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5 Easy Comfort Food Dinners

Meatloaf is one of the most popular comfort foods in the United States. See more comfort food pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/Lehner

The term "comfort food" sprang up in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the last decade or so that it began to be commonly used. Now, though, there are entire cookbooks on comfort food, and more and more restaurants are serving these soothing dishes that tend to evoke positive memories, especially of home. The more recent emphasis on cooking comfort food is due, at least in part, to tight economic times -- perhaps a testament to the fact that these dishes are usually easy and inexpensive to prepare.

What qualifies as comfort food obviously varies by person, family, region and ethnicity. What one person finds tasty and reminiscent of a happy time, another person might hate. And while certain foods -- say, grits -- may be a common comfort food among Southerners, they'll rarely be cited as such by those living elsewhere in the United States.

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Nevertheless, there are definitely certain foods that a majority of Americans have been regularly noshing on for decades, and would agree are some of our top comfort foods. Here are five such meals, all of which are a snap to make.

Meatloaf is one of the top comfort foods in the United States. Who can forget when former advice columnist Ann Landers gave out her personal meatloaf recipe in 1984 (after being begged by a fan), and it quickly became world-famous? Even Martha Stewart has dubbed this dish the "quintessential comfort food."

Why is it so popular? Meatloaf is a hearty yet inexpensive dish that you can stretch with fillers like bread crumbs and modify to suit any palate. And it's a cinch to make, too. All you need are three main ingredients: a meat, a filler and a liquid. Typically the meat involved is ground beef, although some cooks use ground pork, turkey, ham or veal. The filler can be anything from bread crumbs or instant oatmeal to crackers or corn flakes. For the liquid, a lot of people choose tomato sauce, but you could use milk or yogurt instead.

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Take your three ingredients, add an egg, onion and some seasonings (such as garlic, parsley, oregano or Worcestershire sauce) mix them together and put the mixture in a loaf pan. Then top it all off with some bacon strips and maybe ketchup or cheese, bake for 45 to 60 minutes, and voilà: meatloaf.

You can liven up this humble palate-pleaser with whatever strikes your fancy, from jalapeño peppers to chutney. And its leftovers make for great sandwiches, too.

Chili is easy to whip up in large batches.
Chili is easy to whip up in large batches.
©iStockphoto.com/grandriver

Who can resist a steaming bowl of chili, especially on a crisp autumn night? Like meatloaf, it's easy and inexpensive to make. All you do is throw together some basic ingredients like ground beef or sirloin, tomatoes, beans and spices, then cook it all together in a big pot. And like meatloaf, you can dress this dish up or down, adding spaghetti, veggies, bacon, maple syrup -- you name it. Since it's so easy -- and affordable -- to mix up chili in large batches, many churches and community groups host chili dinners, which has made this meal even more ubiquitous.

But chili is also a dish that stirs people's passions. The state of Texas has dubbed chili its official state food. Beans are never part of the mix there -- heaven forbid! -- and the meat (almost always beef chuck roast) is rarely ground. Cincinnati, Ohio, is also famous for its chili, which is more watery and flavored with a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes cinnamon, chocolate and allspice. It's then served over spaghetti, and may be topped with shredded cheddar cheese, raw onions and kidney beans.

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There are also numerous recipes for "white" chili, which typically consists of turkey or chicken in a light broth with green chilies and Great Northern beans.

Colonists brought pasta to America, but it was Thomas Jefferson -- after serving as French ambassador -- who toted the first "maccaroni" machine back to the United States in 1789. Still, it wasn't until 1848 that America got its first industrial pasta factory, helping spread pasta to the masses, and not until after the subsequent Italian immigration wave of 1900 to 1914 that a special affinity for spaghetti developed in the U.S.

Like other comfort foods, spaghetti is easy to make. Most Americans simply boil spaghetti in water for eight or nine minutes, then top it with a warm, tomato-based sauce from a jar or can. Those who enjoy cooking may make their own sauce from scratch, adding meat, sausage and vegetables. Today, several types of commercially prepared spaghetti sauces are available, including garlic tomato, mushroom and four-cheese varieties. If you're not a tomato fan, white sauces like Alfredo or chicken garlic are also available. And the sauces can be used with any type of pasta -- rotini, cavatappi, rigatoni -- not just spaghetti.

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Nevertheless, most Americans still reach for the spaghetti when they have a craving for pasta.

Purists often prefer homemade macaroni to the boxed kind.
Purists often prefer homemade macaroni to the boxed kind.
©iStockphoto.com/rojoimages

Like other common American meals, macaroni and cheese was a dish developed by English settlers who brought over pasta (macaroni specifically) from Europe and began serving it covered with a cheese-and-cream mixture. It was actually a wealthy man's meal until industrialization made the mass production of pasta possible, lowering the cost. Then, in 1937, Kraft Foods came out with a boxed version, and the meal became insanely popular.

Boxed mac and cheese, which many people grow up eating, is made by boiling or microwaving the macaroni noodles, then adding butter, milk and the packaged cheese sauce. Lots of families dress it up by adding sliced hot dogs or cold cuts, which also makes it a more substantial meal. Purists, however, prefer the homemade version, layering cooked macaroni in a baking pan, then topping it with a mixture of melted cheeses, butter, milk and flour. Finally, they place a butter-and-bread-crumb mixture on top and bake the dish

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Mac and cheese is so popular, it has spawned numerous similar foods, such as deep-fried mac and cheese bites and mac and cheese pizza. Will mac and cheese ice cream be next?

Nothing says summer picnic -- or maybe Sunday dinner -- better than fried chicken. Like the previous meals, it's easy to make: Dip the chicken in a liquid (such as buttermilk), sprinkle on a coating and fry. You can use a boxed mix for the chicken coating or make your own by mixing flour or bread or cracker crumbs with seasonings such as garlic powder, salt, pepper and thyme. If you want to be healthy, you can bake the chicken instead of frying it. (No, it's not really "fried" chicken if you bake it, but some recipes can get the taste pretty darn close.)

One of the reasons fried chicken became such a common dish in the United States is that it's an inexpensive meal to prepare, especially if you use cheaper cuts of chicken, such as the thighs and drumsticks. And fried chicken keeps well, so you can fry up a batch ahead of time for this afternoon's picnic or tomorrow's church supper.

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Fried chicken is one of the few comfort foods that made its way into the fast food realm, too, which is quite an accomplishment -- and just may solidify its spot as a top comfort food for generations to come.

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