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The Pandemic Is Changing How Much Frozen Food We Buy

(CNN) -- Pantry-loading has extended into freezer-stuffing in the pandemic, and that means frozen food items like Stouffer's Lasagna, Hot Pockets and Marie Callender's pies are flying off shelves.

Americans shelled out $15.5 billion in the frozen food aisles during the 11 weeks that ended on May 16, 2020, a 40.2% increase from the comparable year-ago period, according to Nielsen data.

It's good news for a category that has seen a big revamp in recent years as consumers shunned comfort foods for options they perceived as healthier and fresher. As a result, the TV dinner has evolved significantly from its compartmentalized, nuke-friendly roots. Joining the plates of Salisbury steaks partitioned from peas and carrots and mashed potatoes are cauliflower-dough pizzas, broccoli chia cakes, and sous vide egg white bites.

The current shopping environment could very well prove out how much shoppers will branch out from sentimental favorites and stick with the revamped offerings post-pandemic.

"It's a robust category that is getting the biggest trial event in its history," John Carmichael, president of Nestlé Food Division, told CNN Business.

As a result of restaurant closures and subsequent stay-at-home measures, about 10% more of total meals have shifted to the home, according to The NPD Group.

People have been buying so much frozen food that they needed more places to stash the items. In early April, freezer sales rocketed up 195% from the same period last year, Nielsen data show.

The attention is welcome for a company like Nestlé, which has been trying to woo millennials who are now moving into homes and starting their own families as well as people seeking out healthy yet convenient options. During the past four to five years, Nestlé has added new products or tweaked some recipes to remove artificial flavors and colors, shrink ingredient lists and add more and different kinds of protein.

When the crisis first started, people craved comfort and familiarity, Carmichael said, noting products such as Stouffer's, Hot Pockets and DiGiorno saw spikes in sales. But now Nestle's modeling and data are showing that people are starting to place increased emphasis on nutrition.

That would bode well for Nestlé's new line, Life Cuisine, which launched in April. The line has 15 recipes catering to four dietary categories: low-carb, high-protein, gluten-free and meatless.

Life Cuisine is well-positioned for "when consumers come out of this nesting phase and are looking for variety," Carmichael said.

But maintaining consumer loyalty post-pandemic when people have more options could be a challenge. When Andrea Sandrin, of Boynton Beach, Florida, was preparing for the stay-at-home measures, she went into "hurricane buying mode" just out of habit.

"Then I realized that I could in fact buy frozen food and expect it to last," Sandrin, 48, told CNN Business.

Her family has been buying products like frozen pizzas and ice cream -- but she doesn't anticipate those purchasing trends to continue.

"We don't tend to eat a lot of frozen foods," she said, adding that she's more likely to prepare foods then freeze them.

The pandemic-era remote working and learning environment puts extra emphasis on convenience, said Bob Nolan, senior vice president of demand science for Conagra Brands, the maker of frozen food brands such as Banquet, Birds Eye and Marie Callender's .

As a result, Conagra's frozen food sales have increased 45% during the past 10 weeks that ended on May 17, the company said, citing point of sale data from market research firm IRI.

Some of the brands seeing the biggest lifts were PF Chang's, up 113% during that 10-week period; meatless Gardein, up 62%; Bertolli, up 34%; and Banquet, up 23%. Comfort food accelerated faster than health and wellness, Nolan said.

Even with restaurants starting to re-open, Nolan is optimistic.

"I think frozen food was pretty stale five years ago," he said. "We worked really hard the last four years to modernize [the category]."

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