Gone are the days of culinary conservatism: Americans are eating more adventurously than ever before. Perhaps it’s because we Instagram all that’s edible , or our dependence on dining out makes us eager for more variety. Whatever the reason, few consumers bat an eyelash at novel dishes anymore: From poke bowls to sushi burritos, new food trends are thriving.
But good eating need not always be exotic. And however much we love to prove we’re not picky eaters, comfort foods always hold a special place in our hearts (and stomachs). You know the high-calorie category we’re talking about: old standbys often enjoyed during childhood but just as appetizing to adults. Enough with the kale and kombucha – in this project, we’re celebrating the classic pleasures of comfort food.
We surveyed over 1,000 individuals about their favorite comfort foods, comparing their responses by state and across demographic differences. We also asked what fuels their attachment to these dishes while exploring the nostalgic power of these cuisines. To find out which comfort foods Americans truly crave, keep reading.
Of all the various comfort food possibilities, pizza claimed the top spot in most states. That nationwide dedication is matched by consumption; by some estimates, Americans bite into about 350 slices every second . Still, other comfort food staples broke through in multiple states, including hamburgers. Although the dish may trace its roots as far back as ancient Rome, it’s safe to say burger innovation has been a thoroughly American tradition since the 20th century. Ice cream, the favorite comfort food in several states, has similarly patriotic associations : Colonists were the first to use the term “ice cream,” and America’s first parlor opened in 1776.
Some states, including Nevada, Utah, Montana, and Wisconsin, deemed mac and cheese the ultimate comfort food. Although the dish’s savory goodness may strike many as distinctly American, its origins are the subject of international debate. Elsewhere, some states proved to be outliers: Alabamians were the only ones to pick chocolate as their favorite comfort food. Texans and Hawaiians bestowed that honor upon fried chicken instead. Perhaps it’s fitting that at least one Southern state did so, as the dish remains a celebrated art form across the region.
Although pizza spoke deeply to both male and female palates, some fascinating differences emerged regarding other dishes. Women were especially devoted to mac and cheese: Of the respondents who called it their favorite comfort food, more than three-quarters were female. By contrast, hamburgers ranked second among men but didn’t even crack the top five for female respondents. We all scream for ice cream, however: The sweet treat ranked third among men and women alike.
We should also note that some respondents expressed their own distinctive sense of comfort cuisine, eschewing common favorites for dishes enjoyed in their youth. The term comfort food may not prompt images of spam and rice for most of us, but the fondness for this dish remained strong in those for which it evoked childhood memories.
Portion Size Preference
In the spirit of calorie transparency, few comfort foods qualify as particularly healthy. This trade-off is simply a part of indulging in these delicacies – and according to our findings, indulge is the appropriate term, with 65% of our survey respondents indicating that they ate at least a double portion when they decided to eat something especially comforting.
Interestingly, our findings suggest we’re less likely to eat big as we age: 57 percent of baby boomers limited themselves to a standard portion. Again, this finding may relate to each age group’s nutritional necessities: Older individuals require fewer calories but just as many nutrients, so comfort foods may not align well with their needs. Conversely, millennials were most likely to take a double portion or more, which their youthful metabolisms are more likely to mitigate.
While a significant percentage of respondents admitted to consuming big comfort food servings, their attitudes about doing so differed quite sharply. Some expressed the need to monitor their snacking closely to avoid overdoing it; others unapologetically paired their dish of choice with sugary soda. Despite these differences, one Tennessee resident perfectly described why comfort food can be so tempting: “It’s so goooooood.”
Clearly, people can feel quite connected to the comfort foods they enjoy. To explore these feelings more closely, we asked respondents to explain the basis for their preferences. For some, the appeal of their chosen food boiled down to a literal sense of comfort, either physical or emotional. Many who expressed this notion of comfort emphasized specific aspects of the eating experience, including their favorite dish’s temperature, texture, or a particular ingredient it contained.
Others reflected on the nostalgic qualities of their favorite comfort foods: This sense was particularly strong among fans of cookies, chips, and chocolate. Many expressed a connection to their childhood or memory of a specific family member who once served these foods. These results resonate with scientific research about the formation of taste preferences: While it’s possible to retrain our palates, childhood preferences typically persist into adulthood. What’s more, psychologists note that childhood food memories possess unique staying power, as all five senses remain involved in the experience.
Still, the most common justification for comfort food selection was also the simplest: They just taste great. In this regard, respondents were more than willing to wax poetic about the delicious qualities of their favorite foods. When they use descriptors such as “sugary,” “greasy,” and “doughy deliciousness,” we can almost taste what they’re recalling.
Real Comfort in the Long Run
Our conclusions are unmistakable: No matter the latest culinary craze, comfort foods remain beloved across the country. And although the best kinds of comfort food may be subject to debate, everyone can appreciate the appeal of high-calorie classics. But as in other important aspects of life, be wary of limiting your choices to what’s familiar. Old food favorites are irreplaceable, but you may enjoy them most as an occasional treat rather than a dietary staple.
Ultimately, true comfort may demand moderation: No one’s asking you to abandon the foods you love entirely. But experimenting with healthier options may expose you to a new set of tastes. Considering nutritious alternatives might just enable a future beyond your current comfort zone. That means you’ll appreciate your old favorites all the more when you eat them – and you won’t need to feel guilty about helping yourself to that extra portion, either.
We surveyed 2,226 people (and at least 26 residents per state) on their favorite comfort foods, how much they ate when they consumed them, and why they liked a particular food. All answers were write-ins. We hand-scored about 20 percent of the write-in responses about feelings of comfort, nostalgia, or anything associated with taste, then used the Naive Bayes Classifier module within the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) package in Python 3.6 to classify our data into one of these three buckets. To determine the numbers in the asset titled “America’s Serving Portions of Comfort Foods,” we hand-scored 500 write-in responses (enough to satisfy sample size requirements) as either a “standard serving,” “about double,” or “more than double.” For the visualization, we combined anything over a ” standard serving” and provided samples within the assets to give an idea of the actual text responses scored into each category.
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