Updated from 8:49 a.m. EDTWe've all heard the story: During a recession, consumers turn to comfort foods, both for affordability and, well, for comfort. Many people are foregoing the dinners out and cooking at home. Others are turning to fast food, a perfectly unhealthy combination of cheap and comforting. McDonald's ( MCD), which has been trading near the middle of its 52-week range for months, has been edging lower lately, and Jim Cramer said on Monday that it's " getting too cheap to pass up." A comfort-food standout is dry-pasta producer American Italian Pasta ( AIPC), which counts Wal-Mart ( WMT) as its largest client and whose performance RealMoney's Steve Gear recently called "extraordinary." TheStreet.com Ratings upgraded it to a buy in December. The stock has been on a steady rise for the past year from a 52-week low of $4.26, setting consistent highs, the last of which occurred on Feb. 25 at the $33.50 level. On Feb. 12, it reported that it earned $26 million, or $1.23 a share, in the prior quarter, compared with year-ago earnings of $1.4 million, or 7 cents a share. It closed down 35 cents, or 1.2%, at $30.41 on Wednesday, March 11. On Feb. 19's "Mad Money" episode, Jim Cramer said the stock was " exactly what you should be buying." This makes sense within the comfort-food theory. Pasta, of course, is an ultimate comfort food. Who wouldn't find solace in Grandma's cheesy lasagna, a rich fettuccine alfredo or a perfect-for-leftovers cheeseburger casserole? Its versatility is another draw, crossing cuisine boundaries and allowing for both the most basic and high-end culinary creations. Pair your elbow noodles with tomato sauce from the can, or dress up your whole wheat linguine with leeks or roasted fennel.
Once you've got your pasta, you need your sauce. Simple options include olive oil or butter with a sprinkle of Kraft ( KFT) parmesan cheese, or a premade canned sauce, such as Campbell Soup's ( CPB) Prego or Heinz's ( HNZ) Catelli. ConAgra's ( CAG) Hunt's brand makes a sauce, too, or you can pick up its canned tomatoes and make your own. Campbell Soup announced on Feb. 23 that its second-quarter profit had dropped 15%, though Cramer said it was a " decent quarter with good margin growth." On Wednesday, it closed down 72 cents, or 2.7%, at $25.59 after hitting a new 52-week low of $25.54 earlier in the day. It yields 3.9%. Heinz, which is one of Navellier & Associates' holdings, had its numbers reduced in February by UBS due to weaker consumer behavior. On Feb. 24, Heinz announced that third-quarter profit rose 11%, but Cramer isn't excited about the stock. It closed on Wednesday down 47 cents, or 1.5%, at $31.48, after hitting a 52-week low of $30.51 on Friday. Heinz yields 5.4%. ConAgra yields 5.3% and closed down 56 cents, or 3.8%, at $14.02 on Wednesday. On the Feb. 27 episode of "Mad Money," Cramer said that he liked ConAgra. "Like every other food stock, they're going down, but I like that yield. I'd buy on a scale on the way down," he said. If time's an issue, you might want to buy your pasta with sauce included. Kid-friendly brands include ConAgra's Chef Boyardee canned pastas and General Mills' ( GIS) Hamburger Helper. For big broods, add extra pasta (and water) to the Hamburger Helper mix; it cuts down on the sodium, too. Pepsi's ( PEP) Quaker brand also offers pasta-and-sauce mixes in such flavors as creamy parmesan, stroganoff and primavera.