What We Eat—And Cook—When We’re Sad

Cheese enchiladas at Casa Vieja

It’s been an especially depressing and distracting week, no matter where anyone is on the political or social spectrum. The negative, tragic and disturbing news flowing into our social media feeds just won’t stop. It’s enough to make you sit in the corner and eat an entire pint of ice cream—alone.

For some, emotional eating can go to a dark and unhealthy place, to the point where it is habitual and self-destructive. We’re not advocating that and if it describes you, please seek professional help before you cause yourself issues that can be extremely difficult to overcome. Ditto for anyone who has a tendency to drink too much alcohol during a down moment. Get help. Food and drink doesn’t actually solve anything other than hunger and thirst.

In moderation, though, certain foods seem to have emotional healing power—some more than others. As writer Lauren McDowell summed up, “Carbs and butter and cheese!” There’s a nurturing quality in a bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy or in that old-school casserole that your mom used to make. Writer Holly Beretto turns to her Italian grandmother’s recipes. For those who don’t cook, tucking into a plate of cheese enchiladas at a favorite old-school Tex-Mex restaurant might be just the thing to cure a blue heart.

Homemade ice cream sandwich with chocolate chip cookies and sweet cream gelato at The Pit Room. Photo by Scott Sandlin.

Houston Food Finder contributor and Zagat Houston editor Ellie Sharp also noted another recurring theme: chocolate. There are times when a cup of hot chocolate or a hot fudge sundae certainly seems to ease the soul.

Warming or cooling foods might come into play, too. “I might have spicy food to make me feel more alive, like Thai curries or chips and salsa (always on hand without fail),” says writer Sandra Cook. “These are followed by gelato as a cool-down.”

People also turn to the familiarity of food rituals. Take, for example, making homemade hot buttered popcorn. “There’s definitely a ritual to it for me, says McDowell. “I can put in as much oil/butter as I want and it doesn’t take long to make, so it’s like homemade ‘fast food.’

Chocolate Stack Cake at Field & Tides
Chocolate “stack cake” at Field & Tides. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Houston Food Finder editor and publisher Phaedra Cook agrees, adding, “We have a stainless steel ‘popcorn bowl’ exclusively for making popcorn that’s always going to be blackened on the bottom. Even just getting this bowl out of the cabinet is comforting. I use Alton Brown’s popping method, but instead of shaking the bowl with tongs—which is a clunky method—I just use a pair of thick oven mitts. Try it and you’ll never use that microwave crap again.”

There’s another kind of food ritual, though, that many of our writers find even more comforting than eating—cooking, and sharing the wealth with friends and neighbors.

“I cook a lot and I love to, but when I am sad, I have this tendency to make Italian stuff for people: pizzelle, tiramisu, chocolate cake,” says Beretto. “I hardly ever eat this stuff when I make it (the recipe makes like, 56 pizzelle, and I might eat only one), but the act of cooking and the love of giving it away removes the sadness on a huge level.”

kneading bread
Kneading bread dough seems especially therapeutic during troubled times. Photo by Blake Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons

Sharp finds special comfort in bread making. “When I’m bummed out it’s hard to beat making homemade bread with the physical work of kneading and shaping. And then the reward is hot bread with butter.”

Barbecue columnist Scott Sandlin agrees that the ritual of bread making is especially effective for dealing with the blues. “The kneading and working with your hands and the process of doing something methodically is very therapeutic,” he wrote. “My recipe makes three loaves. The first is for us to eat with fresh butter, while it’s still hot, to satisfy the immediate cravings created while the house filled with the smell of baking bread. The second is for practical purposes—to save for later. And the third is to give away, to a neighbor or a friend, just because. That one’s probably the most therapeutic of all. The simple act of giving seems to be the key in getting me back on track.”

fresh bread by Scott Sandlin
Like others, barbecue columnist Scott Sandlin turns to breadmaking and sharing the wealth when he’s down. Photo by Scott Sandlin

Sandlin also has found that the process of making roux for gumbo is meditative. “Stirring a roux for 45 minutes or so gives you lots of time to process things and serving and seeing others enjoy the fruits of the labor really helps. But like others have said, bread is often what comes to mind first.”

When life just seems too dark and troubled, a little comfort food might not solve anything, but in moderation it doesn’t hurt, either.

Churrascos Idizabal Mac & Cheese
The Idizabal Mac & Cheese at Churrascos.

Here’s our list of go-to dishes and drinks for when the blues strike. Perhaps you’ll recognize one of your own go-tos.

Cheesy Comfort

  • Cheese Ravioli (Beretto)
  • Eggplant Parmesan (Beretto)
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (McDowell; Beretto added “with tomato soup.”)
  • Macaroni and Cheese (Cook: “Even blue box Kraft will do in a pinch.”)
Hazelnut Chocolate Cake at Eloise Nichols
A chocolate and hazelnut cake worth fighting for at Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Sweets and Chocolate

  • Cookies (Sandra Cook and Phaedra Cook)—Sandra says,“Since I don’t each much wheat, I crave Tate’s Bake Shop Gluten Free Chocolate Chip cookies. Label describes them as ‘uniquely crispy and deeply delicious.’ I find they are an excellent substitute from my old favorite, Pepperidge Farm Brussels Cookies. Homemade cookies are even better!” The other Cook agrees that it’s hard to beat homemade. “Give me a warm, crispy-on-the-outside homemade cookie with melted chocolate and all is right with the world again,” says Phaedra. “Oddly, as I get older, I’m also becoming fond of oatmeal cookies with cinnamon, raisins and nuts. Go figure.”
  • Gelato and Ice Cream (Lauren McDowell, Sandra Cook, Ellie Sharp and Phaedra Cook)—Interestingly, both Cooks have a special fondness for creamy, cold treats with salted caramel. Sandra says Talenti Salted Carmel Gelato is a go-to. One of Phaedra’s favorite tricks is to sprinkle black flake volcanic salt on Häagen-Dazs Caramel Cone ice cream. Of course, there are plenty of local ice cream shops to turn to as well. “Cloud 9 Creamery, Fat Cat Creamery, Hank’s and Amy’s Ice Cream are just a few,” Phaedra says. “I’ll specifically get chocolate ice cream from The Chocolate Bar, for obvious reasons. For at-home, my favorite brand is Ben & Jerry’s. I’ll turn to Häagen-Dazs if I can’t get that.” McDowell says her favorites are ice cream sandwiches or those cookie sandwiches with cream in the middle, while Sharp says that milkshakes are like “portable hugs.”
  • Bread Pudding was picked by Sharp, but editor Phaedra Cook says it’s not complete without whiskey sauce
Cane Rosso Pizza
Pizza, fresh from a 900-degree brick oven at Cane Rosso.Photo by Jeff Amador.

Baked and Fried Savory Dishes

  • Biscuits (McDowell)
  • Bread, freshly baked (Sharp and Sandlin)
  • Buttered Popcorn—Homemade only (Cook and McDowell)
  • Chicken Pie, a selection by Sharp who specifies that this is not to be confused with chicken pot pie. “It’s my traditional birthday dinner (as long as I can remember) and perennial comfort food. My mom always made it and now Bryan makes it for me. I even made it for myself when I was single. Essential.”
  • Dumplings (McDowell)
  • Pizza (McDowell)
Tonkotsu Shoyu at Ramen Tatsu-ya
Tonkotsu Shoyu ramen at Ramen Tatsu-ya. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Soups and Stews

  • Beef Stew (Cook)
  • Gumbo (Sandlin)
  • Pasta Fagioli (Beretto)
  • Ramen (McDowell)
  • Tomato Soup (Beretto)
Woodford Reserve at Fielding's Local Kitchen
Three half-ounce pours of Woodford Reserve whiskey at Fielding’s Local Kitchen + Bar. These came from barrels selected by owner Cary Attar.
Photo by Phaedra Cook


  • Herbal Tea (Sandra Cook)
  • Wine (McDowell)
  • Whiskey—Phaedra Cook says, “It can be bourbon, Scotch or Japanese whiskey. One of my favorite quotes is from chef Terrence Gallivan at ‘The Pass & Provisions. Years ago, when I was doing some beverage research for a My Table article, he said, ‘Bubbles for when you’re happy; whiskey for when you’re sad.’ It’s so true, and a mere ounce as a comforting nightcap is sometimes just what is needed.”

What food and drink do you find comforting on a bad day? Leave a comment below. (Note that all comments are moderated, so it may take a little time to appear.)

Comments (1)

Share Your Thoughts on This Article

  • August 20, 2017 at 10:55 pmsunny

    LOVED this article because I love when writers associate food with feelings or memories, like MFK Fisher. I have a well loved Calphalon all purpose pan that can go from stove top to oven and it’s been my go to for most everything I cook, including all my comfort foods. I don’t know if I have a favorite go to comfort food. Maybe ice cream, but sometimes you want something savory. I liked the making three loaves approach.