Two of my favorite foods are spaghetti and dumplings. These are also the two dishes that would show up regularly on our table for lunch on weekends when I was a boy. If we had spaghetti last weekend, we were probably having dumplings this weekend. Occasionally, my mom would make homemade sushi rolls just to mix things up a bit. Sushi is probably my third favorite food.
The funny thing is, no matter how many times I was served the same two or three dishes, I never got sick of them. To this day, I still look forward to eating spaghetti, dumplings, and sushi. People call these kinds of foods comfort foods for a reason. It's not just because they taste good. It's the memories that are associated with them.
In the Netflix documentary Cooked, Michael Pollan notes that we are the only species who cooks. He argues that we became anthropologically human when we learned how to wield fire and cook our food. Regardless of where you come from, cooked food is comforting because it connects us as a species and it reminds us of powerful memories of being cooked for and care for by our parents.
In First Bite, Bee Wilson writes, "Memory is the single most powerful driving force in how we learn to eat." She cites a study of rats who were given dopamine blockers to block their reward system. Initially, these rats continued to press a lever for a food reward. Their memory of the food reward was still fresh. However, over time, they stopped eating the food pellets because they were no longer rewarding. Finally, they stopped pressing the lever altogether. They had lost the memory of what the pellets tasted like.
People are the same way. Our memories of comforting foods entice us back again and again. Wilson argues that processed food is so alluring because it is a consistent product that lives up to the memory of that product. But just as memory drives the consumption of unhealthy food, our memories can also foster positive relationships with healthful foods. One of my patients recalled being comforted by freshly cooked eggs in the morning when she was a child. By creating comforting memories of good food for your kids, you'll help them develop a long-lasting positive association with healthful foods. For instance, instead of comforting your kids with pizza, try this recipe for pizza frittata by Rachel Ray. I'm sure it will create a memorable impression on your kids that they won't forget!
Wilson, Bee, and Annabel Lee. 2015. First bite: how we learn to eat.