Comfort food is just what it sounds like — food that comforts us, not just satisfying our hunger but warming us emotionally, making us feel better about life.
It has these effects for reasons that go beyond the way the food tastes. Certain dishes comfort us more than others because they’re familiar, unchallenging, easy to love — and because they’re linked to times or places when and where we have been content.
Comfort foods are often childhood favorites, or they may evoke memories of some favorite person or some carefree stage of life. They’re rarely if ever haute cuisine, and they’re usually hearty and often not particularly healthy. (There may be some people who consider a quinoa bowl or a bag of kale chips comfort food, but probably not many.)
Of course, what constitutes comfort food is highly subjective. What brings succor to one person might leave another person cold. There are some recurring themes, though. Ground meat and melted cheese are often involved in comfort food. So is pasta in one form or another. And chicken seems to be a favorite element. (These are the best restaurant chicken dishes in America.)
These foods are often regional. Loosemeat (basically sloppy-joe-style ground meat without the tomato-based sauce) and hotdish (a meat-and-vegetable casserole typically topped with tater tots) are comfort food par excellence in much of the Midwest. Loco moco — a dish that consists, in its traditional form, of white rice topped with a burger patty, gravy, and a fried egg — is widely considered comforting in Hawaii, but would probably be greeted with suspicion in Maine.
Every culture and every cuisine has its own comfort foods, of course — the need for comfort being pretty much universal. For Koreans, comfort food might mean the mixed rice dish bibimbap; for Egyptians, koshari (rice with lentils); for Peruvians, causa (mashed potatoes with chicken or other additions); for Senegalese, the fish and rice preparation thiéboudienne; for Australians, Vegemite on toast. Or something completely different in every case, depending on the person.
24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of some of the most common and popular comfort foods in America — the favorites that people make for themselves or order again and again when they need a little culinary TLC.
To determine America’s favorite comfort foods, 24/7 Tempo consulted stories on the subject from about 20 top culinary and lifestyle websites, including All Recipes, Food Network, Fine Cooking, Delish, Rachael Ray, Taste of Home, Southern Living, Food & Wine, The Daily Meal, Midwest Living, Sunset, Tasty, and The Spruce Eats. We collated their lists of dishes and chose the ones that appeared most frequently.
1. Chicken noodle soup
Almost every cuisine in the world has a version of this reassuring bowlful — though sometimes with rice, barley, dumplings, or different kinds of pasta in place of noodles — and almost every culture considers it supremely comforting. It’s also a traditional folk remedy for colds and related ailments, and research has shown that it really might have healing properties.
2. Grilled cheese and tomato soup
Grilled cheese sandwiches are easy-to-make comfort food in themselves, but when combined with tomato soup, they seem to attain a whole new level. The idea of combining the two foods apparently dates from the Depression period, when school cafeterias began serving the soup with the sandwiches to make a meal that satisfied requirements for both vitamin C and protein.
Meaty, a little soupy, and at least slightly spicy, chili (or chili con carne, if you prefer) came out of Texas into the American mainstream in the late 19th century, and a “bowl of red,” as it is sometimes affectionately known, has been easing troubled minds ever since.
4. Mac and cheese
No less a personage than Thomas Jefferson is sometimes credited with having invented macaroni and cheese, which may or may not be the case — but Kraft Foods certainly helped popularize it when it introduced a boxed version back in 1937. Today, whether out of a box or hand-crafted with homemade pasta and artisanal cheese or anything in-between, mac and cheese virtually defines comfort food for many.
5. Spaghetti and meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs, one of the most popular Italian dishes in America, isn’t really Italian at all — it’s an Italian-American creation. One theory is that Italian immigrants, who couldn’t afford to eat much meat in their homeland, found it cheaper here and so wanted to include it in their meals whenever possible. Whatever its origins, spaghetti and meatballs remains the kind of dish that brings smiles to a lot of faces.
Lasagna has all the requisites for a filling, comforting dinner: It’s a one-dish meal, served family-style; it involves pasta, always a favorite; it’s nice and meaty (at least in its traditional form); and it involves lots of melted cheese.
7. Tuna noodle casserole
This is the ultimate canned-food one-dish meal. A bag of egg noodles, a can or two of tuna, a can of vegetables (mixed carrots and peas are popular) or some frozen ones, and a can of cream of mushroom soup, with some shredded cheddar melted on top, and there you have it. It’s doubtful that there are many dishes that say “family” to more people around America than this one.
8. Shrimp and grits
Creamy grits topped with lightly fried shrimp started out as a specialty of the Lowcountry of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, but it has been slowly but surely making its way across America and spreading Southern comfort wherever it goes.
9. Chicken-fried steak
In the Deep South and in Texas and Oklahoma, this breaded, fried cube steak smothered in peppery cream gravy — it gets its name from the fact that the meat’s exterior crust resembles that of fried chicken — is considered about as comforting as it gets.
10. Fried chicken
What is there to say about this classic? Whether it comes in buckets from the Colonel or is lovingly crusted with crushed cornflakes and browned in bacon fat by your favorite grandma — no matter where it comes from or how it’s prepared, in fact, and whether it’s hot on the dinner plate or cold in a picnic basket — fried chicken makes everything better.
11. Roast chicken
One of the most beautiful things that can come out of an oven is a plump, golden-brown, glistening roaster. Roast chicken may not have the immediate indulgent mass appeal that fried chicken does, but it takes us back home with every molecule of its aroma, every bite of its juicy meat.
12. General Tso’s chicken
When you’re down and hungry and don’t have the heart or energy to cook, what do you do? Order in Chinese, of course. This preparation of sweet deep-fried chicken pieces cooked with ginger, garlic, chiles, and other ingredients is the most ordered dish from Chinese restaurants around the U.S. — even if it is more Chinese-American than actual Chinese.
The hamburger may well be the single most iconic American food ever invented, and almost certainly the most internationally known — thanks in large part to McDonald’s (with its 38,000 or so restaurants around the globe) and its competitors. Cheeseburgers apparently date from the 1930s, though there’s considerable controversy over who invented the first one. It doesn’t matter, though. What could be more familiar and reassuring than ground meat and melted cheese on a soft bun?
Though it has shown up on trendy restaurant menus in recent years, nothing says “Mom” quite like a brick of ground meat mixed with breadcrumbs and glazed with ketchup.
15. Meatball sub
Split a long Italian roll lengthwise, spoon in some meatballs cloaked in marinara sauce, then melt some mozzarella and/or parmesan on top, and you’ve got a sandwich that can turn any lunchtime into a therapy session that’ll leave you feeling ready to take on the world.
16. Barbecued ribs
A little fatty, a little sweet, a little spicy, and very primal, these meaty pork bones tick many of the comfort-food boxes. And especially if you’re from the South or maybe Texas, they’ll take you right back where you came from.
17. Hardshell ground beef tacos
Crisp-fried folded-over tortillas filled with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, shredded cheddar, and maybe sour cream might not be the kind of thing people eat in Mexico, but they’re quite possibly exactly the kind of thing you ate as a kid or in college or maybe last night, and don’t they taste good?
18. Cheese enchiladas
If hardshell ground beef tacos were the Mexican-ish fast food of our youths, these cheesy, saucy rolled tortillas were probably what we ate when we went to a sit-down mariachis-and-sombreros place. Like the tacos, they still have the ability to please our palates and ease our minds.
19. Pepperoni pizza
Pizza has gone all artisanal and regional these days, but a plain pepperoni pizza, whether it’s from a chain restaurant or the little joint down the street, reminds us of meals shared with teammates, friends, and family — easy, tasty, calmingly simple.
20. Tuna melt
Whoever it was that first decided to turn a can of tuna into this soul-warming sandwich deserves a place in the Comfort Food Hall of Fame. Whether it’s served open-face or as a conventional sandwich, slightly warmed (not hot) tuna mixed with mayonnaise and minced celery on toast under a veil of melted cheese is both nostalgic and irresistible.
21. Mashed potatoes and gravy
Whether you serve mashed potatoes with rich brown gravy alongside fried chicken, meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, or any other comfort-food classic, mashed potatoes will up the comfort factor tenfold. Or just forget the protein; you’ll get plenty of comfort from just the potatoes and gravy alone.
22. French fries
Some may object to fries being a comfort food, saying they are more an accompaniment to comfort food than comfort food themselves, but those are people who have never bought themselves a bag of just-cooked pommes frites and sat down or strolled or driven off, feeling better with every bite.
23. Breakfast sandwich
The breakfast sandwich in the sense that we know it today — egg, cheese, and some kind of breakfast meat on a roll, English muffin, bagel, biscuit, or croissant — is 50-years-old this year, and for five decades it has been making mornings seem just a little bit brighter all over the land.
24. Pancakes and bacon
Back before we turned to breakfast sandwiches, protein bars, or low-fat yogurt for our morning nourishment — but maybe after we’d outgrown the Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch (if we ever did) — this was homestyle breakfast. Flapjacks straight from the griddle, moistened with melting butter and drowned in syrup, with crispy bacon on the side. There was nothing like it to elevate our morning mood, and there probably still isn’t.
25. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
This all-American classic reminds a lot of us of lunchboxes and after-school snacks and a far simpler era — and it still makes a pretty good almost-instant solution to a pang of hunger or unhappiness.
26. Chocolate chip cookies
One of the most comforting aspects of chocolate chip cookies is the act of making them — especially when you get to have a spoonful or three of the dough before it’s baked. But once they’re finished, they’re pretty good too, sweet with sugar and childhood memories.
27. Cinnamon rolls
Slightly chewy dough, the heart-quickening bite of cinnamon, and that buttery melted sugar that’s so good you want to take a bath in it — they all add up to suddenly feeling better about almost anything.
Brownies are chocolate incarnate. Sweet, slightly crumbly, deliciously frosted, they seem to inject all of chocolate’s heartening goodness straight into your bloodstream.
29. Apple pie
The very symbol of America, of Mom in her apron at the stove, of the simple pleasures of a homemade treat at the kitchen tableâ¦. If a piece of good apple pie, preferably warm, and possibly served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a slice of sharp cheddar, doesn’t cheer you up, maybe nothing will.
30. Ice cream
Okay, admit it: When you’re really down — when you get passed over for that promotion or flunk that test or when that special he or she ghosts you or gives you the “It’s not you, it’s me” routine — what’s the one thing you know will get you through at least the next half hour? A pint of Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s and a spoon. Even a quart, if things are really bad. Nobody will judge you.