A few weeks ago, my hallmates and I were trying to decide where to eat. As usual, the debate turned into distance versus food. Were we feeling lazy about walking or did we want better food? I pointed out that one of the dining halls was serving mac and cheese. Little did I know that one comfort food would be what we needed to come to a majority agreement.
After helping myself to two hearty servings of mac and cheese, honestly, I was a bit disappointed. It lacked flavor. However, the whole experience made me think about why I was drawn to mac and cheese in the first place and why this classic food resolved the tedious weekly argument about where to eat. Is mac and cheese the most delightful culinary food in the world? No, it’s just pasta and cheese. There must be something beyond the physical taste of the food.
For me, I have childhood memories associated with mac and cheese. I remember that my mom would make the Kraft mac and cheese from a box. I don’t know why that particular food sticks out to me, but I know that it’s associated with security and warmth. And it was just so exciting as a kid to eat something warm and cheesy.
I have similar reactions to other foods like clam chowder, french fries or a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. I look forward to consuming them when I see them listed on the menu for the next meal. The feeling isn’t a strong one, but it’s a subtly comforting one. The emotional ties to certain foods remind me of memories with friends and family. Comfort food is a subconscious reminder of my support system, which is especially important in college.
The first semester of college is particularly challenging for students. The environment is totally new, classes are hard and you have to deal with everything life throws at you without your family and friends. For many people, college is the first extended period of time away from home.
Being thrown outside my comfort zone, I questioned everything: whether I belonged at Pomona College, if I should transfer or even if college was the right path for me. At times, I felt intensely lonely. I had a tight-knit group of friends in high school. While I was friendly with many people in college, I didn’t feel particularly connected to anyone I had met yet.
All these factors play a part in the importance of comfort food at college. Almost everything in my life changed. I moved 3,000 miles away from home. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t continue the sports that I did in high school. I learned to enjoy time with myself even more than I had in the past. I texted and called my old friends a lot. Most importantly, I learned to take care of myself and eat food.
There’s no bell schedule to tell you that it’s time for lunch anymore. Especially on the days that I don’t have classes, motivating myself to leave my room and eat is a challenge. It doesn’t help that I have to walk for a few minutes to the dining halls instead of just down the stairs to the familiarity of my dining room.
Meals can start to feel like a chore, but eating well and eating intentionally is important. Food does more than satisfy our physiological needs. According to Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging.” As first years in college continue to find their place, comfort food is a way to feel a sense of belonging even when it feels like you’re all alone in your problems.
Loneliness is an extremely common feeling for college students, so comfort food isn’t just important for first-year students. In a study conducted by the American College Health Association, over half of college students report feeling “very lonely” in the past 12 months.
For an experience that is routinely called “the time of your life,” those statistics suggest that college is more complicated. College provides freedom and opportunities for some of the greatest moments of our lives, but that same independence can lead to some of the worst moments as well. Seeing old friends posting their happiest moments on social media doesn’t help improve loneliness.
While my natural instinct when I feel lonely is to curl up in a ball in my comfortable sheets and watch Netflix, perhaps what I really need to do is to get up and treat myself to my favorite foods at the dining halls.
Those strawberry shortcake ice cream bars remind me of the hot and humid summer afternoons and the joy of sinking my teeth into the refreshing coolness of a cold treat. Watermelon reminds me of those lazy summer nights when my family (well, mostly me) would go through two or three watermelons a week. I even love watermelon so much that I own a watermelon shirt.
Next time you’re at the dining hall I encourage you to think about the food you’re eating, not just what food groups you’re hitting but also how the food makes you feel. It’s unfortunately easy to go through the motions of robotically chewing and swallowing without enjoying the emotions that can come with food.
Eating food is not only taking care of yourself physically but also emotionally. When you’re feeling a little bit down or you want to reward yourself for being the amazing human you are, sink your teeth into that cheesy slice of pizza and don’t regret it.