Comfort Food: Why We Love It

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

Comfort Food, mac and cheese, tomato soup, brownies, chicken soupWhen I think of comfort food I close my eyes and I am standing in my mother’s kitchen, or maybe my Grandmother’s. It’s more than a feeling, it’s the food I remember when I was little; food that takes me back to simpler times and unfussy meals.

Food triggers a sense of belonging and certain foods suggest comfort as opposed to nutrition. Comfort food is not about calories, it’s a sense of well-being that ties us to a time, place or person, and it makes us feel good.

Meals we loved as a child evoke memories of that childhood, along with family gatherings, and people we love; especially those no longer with us. It is comfort food for the body and the soul.

Childhood Favorites

Everyone loves a good bowl of chicken soup. It warms us up when we are cold, makes us feel better when we’re sick and reminds us of Mom and home.  There are so many worthy of praise, but I do have my favorites. Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perlman has one of the best chicken soups going; modeled after a New York deli. I also like the NY Times Version and recommend a rotisserie chicken from the local supermarket for flavor and extra chicken in every bowl.

Mac and Cheese is another childhood favorite loved by grown-ups. Creamy melted cheese is a throwback to a time when life was simple. It was a budget stretcher and tasted even better left over. Eating a bowl still alleviates life’s little challenges for children of all ages.

The best versions take a little time and this is one of my favs. The key—use good cheese!  Find a recipe with the flavors you enjoy in a cheese mix because there are no rules. Steer clear of the shredded stuff in supermarket packaging and grate your own – you’ll be glad you did.

Campbell's Tomato Soup, Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Comfort Food

Grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s Tomato Soup were standard comfort fare in our house, especially if you weren’t feeling well. Mom replaced the water with milk for a creamier soup and offered it up for illnesses from chicken pox to sore throats. If you were home from school, it was the meal of choice. We still love this combo on a cold rainy day or when we feel out of sorts.

I have a grown up version that glams up the flavor options and makes use of the summer garden,  but no one will think less of you if you are loyal to the standard we grew up with.

Dinner is Served

My mom made a killer meatloaf that I have never been able to duplicate. The main reason is that, back in the day ground beef had more fat and fat equals flavor.

I tried many recipes before finding one I really liked and freely admit to the joy a plate of Grandma’s Boarding House Meatloaf brings, complete with mashed potatoes and peas…from a can.

Sunday post roast was a staple in my husband’s family and it became one in ours.  I love my crock pot for many reasons and pot roast is one of them but oven-made pot roast is worth the effort when you have a stay-at-home day. Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, has a winner with her Perfect Pot Roast. The red wine channels Julia Child.

Speaking of crock pots, I am exploring recipes for crock pot lasagna and have bookmarked this one as my flagship effort. I enjoyed it at pot luck and was amazed at how good it tasted.

The Sweet Side of Comfort Food

It’s no surprise that many of our sweet comforts are tied to childhood memories. My mom was a scratch baker, and I stand on her shoulders.  She had a few go-to recipes that all of us loved and we still make them.

Sweet Treats, Comfort Food, brownies, tapioca puddingTapioca pudding. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it option, and for those who love it there’s nothing like a bowl with a bit of whipped cream. It comes in a box found in the supermarket.  Just make it and enjoy it.

Chocolate makes us feel good too, and brownies remain a simple pleasure. America’s Test Kitchen ranks Ghirardelli Chocolate Supreme Brownie Mix as the best off the shelf option, though opinions vary. All boxed brownies call for water, and I have been known to reduce it and replace it with equal amounts of vanilla or chocolate extract, espresso and even Kahlua.

For homemade brownies you need to know if you are fudgy or cakey and proceed accordingly. We are in the fudgy camp.

Hershey’s One-Bowl Brownies are a family favorite and you must use their Special Dark Cocoa, but there are more labor-intensive recipes.  If you are adventurous, Notting Hill Brownies provide a decadent brownie experience. Warning: one pound of butter is the first ingredient. Totally worth it.

The Science of Comfort Food

Comfort foods contain carbohydrates. Carbs trigger a metabolic chain of events that literally makes us happy by tapping into the brain’s pleasure centers. Foods rich in carbohydrates spike insulin levels, which helps the brain make serotonin.

Serotonin is known as the happy neurotransmitter; and is a key factor behind food and contentment. Lack of serotonin has been extensively linked to depression, especially during the chilly and dark winter months.

Feel Good Food, Comfort Food, serotonin, carbohydratesComplex carbs (like the ones in comfort food) take longer for the body to break down and are one of the best ways to incorporate serotonin-producing foods into your diet.  Foods rich in vitamins B6 and B12 also aid in building serotonin and help curb cortisol levels when you are stressed.

There are quite a few studies with opposing views on the ability of comfort food to actually make you feel better, but in the interest of science I am prepared to eat my way through the research.

My unscientific conclusion is that it just tastes good.