Whether a hearty bowl of pasta, a cheesy slice of pizza or a warming ladle of stew, there are few things that can revive the senses and the spirit in one fell swoop quite like our favourite comforting dishes. In times of trouble, for example, eating a homity pie fresh from the oven is the perfect way to soothe the soul. And while the appeal of this dish might lie in its moreish combination of cheese, mashed potatoes and buttery pastry, new research has revealed that our attachment to these kinds of dishes may go beyond a satisfying combination of food groups.
According to the findings of a study by the research team at the University of Buffalo (UB), we favour certain meals over others based on the relationship we have with the person who first prepared them for us. The more positive this relationship, the research suggests, the more likely we are to add this dish to our comfort food repertoire.
'Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long we have positive association with the person who made that food then there's a good chance that you will be drawn to that dish during times of rejection or isolation,' says UB psychologist Shira Gabriel. 'It can be understood as straight-up classical conditioning.'
The work of celebrity chefs such as Rachel Khoo and Nigella Lawson also seem to support the idea that behind every heart-warming dish lies an even more heart-warming story. Whether it’s a rite of passage gap year in Italy (Lawson) or a grandma’s special occasion Schönwetter’s Schnitzel (Khoo), it seems that the relationships we forge with food can be traced back to the relationship we have with our nearest and dearest. And just as our relationship with those we love can be toxic at times, so too can our relationship with comfort food.
As Gabriel explains: 'Although comfort food will never break your heart, it might destroy your healthy eating plans.'
Mindfulness could hold the key to dealing with emotional eating. Read more in our brain food column