However, more subtle differences in comfort food preferences do exist among age groups, according to a new "Generational Comfort Foods" trend mapping report from the Center for Culinary Development (CCD) and Packaged Facts.
CCD's national online survey on the topic (3,700 respondents) found that sweets dominate category choices regardless of age. Nearly half (46%) of men and women across the Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y segments say they turn to baked goods, sweets and desserts for comfort, versus 19% who cite entrées, 14% salty snacks, 13% side dishes, and 4% breakfast foods.
Women favor sweets even more than men (51% of women cite sweets as comfort food, versus 36% of men). Among respondents who cite sweets, 26% chose ice cream as their top comfort food, 23% chocolate and 21% brownies.
Within entrées, roasted meats are the top choice across generations; within side dishes, macaroni and cheese and potatoes are nearly tied in popularity; and within salty snacks, chips rule (cited by 60% of total respondents, followed by popcorn and cheese, at 10% and 8%, respectively).
Cheese -- either by itself or with a bread or starchy food -- seems to elicit the most "passionate" response across generations, but with generational nuances (Boomers citing artisan cheeses versus Gen X's cheese crackers, for example).
Other generational trends include:
* Boomers prefer "classic" comfort foods such as braised meats, casseroles and ice cream, but many also enjoy gourmet choices such as high-quality dark chocolate and fancy cheeses. They crave foods from their childhoods such as peanut butter, popcorn, foods made with canned tuna fish, chicken noodle soup and hot oatmeal.
* Gen Xers are more accustomed to commercial fare, and crave fast food (especially hamburgers) and burritos. They cite branded foods more often than the other generations, including favorite packaged cookies, ice creams, candies and snacks.
* Gen Yers are also partial to burritos and ramen noodles -- but in contrast to other cohorts, many also include healthier foods, including sushi and fruits, among their favorite comfort foods. They are less inclined than Gen X to associate specific brands with comfort foods.
The research also identified top trends in comfort foods, including:
* Breakfast for dessert. Gen Y pastry chefs and a desire to start the day with a "protein burst" are driving this just-emerging trend. Boxed cereals, already found in snack bars and frozen yogurt shops, are now turning up in desserts, along with desserts such as "glamorized" versions of French toast, waffles and doughnuts.
* Madeover meatloaf. Regional restaurants, nouveau diners and sandwich shops are featuring meatloaf offerings with fuller flavors and natural or leaner meat blends. Boomers like the healthier versions of this nostalgic favorite, while Gen Y is drawn to bolder taste variations.
* Artisan pies. The pies now seen in specialty cafes and fine restaurants reflect the "artisan sprit" of inspired pastry chefs and are not only fresh and "home made," but "full of good things," CCD reports.
* Pho/Vietnamese beef noodle soup. First spotted as an emerging trend in 2005, this soup's popularity has now spread, particularly among ethnically diverse Gen Y consumers. In addition to small shops and Vietnamese restaurant chains, it can now be found in mainstream soup restaurants and Pan-Asian noodle houses. The appeal: flavors that translate well to American tastes, combined with "infinite customizability" via fresh garnishes like sprouts, herbs and condiments.
* Asian curries. Very big among Gen Y and also popular as one-pot dishes among Gen Xers who are cooking meals for growing families. CPGs are beginning to offer curries with new simmer sauces and curry meal kits and frozen entrées.
* "New" casseroles replacing processed ingredients with fresh ingredients, including vegetables and "contemporary" proteins such as turkey, crab and shrimp.
* Mac 'n cheeses featuring natural and organic ingredients and other flavor twists.