In stressful times, we crave comfort food

March 31, 2020 GMT

BEAVER FALLS, Pa. (AP) — Comfort for mind, body and soul is something we all seek during stressful times, perhaps now more than ever with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Cinnamon-bran muffins, baking in the oven, filled the kitchen with a tantalizing aroma, but also evoked nostalgic memories that comforted Jackie DiCicco Fullen of Patterson Township.

And comfort for mind, body and soul is something we all seek during stressful times, perhaps now more than ever with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, Dutch-oven pot roast, grilled cheese and tomato soup — all are among foods we think of as comforting.


“Lots of carbohydrate is what we turn to for comfort,” said Chris Fennimore, beloved producer and host of “QED Cooks” on public television station WQED in Pittsburgh, and contributor to and editor of numerous community cookbooks.

Face it: Nouvelle cuisine won’t satisfy most of us.

“We want a nice, full belly — that feeling of really being satisfied,” he said. “We don’t want a picture on our plate. We want a big portion of mashed potatoes.”

Fennimore had a brainstorm last week to have the station re-air his “C is for Comfort” and “Easy Recipes for Thrifty Cooking” shows -- both were broadcast March 21 — so that viewers could “relive comfort food recipes.”

Fennimore also posted recipes and pictures of food he’s been cooking while sheltering in place — like most Americans — to the QED Cooks Facebook page. He asked people to share what they’ve been cooking and their recipes, too. Within a day, the page had more than 7,000 hits.

“It shows that people are spending more time on Facebook and spending more time concentrating on food,” he said.

And his comfort food?

Shepherd’s pie made with lean beef or ground lamb, peas or creamed corn, topped with mashed potatoes.

“It’s one of those things you put together, put it in the oven, it comes out and you eat it for days. You never make a little bit of shepherd’s pie.”

‘Power in food’

Every morning, Mildred DiCicco, Fullen’s late mother, made something sweet – coffeecake or muffins, for example — “because she knew people would come by and sit at the table or on the porch and have a muffin and coffee or something. That was a comfort to have something ready to share with whoever would come by.”

Fullen’s ancestors hailed from Italy — her grandmother from Petilia Policastro in Calabria; her father from Abruzzo, east of Rome — and comfort food in her family “generally involved something carbohydrate” like gnocchi, homemade pasta with sauce or garlic oil, stuffed peppers with mashed potatoes or her mom’s “beautiful meatloaf with, again, mashed potatoes.”


“It just seemed like that settles into your heart as well as your stomach. That was very satisfying to us,” Fullen said.

Fennimore found that to be true, too, when he compiled cookbooks that accompanied the television shows.

“People harken back to their childhoods for recipes and sometimes they weren’t what we traditionally think of as comfort food, but it was a recipe that was comforting to them because they remember it as a child — as something their mother or grandmother made that was satisfying to them at that time in their life. When we recreate those meals, that recreates those feelings.”

In 2016, Fullen, a retired teacher, fulfilled a long-held dream and opened Sisters Eatery on Seventh Avenue in Beaver Falls that featured made-from-scratch items like her mom and late grandmother, Frances Gerard, made.

The restaurant closed in late 2018, but those were happy days for Fullen, who encouraged everyone to use this time to pull out a recipe — even a simple one or box mix — and involve children or grandchildren in the process.

“You know what they say: ‘Never let a crisis go to waste,’” she said. “We don’t want to make this a time of painful remembrance,” she said. “We want to make it a time for some good memories, too. We can do that around the table with everyone sitting down to eat,” especially now when restaurants can only serve takeout or delivery.

“There is power in food. There’s a wonderful gift, a blessing in food, especially at a time like this,” Fullen said. “Do it. Create that feeling that makes the best of a crisis.”

Rosanne Robinson of Hopewell Township turns to soups for comfort and a big pot of chicken soup with fine noodles, carrots, celery, onions and parsley — just like her mom made “when something came up” — was the first thing she assembled during the coronavirus crisis.

Robinson, former host of cooking, health and home improvement shows on WMBA radio and also a recent guest on Fennimore’s show, said another one of her comfort staples is macaroni with meatballs and sauce.

“It tastes so good. I could sit with a great big bowl,” she said.

Hard-boiled eggs are good to have on hand, too, as healthy, comfort snacks, Robinson said.

‘Stay on schedule’

Mary Alice Gettings knows comfort food — often heavy on carbs, fat and calories — isn’t always the healthiest choice.

Gettings, registered dietitian with Penn State Extension, said it’s OK to indulge in such dishes a couple of days a week, especially last week when “everybody was sent into a whirlwind.”

But she suggests staying within a consistent schedule, continue to make healthy choices, control portions, and add vegetables. And salads, too, but go easy on the dressings.

Gettings, who is working from home, eats a salad for lunch like she would do at the office. If parents pack a lunch for their children, continue to serve the same type of food.

“Try to stay on your schedule,” she said.

If you want macaroni and cheese, instead of a big bowl as a full meal, consider it as a side with vegetables and salad.

Think about modifying comfort foods.

For example, chips and dip. Make it with plain, non-fat Greek yogurt and packaged onion soup mix. Instead of chips, use carrots and celery sticks or pretzels.

Limit pizza takeout to once a week instead of two or three times.

Camille Stevenson, culinary arts instructor at Beaver County Career and Technology Center, suggested visiting the online website for nutritional guidance, especially with regard to protein requirements.

“People think they need to eat more protein than they need to eat,” she said.

And when meat supplies have been nearly depleted or limited at some grocery stores, that’s good to know, along with being aware that meat isn’t the only source of protein.

Seafood, beans and peas, eggs, soy products, nuts and seeds are considered part of the protein group.

We need only 4 to 6 ounces of protein a day combined, Stevenson said, and “comfort foods are great for doing just that because they usually combine starches, vegetables, and sauces to make a flavorful, filling dish” — chili with beans, meat and cheese or casserole with chicken, pasta and vegetables, for example.

Stews and casseroles can be flavored with pieces of sausage or bacon — food that flavors the whole recipe, but trick the palate into thinking there’s a lot of protein, she said. Make a big pot, but limit servings to stretch efforts. Serve with cornbread or other filling starch, she said.

Mashed potato bars are fun, too, and allow lots of creativity and choices with toppings like bacon, taco meat, cheese, onion, vegetables.

For ideas, Stevenson said check out, which has at least 30 suggestions, she said.

Because we eat with our eyes first, Fullen said presentation is a big factor in comfort.

Following her mother’s lead, she always plated food at Sisters Eatery on white china, salads on lettuce beds, desserts on doilies and always with a “pretty napkin.”

Tables were decorated with flowers or small lanterns.

Fullen could take a simple sandwich like grilled cheese and turn it into art by slicing bread into four rectangles. Put a bowl of her homemade tomato-basil soup in the center surrounded by grilled cheese “spokes” and the presentation resembled a sunburst.

She bought clear, glass mugs at a discount store in which she layered homemade sugar cookies with yogurt, whipping cream, fruit and a bit of lemon or lime curd.

“People loved looking at it,” she said. “All of that adds into comfort food.”




Information from: Beaver County Times,