much sugar and refined carbs "are associated with weight gain, inflammation, and diabetes."  Salt (sodium chloride) , another common component of comfort food, can lead to fluid retention and high blood pressure.  


How can I make my favorite comfort foods healthier?


The Harvard Health Letter, in "Comfort food without the guilt" (October 2019), included these among a long list of suggestions: "Generally speaking, you can ditch full-fat dairy products like cream and butter and instead use nonfat Greek yogurt, skim milk, low-fat sour cream or cheeses, or vegan cheese (made from tofu or nuts)." Some other good substitutions this article recommends: replace sugar or syrup with berries, applesauce, citrus, or sweet vegetables such as corn or carrots; replace white rice with whole grains such as brown rice, oats, or quinoa; replace salt with herbs and spices such as oregano, rosemary, basil, cumin, or curry powder. 


Dr. Bowser: "Comfort foods can be made healthier by introducing thought and creativity.  To make a healthier toasted cheese sandwich, switch to whole-grain bread; reduce the amounts of butter and cheese; add shredded vegetables.  For healthier French fries, skip the oil and use an air fryer or bake them in the oven. Do some research on healthy recipes."


What foods do two Shelf Life Advice scientists eat for comfort?


Dr. Regenstein: "I like such a variety of foods that I find a lot of different foods are comforting, but I am generally not stressed enough to use food for comfort.  However, when I am stressed, I tend to eat too much."


Dr. Bowser: "My favorite comfort food is a breakfast meal.  I love the traditional breakfast foods: eggs, bacon, biscuits, gravy, sausage, grits, pancakes, maple syrup, and orange juice."

"For me, eating when feeling glum is a mistake.  Eating should be reserved for times of hunger. Encouraging activities such as prayer, exercise, listening to music, and talking to friends are more appropriate to help chase away the blues."


[Editor's note: What's my favorite comfort food? JifWhip (140-calorie version) of peanut butter.  


To chase away the blues,  let's conclude with this cheery thought: late spring and summer lie ahead, and so does the downward curve of the coronavirus. Then, the foods you crave will no longer be pot roast and mashed potatoes.  You'll be looking in the fridge for lemonade or watermelon or looking in the freezer for ice cream. And you'll be able to serve these warm weather treats to friends who can actually come to visit, not just virtually visit.]  




Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Wikipedia  "Comfort Food"


Chicago Tribune Biblioracle column: "Support your local indie bookstore" April 5, 2020.


Chicago Tribune  "We can't make enough mac and cheese" April 5, 2020.


Consumer Reports on Health "Can Food Really Boost Your Mood?" October 2019.


Harvard Health Letter "Comfort food without the guilt" October 2019.




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