Just a few months ago, Sue Smith considered herself a healthy eater. She ate salads with kale and quinoa. She counted calories. She eliminated processed sugar from her diet. She avoided dairy products.
But in the past month, as the coronavirus pandemic made her housebound, Ms. Smith, a writer in Los Angeles, began shopping — and eating — completely differently.
During a trip to the grocery store, she bought SpaghettiOs. She threw two large boxes of Goldfish crackers into her shopping cart. And she went all in on dairy.
“I’m eating ice cream. Ice cream bars,” Ms. Smith said. “And tonight, I’m making a spinach-artichoke lasagna. There’s so much dairy in it. But I just need the comfort that I get from that food right now.”
As the coronavirus shutdowns continue across the United States, two growing trends involving how people eat — the rising amount of money spent on meals outside the home and the increased purchase of fresh or organic foods in grocery stores — have been reversed. Many restaurants have closed, and shoppers are reaching for frozen pizza and boxes of cereal instead of organic greens and whole grains.
That’s good news for big food companies like Kraft Heinz and J.M. Smucker, which have struggled in recent years to adapt as Americans shied away in great numbers from highly processed foods. Now, in a moment of crisis, shoppers are turning to old standbys that they may not have had in years or even decades.
Many large food businesses like the Campbell Soup Company, which had seen steady declines in soup sales the last two years, are now ramping up production and temporarily increasing wages for hourly employees to meet the higher demand. In the last month, sales of Campbell’s soup soared 59 percent from a year earlier. Prego pasta sauce increased 52 percent, and sales of its Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers climbed nearly 23 percent.
Similarly, Kraft Heinz, whose products had fallen far out of favor with consumers, resulting in massive write-downs in the values of its Kraft natural cheese and Oscar Mayer cold cuts businesses a year ago, told investors last week that some of its factories were working three shifts to meet high demand for products like its macaroni and cheese. The company’s stock rose on Tuesday after it said first-quarter sales would be up 3 percent.
And Conagra Brands, which had reported a decline of more than 5 percent in net sales for the quarter ending Feb. 23, said its shipments to retailers and in-store sales in March had grown 50 percent as demand increased for Slim Jim jerky snacks, Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Chef Boyardee pastas.
“We stocked up on the entire Chef Boyardee line. Chef Boyardee Ravioli. Chef Boyardee Beefaroni,” Ms. Smith said. “I hadn’t had that stuff in 20 years.”
Much of the early panic buying that cleared out stores of rice, cans of tuna and soup, and beans was rooted in a combination of fear and practicality. Shoppers, uncertain of when they would be able to return to grocery stores and whether they would find any food restocked, bought foods that could sit on their shelves for months.
These simple and easy-to-make meals also fill the bill for people trying to squeeze a fast lunch in between Zoom meetings for work or for parents feeding their newly home-schooled children.
For the large food companies, a big question is whether the robust sales will disappear once the shutdown ends. Some of that depends on how quickly the economy rebounds, said Robert Moskow, an analyst at Credit Suisse.
“We counted three economic recessions in the past 30 years, and in each of them the data show that consumers shifted more toward at-home food consumption to save money, away from the structural trend of eating away from the home,” Mr. Moskow said. “I would expect food-at-home consumption to increase, and not just for the next two months but for the next 12 months.”
Others say the quarantine food shopping provides an opportunity for food companies to convert first-time shoppers into longtime buyers with packaged, refrigerated or frozen foods that they say are healthier and tastier than they were a few years ago.
“We’re seeing frozen dinners and entrees that are on trend with simple ingredients and global cuisines,” said David Portalatin, the national analyst for food and beverage consumption at the NPD Group, a research firm. “The food companies have responded to the contemporary food values over the last few years.”
Executives at General Mills said they had worked diligently to improve the nutrition level and taste of many products. “Right now, we have people trying the products they haven’t had for a while, and we hope they’re surprised and find that they’re delicious and that we have them come back,” said Jon Nudi, who leads the company’s North American retail operations.
General Mills has seen across-the-board increases in its various product lines in the last four weeks, from Yoplait yogurt to Cheerios cereal to Progresso Soup and even baking products like Gold Medal flour and Bisquick as consumers confined to their homes fill the endless hours by trying new recipes or even baking bread.
“We’ve seen all of our categories go up, including dry packaged dinner mixes like Hamburger Helper,” Mr. Nudi said. “There were a lot of people who thought its best days were way behind it. But, mixed with hamburger or tuna, it’s a simple and delicious meal.”
For many people, some of the strict rules they had around food before the quarantines are now being eased.
“We don’t normally have chips at home. But now we have Doritos and Cheetos. Chips made with orange stuff and all sorts of seasonings that we normally don’t eat,” said Connie Huynh, an organizer with the grass-roots activist network People’s Action in Pasadena, Calif. “We are relaxing some of the rules during this stressful time just to get through it.”
For others, the food purchases are purely an emotional reaction. Consumers are reaching for foods that trigger a comforting childhood memory or are simply their go-to snack when they need to relieve stress.
“One of the first things I grabbed was Kraft Easy Cheese. The disgusting orange stuff in a can. But it was one of the foods I ate growing up, so it’s a nostalgia thing,” said Hana Thompson, who works for a software start-up in Denver. “I also have a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that I haven’t opened. How long can I last and not eat those? It’s a low-entertainment game that I’ve been playing.”
Two days later, the Cheetos won.