Navigating the Comfort Food Culture Trends and Insights

According to a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 60% of Americans say they have been somewhat or very stressed over the past six months. As a result, 51% admit they’ve been more likely to consume more food and beverages that are less healthy than they usually eat.

Americans are still concerned with wellness, however. A recent McKinsey study found 58% of United States respondents claim they are prioritizing wellness more now than they did a year ago. More than 60 percent prioritized buying food, products or services that increase longevity and assist with healthy aging.

Does Food Affect Feelings?

Americans have heard, “You are what you eat,” from childhood. But does, “you feel what you eat?” also apply?

The IFIC study surveyed about 1,000 people, where 74% said yes — what they ate or drank directly affected their mental well-being. 61% said the reverse was true, and their mental well-being affected what they ate or drank.

Comfort food, in particular, often has higher levels of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates. According to Goldbelly, an online food marketplace, these substances trigger the release of dopamine, the happiness hormone.

Interestingly, the IFIC study also showed that some Americans feel better when they eat food they know is sustainably grown and not processed. Millennials think they’re more concerned about their food’s quality and nutritional content than older generations. Surprisingly, about 53% of Gen Xers feel the same way, as opposed to 50% of Gen Z, and the same is true for boomers.

Higher Prices Affect Food Choices

Consumers in 2024 are well aware of the climbing prices of food items. This includes rising prices on pork, shelf-stable seafood, frozen juices, and drinks, according to Groundwork Collabrative‘s February survey. These higher prices have led shoppers in all age groups to change their purchasing habits, per the IFIC survey. About 47% of consumers cut back on non-essential purchases, while 28% said rising costs frequently influenced them to purchase less healthy food or beverages.

Supermarket News reported a 2023 PYMNTS survey showed that 41% of American families with children were more likely to buy lower-quality groceries to save money. The same study said shoppers bought more snacks and sweets to replace the higher-quality, more expensive foods they had been buying.

Some cooks make the best of the higher prices and choose healthier, if simpler, options for their families. Tiffany McCauley of Slappy Toad says, “My favorite spring comfort foods are quiche and roasted vegetables. The quiche always reminds me of Easter and roasted spring vegetables are delicious, especially roasted carrots.”

Gardening to the Rescue?

One positive outcome of the COVID-19 lockdown was introducing more Americans to gardening. According to a 2023 survey from Bigger Garden, the pandemic produced 18.3 million new gardeners.

Although starting a garden can cost money, the gains are usually good. Statista reported that a home garden can grow up to $600 in produce per year, and about 74% of Americans agree that gardening reduces stress. This underscores the connection between food and emotions. People who chose unprocessed, sustainably grown food are happier with their meals, highlighting the link between mindful eating and emotional well-being.

Comfort foods can be healthy when prepared correctly — they may even come from the vegetable garden. Gardeners who cook and are also interested in preserving their produce by freezing and canning can create healthy dishes from homegrown food, even during the winter. The whole process starts all over again when spring comes.

“During cold days, my comfort food is hearty one-pot soups and stews, but when spring comes around, I can eat pasta every day,” says Nandor Barta, a food blogger with My Pure Plants. “I raid my spice garden and make sun-dried tomato pesto pasta every week.”

Healthier Options

Although Americans cherish their comfort food, those foods aren’t always the healthiest. Since carbs and fat affect our feelings, most cooks don’t worry if that casserole features butter, pasta, and other less-healthy ingredients. If it’s an occasional treat, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

However, cooks should consider what ingredients they use in dishes for everyday eating. For example, if a casserole uses noodles, the cook can substitute veggie noodles, like zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash fibers. In a dish like lasagna, cooks can substitute thin “planks” of eggplant or zucchini for noodles.

If the casserole calls for butter, the cook can usually halve the amount. Olive oil is a good substitute for melted butter in recipes that call for it over the top of a cracker crust. Most casseroles have sour cream, cream soup, mayonnaise, or some other fat, and a cook can generally find lower-fat alternatives.

Most cream soups have a healthier version containing less fat and sodium. Low-sodium broth is another healthy substitute for comfort food. It doesn’t affect the taste of the finished dish, and the cook can control the amount of sodium. Low-sodium bouillon powder is great for boosting flavor as well. It also mixes smoothly with a soup or broth without clumping.

No-bake desserts react well to low-sugar or sugar-free ingredients like pudding, gelatin, and low-fat cream cheese. Since they’re not baked, baking chemistry isn’t an issue. Substituting ingredients in baked desserts can produce unpredictable results. Depending on the recipe, many cooks substitute part of the fat in a dessert recipe with applesauce.

It’s always a good idea to check recipes online for substitution suggestions. Other cooks and bakers tested these recipes, and are more reliable than trial and error.


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