Comfort Foods, Sickbed Snacks and Celebratory Nosh: What are Americans' Favorites?

Majorities use their favorite comfort food as a pick-me-up, and they don't feel guilty about it.

Jan 25, 2016, 05:05 ET from The Harris Poll

NEW YORK, Jan. 25, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- There's really no debate that food can be a comfort. Whether stressed or depressed, almost everyone has a favorite go-to dish that seems to help make everything all better. Just over half (53%) of Americans indicate they eat more when they're stressed and two-thirds (67%) agree they use their favorite comfort food as a pick-me-up. But there's no shame here. As the ultimate food connoisseur, Julia Child, once said: "Everything in moderation... including moderation." Americans seem to hold a similar viewpoint, as two thirds (66%) indicate they don't feel guilty after indulging in their favorite comfort food.

So which food seems to do the trick? For Americans, pizza lands in the number one spot as the ultimate comfort food.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,252 U.S. adults surveyed online between December 9 and 14, 2015. Full results of this study, including data tables, can be found here.

Pizza, anyone?

Looking at comfort foods, pizza tops America's list of favorites. With a 15% slice of Americans hailing it as their number one, it gets more than twice as many votes as any other food choice. Chocolate and ice cream tie for second, at 7% each, while mac & cheese and chips round out the top five (5% and 4%, respectively).

Looking at favorites by various demographics – gender, generation, and geographic region – it seems as though pizza is number one for just about everyone, with the exception of Matures (those 70+), who turn instead to ice cream. However, some clear differences do arise for second and third choices:

  • Women turn to chocolate and ice cream as their second and third choices, respectively. Men, on the other hand, opt for ice cream and then chips.
  • Ice cream is the second choice for Easterners and Southerners alike, while Midwesterners turn to chocolate and Westerners prefer to dig into some mac & cheese. In third place, those in the South and West opt for chocolate, while those in the Midwest want a bowl of ice cream and the East is hankering for mac & cheese.
  • While chocolate is number two for Gen Xers, this treat is reserved for third place by all other generations. Millennials' second choice is mac & cheese, while Baby Boomers opt for ice cream and Matures reach for steak. Gen Xers name chips as their third place pick.

Comfort food has its time and place, however. When they're sick, Americans would much rather turn to soup, by a wide margin. Roughly six in ten Americans name soup as their go-to when they're sick, with nearly four in ten (39%) mentioning it more broadly and an additional 22% specifically mentioning chicken soup. Soups reign supreme as the top two under-the-weather foods across all key demographics. The top five foods eaten while sick are rounded out by ice cream (3%), toast (2%) and, yes, pizza (2%).

When it comes to celebrating a special occasion, Americans continue to have differing top choices as well. Steak has a strong hold on the number one spot, with over two in ten (22%) adults choosing it as their favorite special occasion meal, while 12% turn to cake. Americans across all key demographics cite these two as their favorite celebratory foods. Rounding out the top five celebratory dishes are pizza (7%), lobster (4%), and other types of seafood (3%).

A Time for Comfort

So when do Americans turn to their favorite comfort food? Over four in ten say they need an edible pick-me-up when they're stressed (45%) or after a really bad day (43%). One third (33%) indicate they turn to a comfort food when they're depressed.

However, not everyone needs to be down in the dumps to dig into their favorite comfort food. Nearly four in ten indicate they'll turn to their tried and true dish after a really good day (38%) or on their birthday (37%).

More distantly, 13% indicate they eat it after a break-up and, among those 21 or older, 9% each say they need that special dish either the day after or during a night of heavy drinking.

Demographically speaking, there are clear differences in the top reasons for needing some comfort food.

  • Women are most likely to reach for their favorite comfort food when they're stressed (54%), while men are most likely to turn to comfort food after a really good day (43%).
  • Looking to the generations, Millennials and Gen Xers are most likely to need comfort food when they're stressed (58% and 50%, respectively). Baby Boomers, on the other hand, need it after a really bad day (38%), while Matures look to it after a really good day (39%).

Food for thought

While most will agree there's no place like home, a vast majority of Americans (90%) are going one step further to say there's nothing like a home cooked meal. With that sentiment in mind, it likely comes as little surprise that over six in ten (62%) adults say their favorite comfort food reminds them of their childhood.

Though Americans may not feel guilty after indulging, over four in ten (41%) do indicate they'll sometimes work out longer or more intensely to justify eating a favorite comfort food. This is particularly true of Millennials, compared to their older counterparts (57% vs. 42% Gen Xers, 29% Baby Boomers, 22% Matures).

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This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between December 9 and 14, 2015 among 2,252 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #6, January 25, 2016
By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll

About The Harris Poll®

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