Posted: July 7, 2020
Author: Ryan Kukuruzovic, Corporate Chef

Ryan has 20-plus years of R&D and foodservice experience. His focus is on the design and implementation of diverse and innovative culinary visions with the highest standards of excellence.

Defining Comfort

By definition, a comfort food or meal provides consolation or a feeling of well-being. Typically, any food with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content that’s associated with childhood or home cooking.

In other words, it’s a food or dish that nurtures the soul – providing a calm and security associated with yesteryear when life seemed simple, safe, easy or rather lighter and brighter.

Historically, I believe some of the most accessible ethnic comfort foods within Western culture come down to:

• Filipino Adobo• Thai Curries• Bavarian Pretzels
• Jerk Chicken• Ramen• Schnitzel & Red Cabbage
• Tikka Masala• Pad Thai• Fish & Chips
• Pasticcio• Hungarian Goulash• Tonkatsu
• Poutine• Beef Provençal• Cassoulet

In American cuisine, we’ve come to associate an array of regional foods as comforting:

• Chicken Pot Pie• Mac & Cheese• Loaded Baked Potato
• Chicken & Dumplings• Grilled Cheese• Stuffed Mushrooms
• French Onion Soup• Chicken Noodle Soup• Biscuits & Gravy
• Pizza• Seafood Boil• Fried Chicken & Mashed Potatoes
• Chili• Shrimp & Grits• Beef Stroganoff

COVID-19 Impacts on Comfort Food

During times of stress, fear and angst, as in many times throughout history, comforts associated with our youth become an anchor of security. Thus, allowing us the collective opportunity to travel back to those meals mom prepared or days when we’d come together as a family for a weekend BBQ at a campground or in a loved one’s backyard. I believe the appetite for foods of comfort and consolation is certainly not limited to a global pandemic but is understandably observable.

Basically, our appetite for comfort food and the safe haven foods of our childhood can be simply evoked by a stressful day in the workplace, an argument with a friend or excessive traffic during our daily commute. It’s important to honor our feelings and revisit those early developmental periods of the past, as a most immediate form of self-care and nurturing for our own preservation, wellness and life balance.

Capitalizing on Nostalgia

According to Mintel, 73% of U.S. adults feel their diet affects their emotional wellbeing. In uncertain times, stressed consumers often turn to classic dishes and nostalgic flavors for feelings of comfort and safety. While many comfort foods tend to be indulgent, food and beverage manufacturers can win customers by providing healthy and wholesome foods with comfort and nostalgic flavors. A few examples could be a root beer float flavored yogurt or a chickpea pasta bacon mac and cheese.

Restaurants are likely to see more demand for nostalgic childhood favorites, such as s’mores, milkshakes, mac and cheese, pizza, French fries, tater tots and chicken nuggets. A more sophisticated or better-for-you spin on these nostalgic staples can capture indulgent and healthy diners alike. An example is to load cauliflower bites or a plant-based dip with premium toppings, such as truffle, goat cheese, Mexican crema or scallions.

Implications for the Future of Comfort Food

 It’s difficult to nail down where the comfort food trend will be in the next couple years. But, on the surface, it seems quite simple; comfort foods provide a sense of fulfillment and ultimately a need to belong. We can see how comfort foods have maintained their place and occupy Western palates in an integral way. As our culture continues to diversify, so too will the staples of comfort. A great example is my daughter’s love of falafel. It has such a calming and satisfying effect on her that it’s almost something I can leverage if needed to get chores done around the house. Just kidding. 🙂

Obviously, we can look at our recent situation with the shelter at home orders across the map and see how within the retail sector pantry staples are flying off the shelves. While simultaneously, consumers are now baking their own bread from scratch or making homemade pastas and sauces, which they’ve always wanted to take the time to learn how to make. In turn, creating comfort foods within their own family units in real time; ultimately making memories for a lifetime.

It’s interesting how when we look at the comforts of food, it’s not limited to necessarily one food or meal itself.  But consumers and home cooks alike realize the power and calm inherent within the act or nature of cooking – it’s an engagement of mindfulness and presence. Again, at that level you’re tapping into those childhood emotions of security and safety evoked by our elders, and embodying those to perpetuate from the same spectrum, the comfort of food or rather the comfort of cooking food.