The end-Cretaceous bolide impact triggered the devastation of marine ecosystems. However, the specific kill mechanism(s) are still debated, and how primary production subsequently recovered remains elusive. We used marine plankton microfossils and eco-evolutionary modeling to determine strategies for survival and recovery, finding that widespread phagotrophy (prey ingestion) was fundamental to plankton surviving the impact and also for the subsequent reestablishment of primary production. Ecological selectivity points to extreme post-impact light inhibition as the principal kill mechanism, with the marine food chain temporarily reset to a bacteria-dominated state. Subsequently, in a sunlit ocean inhabited by only rare survivor grazers but abundant small prey, it was mixotrophic nutrition (autotrophy and heterotrophy) and increasing cell sizes that enabled the eventual reestablishment of marine food webs some 2 million years later.