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Why Is Mac ’n’ Cheese Such a Comfort Food?

Baked four cheese macaroni and cheese in an enamel baking dish topped with Parmigiano Reggiano bread crumbs

Comfort food takes many forms. Everyone has their specific go-to dish. Whatever you prefer, you can likely agree that when you’re feeling down, a big, cheesy bowl of macaroni and cheese hits the spot. Mac ’n’ cheese is a staple of comfort food and contains mystical properties that make us feel better. Whether you go for the Kraft variety you ate during childhood or the four-cheese version your mom baked for special occasions, all this comforting mac ’n’ cheese shares one common element: your parents.

In a study done this year by Shira Gabriel, a professor at the University of Buffalo, she and her team found that comfort foods tie into memories of our childhood. We don’t necessarily love Mom’s mac ’n’ cheese because we’ve been eating it for years, but because our associations with the food also have positive associations with the care she gave us.

As Gabriel explained about the study, “Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long we have positive association with the person who made that food then there’s a good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation. It can be understood as straight-up classical conditioning.”

When you’re feeling sad or isolated, you’re more likely to turn toward comfort food, letting the food substitute the care you used to get from your parents. In one part of the study, Gabriel and her team had participants keep track of their feelings and eating habits. People who had good relationships with their caregivers were more likely to turn to comfort foods when going through a tough time.

People who do not have positive associations with caregivers are not as likely to look for comfort foods when they’re feeling down because they don’t have the same emotional connection.

What about people who love mac ‘n’ cheese even though they never ate it as kids? Science hasn’t figured that one out, but culture has an idea: because it’s so dang delicious.

For anyone feeling stressed this week or craving some good-old fashioned comfort food, might we suggest branching out from your traditional mac ’n’ cheese recipe? Maybe you can create new feelings of comfort for yourself with Beecher’s “World’s Best” Mac ’n’ Cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano Macaroni ’n’ Cheese.

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.