Craving comfort? Those foods you choose to lift your spirits are likely the same ones you've found comforting all your life. Comfort foods – those traditional, simple and familiar dishes– remind us of the comforts of home.
Mashed potatoes, meatloaf, soups or macaroni and cheese aren't fussy or foreign – instead, they are simple, satisfying and easy to prepare. The cravings we get for them may stretch all the way back to childhood. If these foods made us feel better when we were under the weather, we establish food-mood connections that can stay with us for a lifetime.
Aside from being relatively easy to prepare, comfort foods are usually easy to eat, too. Foods that are warm, smooth and creamy are comforting – and even better if they can be eaten with a spoon which feels good in the mouth. It's not likely that salads, for example, are at the top of anyone's comfort food list - the crunchy lettuce leaves delivered on the spiky tines of a fork are no match for chocolate pudding taken from the smooth bowl of a spoon.
When it comes to comfort foods, men and men are like Mars and Venus. While a few women find the act of preparing comfort foods to be soothing in itself, most women don't find much comfort in foods that require too much preparation. Foods that are ready-to-eat, yet meet the criteria for familiar and simple - like ice cream, chocolate or other sweets - are the comfort choices most sought after by women.
Men, on the other hand, prefer comfort foods that are more savory – like sandwiches and pizza (although ice cream ranks pretty high on their list, too). For them, foods that require preparation are more comforting – men say that these foods remind them of being doted upon by a loved one.
Many comfort foods can take a big bite out of your calorie budget. If you turn to them often enough, it might make sense to think of ways to lighten them up a bit. As long as the general flavor and texture of the original food aren't altered too much, it is possible that foods can be comforting and reasonably healthy at the same time.
For ice cream and pudding lovers, light versions of these foods are widely available, and flavored yogurts with a drizzle of chocolate syrup might be a suitable replacement. Pie lovers might warm up some chunky applesauce in the microwave, topped with a crumbled graham cracker and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Boxed macaroni and cheese can be lightened by reducing the amount of butter or prepared cheese sauce called for, or by stirring in a can of seasoned stewed tomatoes.
Increasing the volume of food with low-calorie items might work too. Top that frozen pizza with some pre-chopped peppers or onions before you bake, or pile the sandwich high with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for a satisfying crunch.
In the end, though, it may be that only specific foods will do. For some, not any "chicken noodle soup" will do – only a particular brand, or mom's homemade version is truly comforting. The strong associations we have with these familiar foods may be too hard to break or change.
But if we can find ways to make these foods a little healthier, wouldn't that be a comfort?
Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.