Are people eating more comfort food in the recession?

pot roast
Comfort Foods Image Gallery Comfort food rules during the recession. See more comfort foods pictures.

Imagine how boring life would be if humans only ate for utility. Goodbye, buttery lobster tails with herb-encrusted fingerling potatoes. Arrivederci, savory gnocchi and lamb ragu. Sayonara, bento boxes of wasabi, sushi rolls and pickled vegetables. Nutritionally, we don't need any extravagant cuisine to sustain our bodies; as long as we get enough water and nutrients, we ought to keep on ticking. But the fact is, people derive pleasure from the foods they love.

High-fat and sugary foods stimulate the limbic reward system in the brain, which is why we often crave less-healthy snacks and meals when we're distressed. Since we only crave foods that we've eaten before, comfort foods vary from person to person. Often, our favorite meals from childhood top the list of our favorite comfort foods because we form unconscious, sensory relationships with food -- even during fetal development [source: McGowan]. And with Americans' collective stress level elevated because of the economic recession, it's little wonder that many people are returning to certain staples that mama used to make.


While thrifty dishes like tuna casserole and pot roast might have a soothing effect on recession-weary consumers, most people are more concerned with relieving their barren wallets. Comfort foods and home cooking, by and large, are less expensive than take-out and restaurant dining. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that a family of four can buy nutritious groceries for around $170 per week [source: USDA].

Recent national food trends provide a snapshot of this budget-related and stress-induced comfort eating. In early 2009, food experts predicted Americans' return to comfort foods, and by spring, grocery store sales figures confirmed the forecast. Basic bread is projected to hit a 7.2 percent sales increase through the end of 2009, and side dishes -- i.e., canned vegetables, instant macaroni and cheese -- should see a 5.2 percent boost [source: Lee].

Companies have jumped on the home-cooking bandwagon as well, with brands like Betty Crocker, Kraft and Campbell's spending more dollars on advertising. For instance, with more employees toting lunches to work, Hellman's Mayonnaise funneled an additional $24.6 million into its ad budget during the first half of 2009 [source: Elliott]. But just because there's been a shift toward buying basic grocery items and staying out of sit-down restaurants doesn't mean Americans' eating habits are improving in the recession.


Economy Shrinks as the Waistline Grows

burger and fries
Fast food sales are also up during the recession.

To save money during the recession, Americans are dining out less and eating more food at home. That sounds like a welcome trend toward healthier food habits, but like the true state of the global financial situation, reality isn't so bright.

The frugal comfort foods many people are turning to aren't carrot sticks and boiled rice. On the contrary, budget eaters are springing for macaroni and cheese, canned chili and stews and even the mystifying meat conglomeration Spam [source: Hughlett]. In other words, we're tucking into processed comfort foods that are loaded with sodium, carbohydrates and fat. Although pantry staples, including dry beans, white flour and peanut butter are also appearing in more grocery baskets, a quarter of respondents to a large-scale survey admitted that they were eating more high-calorie food as a result of their recession budget [source: Pagan].


In fact, medical experts have been concerned about the health impact of the recession since lower income is correlated with poor diet [source: Stoddard]. To illustrate, consider how fast food restaurants have fared in the economic downturn. When deciding whether to spend the time and money on cooking food at home or grabbing cheap fast food, many people are heading to the drive-through. McDonald's Corporation, for example, enjoyed 6.1 percent same-store sales growth in April 2009, followed by 2.8 percent growth the next month [source: Steverman]. And when mulling over the menu, recession-conscious consumers will likely spring for the ultra-cheap hamburgers, fries and sodas over the pricier salads.

If people are willing to get back to the kitchen and spare a few minutes, there are many tasty ways to save money and put delicious food on the table that won't just feed our waistlines. Time and again, food experts praise the thrift and sustenance of beans; they're packed with protein and can star in a variety of tasty dishes, such as black bean burgers. Choosing frozen vegetables, bulk grains and store-brand items will also cut costs at the checkout aisle.

People shy away from comparing the current recession to the Great Depression, but it may be wise to take a cue from that era's eating habits. For real comfort, we ought to fire up the stove and cook wholesome food that will keep our bellies and wallets full.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Consumer Reports Health. "Downturn Diet." February 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • Elliott, Stewart. "More Ads for Basic Brands as Shoppers Spend Less." Oct. 6, 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • Hughlett, Mike. "Home cooking, familiar brands gain popularity during recession." Chicago Tribune. Jan. 24, 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • Lee, Ann C. "Who's Winning -- and Losing -- in the Food Recession." Forbes. April 10, 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • McGowan, Kathleen. "The Science of Scrumptious." Psychology Today. September/October 2003. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • Pagan, Camille Noe. "Is the Economy Making You Fat?" Forbes. Feb. 20, 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • Steverman, Ben. "McDonald's Shares: Still a Value Meal?" BusinessWeek. June 8, 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • Stoddard, Ed. "Will Americans put on recession pounds?" Reuters. Jan. 9, 2009. (Oct. 7, 2009)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, February 2008." March 2008. (Oct. 7, 2009)