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Fit Meets Comfort

Chefs agree that comfort fare still has legs. It ranks second in the top three macro trends for 2023, according to the chef survey conducted for the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot Culinary Forecast 2023.1 All the better if the comfort food receives a remake with healthier ingredients than the originals.

Health halo

Choices and personalization play a key role in matching comfort fare to guests’ varying health views and desires. According to a survey of those ages 13-39 conducted by YPulse, 90% agree that wellness looks different for everyone.2

With those survey results in mind, Chipotle Mexican Grill created seven new Lifestyle Bowls for 2023 focused on nourishing comfort.3 Each bowl is aptly named using a range of health-halo terms. The Balanced Macros Bowl features light white rice, black beans, chicken, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, guacamole and extra romaine lettuce. The Wholesome Bowl is a mix of supergreens lettuce blend, chicken, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa and guacamole.

Meanwhile, the High Protein Bowl brings together white rice, black beans, double chicken, tomatillo-red chili salsa, cheese and romaine lettuce. In its press release announcing the bowls, Chipotle touted “offering balanced meals made with real ingredients that you feel good eating.”

Ingredient substitutions

While comfort food conjures warmth and familiarity, views on ingredients have matured. Pasta-based comfort foods like mac and cheese, fettuccine alfredo and pasta carbonara, for example, can still evoke memories even with updated ingredients.

Noodles & Co. was among the first to bring plant-based pasta to the forefront with its zucchini noodles in 2018. The chain continues to tweak its menu to use the “Zoodles” in comforting ways.4 The Zucchini Roasted Garlic Cream bowl features zucchini noodles in light roasted garlic and onion cream sauce with mushrooms, spinach, roasted zucchini, MontAmore cheese and parsley. For a meaty option, the company serves Zucchini Rosa with Grilled Chicken that combines the zucchini noodles with spicy tomato cream sauce, grilled chicken, mushrooms, Roma tomato, spinach and Parmesan cheese.

Premium proteins

You also can elevate the profile of your comfort fare, enhancing its value and price with the use of premium proteins. But rather than bring in an extra protein SKU, consider those you already offer elevated with the buzz characteristics that consumers care about. For example, in an online survey of 1,000 consumers representing the general population, respondents were asked to pick the most important poultry claims. Clean label ranked No. 1 (53%), followed by no antibiotics ever (50%), humanely raised (40%), raised in the USA (40%) and organic (38%).5

Sourcing and properly identifying poultry with these claims justify premium pricing. Research backs this up. Twenty-nine percent of surveyed consumers typically choose chicken/turkey items with premium qualities/benefits and pay more for them.5 Those most prone to do so come from higher-income households, urban areas, those with children and those for whom a healthy lifestyle is a primary consideration.5

Panera Bread is fully committed to its premium-ingredient focus. Many items, including comfort dishes like Cream of Chicken & Wild Rice Soup and Chicken Tikka Masala Soup, resonate with the halo of the company’s purchasing standards. For example, its website states, “We aim to craft food that our guests not only crave but can also feel great about eating because of the high-quality ingredients.” This includes “responsibly raised,” which it partially defines as chicken raised without antibiotics, including its use in the Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt.6

Remember, as you experiment and innovate with comfort dishes, always strive to seamlessly blend nostalgia with upscale ingredients that promote well-being, while also considering the value-added factor of incorporating premium proteins.

Content courtesy of Perdue Foodservice


1What’s Hot Culinary Forecast 2023, (The National Restaurant Association),

2“How Gen Z and Millennials are Redefining Wellness,, Sept. 13, 2022,

3“Chipotle Inspires Fans to Maintain New Year’s Resolutions With New Augmented Reality Experience on Snapchat and Lifestyle Bowls,” Chipotle Newsroom, Jan. 3, 2022,


5Perdue Proprietary Research May 2022