Why comfort food makes us happy and brings back memories, plus healthy comfort food recipes

We all have recipes we reach for when we need a boost. But it’s more than just a craving; making comfort food can be an act of self-care

Winter salad bento recipe

Whether it’s the apple crumble that your mum used to make, or simply something hot and nourishing, we all have different foods that we reach for when we feel in need of comfort. Around the world, these foods tend to share some common traits – they’re often warm, pleasing to the eye, and associated with good memories.

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“The foods that we find comforting tend to be familiar childhood or nursery foods, or warming ‘bowl foods’ (as I like to call them),” says psychologist Kimberley Wilson. “They’re foods that feel both emotionally and physically warming.” It’s perhaps not surprising, then, to learn that nostalgia plays a huge part in the psychological appeal of our favourite comfort foods.

Food is so often associated with family, friends and with memories of good times. It’s a connection that goes right back to infancy, according to Kimberley. “Our relationships with food are intrinsically emotional and this stems from the fact that from birth our most important relationships are mediated by food,” she says. “When a newborn baby is being fed they are taking in both the physical nutrition from the milk, as well as (ideally) the emotional comfort from the parent who is feeding them. This forges an indelible link in the baby’s mind between physical nourishment and emotional comfort.

“For a baby they are the same thing, and this goes on into childhood, leaving a strong impression on the adults we become. Whether for better or for worse, food continues to be a key way that we demonstrate affection, to others and to ourselves.”

Nina Olsson of Nourish Atelier believes that sharing good food with family and friends is a great way to lift your mood. “A great feast raises our spirits,” she says. “You could actually say it’s a form of wellness activity, so there’s no need to feel indulgent for throwing the occasional party. You’re sharing the goodness!”

She likes to make veg the star of the show in her recipes, which are a healthy take on comfort food dishes from around the world, such as Korean bibimbap or Tunisian aubergine and pepper stew. “There’s no more beautiful meal to share than a feast with vibrant vegetables, whether it’s golden root gratin with mushrooms or a sparkling rainbow-coloured salad.”

For food writer Gizzi Erskine, slow-cooked meals bring back memories of spending time at home with her mum and sisters. “We still all eat like this when we get together. When these dishes come into play, I’m normally bedding in for the winter with the rain rattling at the windows and the feeling of contentment is in the air.”

Gizzi is a big fan of slow-cooking and believes that it really helps to develop strong flavours in your food. She explains: “There is an incomparable richness and depth of flavour that is achieved by slow-cooking, that you just can’t cheat, and that is what is really satisfying. Stews, ragùs, roasts – these are all the foods that evoke cosiness and warmth, filling the house with delicious smells. It is food to be shared with family and friends, it’s gutsy, it suits both a bottle of red or a cup of tea and every culture has something that is simmered down on its lowest notch.”

The best bit? It’s low-maintenance cooking. “The advantage of slow-cooking is that the effort is all in the prep,” says Gizzi, “and once it’s in the oven, you can simply forget about it until it’s ready. Cooking slower, for longer, helps to develop much more intense and deep flavours.”

Cooking comfort food can also give you the opportunity to connect with your roots. Sara Kiyo Popowa of Shiso Delicious has a Swedish mother and Japanese father. When she was born, her mother found it hard to adjust to life in Japan, and returned to Sweden with Sara. It wasn’t until she reached her teens that Sara returned to Japan.

Although it was a challenging time, as she was just getting to know her father, she discovered a love of the beautiful bento boxes that the other students ate at lunch. “My host family Takaya-san’s mother would pack my bento into a cute box every morning. She’d start with rice: sometimes plain, sometimes seasoned, sometimes shaped into onigiri rice balls. She’d then add the side dishes (o-kazu) – anything from fish, omelette, meat, to beans or vegetable dishes. There would also always be some Japanese pickles and seaweeds. She’d then pack the bento box in a bento bag, or tie it in a colourful handkerchief (furoshiki) along with a little case containing a pair of character-adorned chopsticks. The excitement of taking all those cute accessories to school every day was immense.”

Learning about bento helped Sara to appreciate food more. “Bento originates from a culture where ritual and presentation is very important, and where a lot of energy goes into producing, cooking, eating and talking about food,” she says. She now enjoys preparing her own bento for herself and her partner, Andy.

“Creating something that brings a little ‘home’ into our work days casts a protective, magic veil over our health,” she adds. Sara’s take on bento boxes is healthier than many traditional Japanese dishes, which tend to be “heavy on meat and deep-fried food and stingy on veggies”. Instead, she chooses more raw fruit and veg and bases her recipes around the five colours of Japanese food: white, black, green, red/purple and yellow. The result is stunning – and delicious!

According to Kimberley, appealing to our senses helps to make our comfort food really satisfying. “We can be emotionally soothed through any one of the senses. Touch is the most obvious example – we all know how much better we feel after a hug. It might not solve the issue, but it can certainly cheer us up. Taste (or food) can do the same thing, as can sight.” As well as the physiological response to our favourite flavours (the release of endorphins – just like when we get that hug), the physical warmth of the food also helps.

“Neurologically, the body’s temperature recognition systems piggy back on the emotional ones, which is why we refer to people whom we like as ‘warm’ and those we dislike as ‘cold’,” explains Kimberley. “In this way, the physical warmth of a macaroni cheese or bananas and custard can genuinely warm us emotionally.”

Read on to discover healthy comfort recipes to make at home.

8 healthy comfort food recipes

Lazy tamago bento recipe
Sara Kiyo Popowa

This recipe by Sara Kiyo Popowa uses a quick-cook version of the tamago yaki (rolled omelette), which is full of flavour.

Winter salad bento recipe
Sara Kiyo Popowa

Bring some colour to a winter lunchtime with this winter salad bento recipe from Sara Kiyo Popowa, which is packed with healthy ingredients.

Bibimbap recipe by Nina Olsson
Nina Olsson

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Bibimbap bowls recipe

Bibimbap originates in Korea and it’s packed with delicious veggie goodness. Try this recipe created by Nina Olsson and make your own at home.

Ribolita recipe by Nina Olsson
Nina Olsson

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Ribolita recipe

This warming Tuscan dish created by Nina Olsson is perfect for cold winter evenings.

Tunisian stew recipe by Nina Olsson
Nina Olsson

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Tunisian aubergine and pepper stew recipe

Marry aubergine and spices in a dish that’s both comforting and exciting. Make a Tunisian feast using this Nina Olsson recipe.

Miso ramen recipe by Gizzi Erskine

This beautiful miso ramen recipe by Gizzi Erskine has a rich, deep flavour, combined with comforting, silky noodles.

Jewish chicken soup recipe by Gizzi Erskine
Issy Croker

Suffering from a cold? This Jewish chicken soup recipe by Gizzi Erskine could give you the lift you need.

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Kimchi jiggae recipe by Gizzi Erskine
Issy Croker

This slow-cooked Korean stew recipe by Gizzi Erskine is full of warmth and flavour.