Processed Foods That Weirdly Made A Comeback In 2020

We think it's safe to say that 2020 was an ... interesting year, to say the least. From the Australian wildfires (remember those?) to the 2020 U.S. election, it's been a wild ride. But one story has dominated the news cycle since the very beginning of the year: the coronavirus pandemic. At first, the outbreak was centered in Wuhan, China. But in a matter of months, the virus circled the globe, forcing pretty much the entire world into their homes for a matter of months.

With this brand-new lifestyle came lifestyle changes that nobody could have predicted prior to the outbreak. We obsessively stress-baked banana bread. We hoarded toilet paper. And in the process, we largely changed how we ate. Not only did we stop going out to restaurants and start cooking more at home, but we also bought different products at the grocery store.

For years, packaged and processed foods have been waning in popularity as consumers choose apparently healthier and more natural meal options. But at the beginning of the pandemic, nobody knew how long we were going to be inside, so we all stocked up on some shelf-stable comfort food favorites. We forgot how much we loved some of these products, and while we may not keep them around forever, they helped us get through a period of self-isolation when there wasn't much else to do other than just eat.

So, let's take a look at the processed food we've been eating during the pandemic.

Instant ramen

While some people lost their jobs and found themselves with a lot of free time on their hands during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, that wasn't the reality for some workers. Employees had to learn to balance remote jobs while taking care of their families and sometimes helping their kids with online schoolwork. That meant that there just wasn't much time to make food during the busy routine of the day.

That's why instant foods like instant ramen came back into vogue. Instant ramen may not be the most nutritious of foods out there, but it's super-fast to make. When you're trying to do a thousand things at once and you just need to get something in your stomach before your next Zoom meeting, a hot bowl of ramen will almost always do.

It's not just a meal that's quick to make, either. With many facing unemployment and a lack of access to government assistance, not everyone could afford to continue to eat what they were used to eating. As an ultra-cheap option, grocery store instant ramen became a no-brainer for those who were forced to stretch their grocery budgets.

Campbell's soup

You probably remember it from years ago: the iconic red Campbell's soup can. You might have fed it to your kids when they came inside after playing in the snow all day, or your parents might have served you a bowl of the stuff when you were sick. But one thing is for sure: Consumers have been largely shunning canned soup for years now. According to The New York Times, Campbell's has seen declines in soup sales for the past two years.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, things seemed to turn around for the company ... temporarily, if nothing else. In just one month, Campbell's soup sales rose by a staggering 59 percent. In fact, the company had to increase its production and temporarily increase its employees' wages just to meet the enormous jump in demand.

Again, this is probably largely due to the fact that consumers started looking for cheaper products that could be cooked quickly and easily. After all, a few weeks of isolation in, and making a soup from scratch started to seem less than appealing — a can could get the job done just as well.

Cold cereal

What do you feed your kids when you're in a rush and trying to get them out of the door in the morning? Well, if you're eating on the go, you're probably not going to give them a bowl of cereal. It just doesn't travel well, and if you miss the opportunity to eat it at home, then you're better off choosing something else. Whether the fact that cold cereal has gone out of fashion is due to its lack of portability or just the fact that most parents don't like to load their kids up with sugar before school anymore, we've had less of it in our kitchens in recent years.

However, after a few weeks at home, with less structure in the day and nowhere to go, why not indulge in a few spoonfuls of cold cereal? It seems like that's what consumers were thinking, as General Mills reported a sharp uptick in a variety of its foods, perhaps most notably, cold cereal.

We miss the days of slurping back cold cereal milk, so a delicious bowl of Cheerios hit the spot and inspired some welcome nostalgia during our dullest days in isolation.

Pasta sauce

We all love to make a homemade pasta sauce to bless our favorite pasta shapes with. But, let's face it, making your own pasta sauce isn't exactly the fastest and most convenient thing you could cook. After all, you have to spend hours chopping, dicing, sauteing, and simmering if you want it to come out perfectly. During isolation, spending this much time on just a sauce wasn't always an option, especially when it came to busy weekdays.

In fact, pasta sauce became such a popular staple that some grocers noticed it leaving their shelves too quickly to restock in time. Pauly Guglielmo, a pasta sauce manufacturer, said that he was having trouble meeting the significantly increased demand. Grocery stores wanted to buy more product all at once so they would be less likely to sell out.

Prego reported that their pasta sauce sales increased 52 percent at the beginning of the pandemic, a huge leap forward for a product that may have lost its appeal in recent years as people eat out more and develop a preference for more "natural" products. The real challenge for shoppers was choosing the best grocery store spaghetti sauce to slather over their noodles. 

Frozen pizza

In years past, almost everyone would keep a few frozen meals in the freezer for whenever they couldn't be bothered to cook for themselves. But up until recently, consumers largely preferred to go out for something to eat rather than stocking up on frozen items. The Atlantic reported that diners have been turning to fast casual restaurants when they want something quick to eat without the fuss.

However, with many businesses shut down for weeks or even months, people had little choice but to learn to cook at home more during the pandemic. It makes sense, then, that frozen pizza became a popular option for many. Frozen pizza tastes way better than a lot of other frozen meals out there, and you just have to cook one or two to feed a whole crew.

Whether consumers were buying more frozen pizza to feed their kids during the school day or so they could binge despondently after re-watching Tiger King for the third time, this is a quarantine staple we don't plan on getting rid of anytime soon.

Aunt Jemima pancakes

Remember the days when you were rushing to work and all you could manage to do was grab a coffee and a granola bar on your way out the door? Well, if you found yourself working from home in 2020, that was no longer a problem. While you may not have been able to spend hours prepping breakfast during the weekday if you were still working, spending a little extra time in the kitchen in the morning suddenly became viable.

Combine that phenomenon with the fact that so many consumers wanted to stock up on non-perishable foods, and it's easy to see how Aunt Jemima pancakes made a comeback. Late in the first quarter, the company saw its sales jump by eight percent.

The Aunt Jemima brand also faced the racial reckoning that swept the U.S. and the world during the summer of 2020. The company admitted that their long-time logo was racist and vowed to change it. It was a smart move, but some felt that it was too little, too late.

We all love a fluffy stack of pancakes in the morning ... just leave the prejudice behind.

Chef Boyardee

Remember this brand? Not that long ago, it was a classic lining many people's pantry shelves. These days, though, fewer people are feeding their kids Chef Boyardee (or, you know, sneakily eating it from the can themselves). Chef Boyardee is owned by Conagra brands, and in the quarter ending February 23, 2020, the company saw a decline in net sales by five percent.

However, the pandemic, which hit the United States in March, helped the company make a quick, if perhaps temporary, comeback. By March, the company reported that its in-store sales had grown by 50 percent. That's significant, especially considering that they had experienced contraction just previous to March.

Chef Boyardee products, which are basically Olive Garden in a can, were appealing to parents who could no longer send their kids to the school cafeteria with some quarters in hand so they could buy lunch. However, we have to admit that we hope this stuff doesn't continue its comeback for long. Did any of us even like it, anyway?


Eating healthy is great, and it definitely makes you feel better when you keep up these habits on a regular basis. But let's just face it. Sometimes, when things seem really stressful, you just have to eat your feelings. In these cases, a salad just isn't going to cut it for us. That's why many of us have apparently been hoarding packages of Oreos during the pandemic.

The maker of the iconic brand told Wall Street analysts that the company had seen a rise in sales of around 30 percent. It wasn't just a one-time deal, either. It seemed like customers stocked up on cookies at the beginning of the pandemic and kept coming back for more. Per The New York Times, "the pandemic revealed that sheltering in our homes — where many of us will continue to work — turns our kitchens into one huge vending machine."

From stress-eating to just grabbing a quick bite in between Zoom calls, the pandemic forced many of us to start stocking our homes with more snacks. And as one of the most beloved snack foods of all time, it makes sense that Oreos would appear on this list.

Mac and cheese

Another processed food that became appealing once we all had to stay home and got tired of baking our sourdough loaves? Mac and cheese. General Mills, which produces a wide range of products including mac and cheese, said demand for a variety of foods had increased but that mac and cheese was one of the most significant among them.

This is another food that's easy to cook on the fly when going out to a restaurant to pick up an order just isn't an option. It's quick, it's easy, and perhaps most importantly, it's comforting.

We all love a fancy meal, but sometimes when your world turns upside down, you don't feel like eating the rarest of steaks or going out to try that new tasting menu. You'd probably rather just dig into some classic mac and cheese while you're relaxing on the couch. All in the name of social distancing, right?

Canned meat

We're going to go out on a limb here and say that even before the pandemic, canned meat may not have been as unpopular as it had been for several years in the past. With a growing interest in different Asian cuisines, products like Spam have been reappearing in restaurant dishes lately.

However, that doesn't mean that people were buying a lot of the stuff and using it at home. It just seems like a food for hard times, you know? Well, then came the coronavirus pandemic, and suddenly, everyone had a reason to stock up on the canned meat classics they had grown up eating.

The Wall Street Journal reports that canned meat sales from grocery stores climbed a shocking 60 percent in the first month of the pandemic. What did all those people make with their canned meat? We can only hope that some of them tried their own version of Spam musubi, a popular Hawaiian treat.

Frozen entrees

It's not just the frozen pizza that's caught the attention of consumers in the frozen aisle. Frozen entrees started to make a comeback during the pandemic as well. For a while now, consumers have shifted away from frozen meals. And if you remember them from back in the day, you probably remember that they were less than delicious.

However, companies are taking strides forward in providing frozen dinners that people actually want to eat. Per The New York Times, David Portalatin, an analyst for a research firm, claims that, "We're seeing frozen dinners and entrees that are on trend with simple ingredients and global cuisines. The food companies have responded to the contemporary food values over the last few years."

This kind of change in the frozen food world can be clearly seen at retailers like Trader Joes, which offer top-notch frozen items at competitive prices ... that actually taste good.

Hot Pockets

Let's rewind and take ourselves back in time to the late '90s and early 2000s. Times were changing, schedules were busy, and convenience foods were all the rage. Enter the Hot Pocket. This microwavable sorta-sandwich was the perfect after-school snack or lazy dinner on the way to soccer practice. Were they abjectly unhealthy? Yes, absolutely. We can't remember ever even eating a hot pocket that came with more than a whisper of a vegetable. But were they delicious? Also yes, absolutely.

You may not have had them in your freezer for a while, but once the pandemic started, people started buying these things in bulk, per CNN. At the beginning of the lockdown, people tended to buy a lot of items like Hot Pockets. However, as the weeks and months wore on, consumers again started turning to healthier food. At least Hot Pockets could relive their glory days for a brief moment.

Hot dogs

One of the most-celebrated quarantine foods during the pandemic? The humble hot dog. Of course, hot dogs are simple and easy to make, and both kids and adults like them. It just makes sense to have them in the house. But we'd argue that there's another reason hot dogs have been so popular during COVID-19. Not only are they simple and easy, but they're also a fun and celebratory food.

While some people were stuck in small apartments for their quarantines, others had the luxury of a backyard or at least a porch where they could grill. Once you got bored of one too many Hot Pockets, a nicely grilled hot dog sounded just about right.

The numbers support the claim that hot dogs were the most popular quarantine food. Hot dog sales rose more than 120 percent during the pandemic, according to Business Insider. That's huge ... it almost makes you wonder why there wasn't a hot dog shortage along with the toilet paper shortage.

Hamburger Helper

At one point in time, it was hard to walk into any suburban household in the U.S. and not find a box of Hamburger Helper in the pantry. It's one of those things that we always used to have on hand. It's a dinner that comes together really quickly, and it's something that everyone's taste buds can appreciate.

But in recent years, it seems like this kind of prepared, boxed, and processed food has become less popular. After all, when you could take a quick trip to Chipotle or Sweet Green, why would you bother with the less-than-healthy alternative that is Hamburger Helper?

However, the pandemic made people change their minds about keeping this stuff around. After all, if you remember, there was a lot of worry about the food supply chain at the beginning of the pandemic. Therefore, some people wanted to have as much non-perishable food available as possible. Perhaps that's why boxes of Hamburger Helper were flying off the shelves in March.