Despite the COVID-inspired sell-off early in the year and a pandemic that's still spreading, the stock market ended 2020 on a decidedly high note. Specifically, even with Monday's partially unwound pullback the S&P 500 remains within a little more than a percentage point of Thursday's record-breaking close that topped off a 66% rally in just a little over nine months. Growth names and speculative tech picks continue to lead the way.

Given that we don't know what 2021 holds for stocks, however, it might not be a bad idea to dial back the risk and dial up the defensiveness sooner rather than later. One way to start this shift is with less-cyclical picks. Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) have earned a spot on a short list of staples stocks to consider at this time.

Woman standing in front of a grocery store shelf.

Image source: Getty Images.

Tyson Foods

Last year was tough for all companies because of the pandemic, but it was particularly tricky for Tyson Foods. The supplier of chicken, beef, and pork not only saw several of its processing plants affected by coronavirus outbreaks among employees, but the contagion also crimped the flow of pork products to China just weeks after the company started making shipments to the country for the first time since 2015.

Throw in the recently volatile price of chicken, and it makes its business even more difficult to manage. With a subsequent price-fixing lawsuit and 2020's stagnant sales, the slight dip in earnings comes as no surprise. Neither does the stock's full-year loss of 30%.

These headaches and their fiscal impact have mostly been put in the past, however. Analysts' expectations for 2% revenue growth in 2021 may not be much to write home about, but the projected 12% improvement in per-share profits makes Tyson a tastier prospect. The dividend yield of 2.8% is a little extra gravy for anyone still on the fence.

There's another nuance that completes the meal. The market may be underestimating how much demand Tyson Foods will see once the COVID-19 vaccine starts to curb the contagion and restaurants can open at maximum capacity, here and abroad. Piper Sandler analyst Michael Lavery deemed Tyson a worthy reopening play in early December, pointing out the market isn't fully pricing in the fact that about 40% of the company's sales come from food service and restaurant customers.

Coca-Cola

If waning revenue (not to mention similarly challenged income) from beverage giant Coca-Cola since 2013 has prevented you from stepping into the stock, there's something you ought to know: That was by design. Sure, consumers' shifting preferences away from sugary sodas and toward healthier drinks has been a challenge, but not to the degree the numbers alone might suggest. The company began to reorganize its operation in a big way in 2013 by doing less of its own bottling, and focusing more on marketing and management.

Although this retooling meant lower revenue, the idea was to drive higher-margin revenue once expenses related to the changeover are fully accounted for. The initiative has worked, too, although it's sometimes been difficult to see for one simple reason: Shortly after Coca-Cola wrapped up most of the North American refranchising it set out to do by 2017, it rekindled the restructuring in earnest. Only this time, its aim was off-loading a big chunk of its overseas bottling businesses. The company inked a deal to sell its India bottling operation just days before the coronavirus began to spread across the world.

The point is, it's been years since we've seen Coca-Cola not in flux or impacted by a pandemic.

Most of this disruption is likely near its end, too. The beverage company hasn't shed every bottling operation it owns, but it's sold most of the ones it no longer wants. And although it will take months to make a dent in the coronavirus' spread, vaccines are now being distributed.

We'll soon get a chance to see the drinks powerhouse operating in a normal, consistent environment, which analysts say will prompt double-digit sales and earnings growth from 2019's suppressed results. Newcomers will step into the stock since it's sporting a solid dividend yield of 3%, too.

Procter & Gamble

Lastly, add Procter & Gamble to your list of the best consumer staples stocks to buy.

Unlike Coca-Cola or Tyson Foods, there's no overlooked detail or underestimated tailwind that's going to power P&G higher. The bullish thesis is much more straightforward. This is the big power play in home consumables, including brands like Pampers diapers, Tide laundry detergent, Charmin toilet paper, and Gillette razors. It can leverage brand recognition at the same time it uses its sheer size and muscle to maintain its slow, steady growth.

And the growth is slow. This year's top line is projected by analysts to improve a modest 3% on 2020's sales, which were up less than 5% from 2019. Projected earnings growth is only a tad stronger, remaining in single-digit territory.

The company's business and slow march forward have been mostly unfazed by coronavirus headwinds, however, underscoring the "staples" nature of its categorization: Consumers need diapers and detergent regardless of the economic environment.

That being said, there is one relatively new development that could lead to better-than-expected results. Procter & Gamble is finally giving its digital and omnichannel operations their due attention. CFO Jon Moeller noted during the company's most recent quarterly earnings call that e-commerce accounted for between 11% and 12% of sales. It's still not a lot compared to many other consumer-facing companies, but it's about twice the amount of online business the company was doing a couple of years ago. Indeed, it's impressive that a consumer staples name that's so deeply rooted in the brick-and-mortar shopping experience could make such a meaningful pivot at all.

In conjunction with this new success in e-commerce is a willingness to adapt to the unique aspects of selling on the web. CEO David Taylor first used the term "smart audiences" over a year ago to explain how the company would collect and utilize digital consumer data to drive online sales. It's starting to make a difference.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.