Give Me Six Minutes, and I’ll Give You Supper: The Story of the TV Dinner

It’s TV Dinner Day so let’s learn a bit about how the tv dinner came about. Nothing brings back memories more than recalling eating TV dinners parked in front of a favorite program. Many of us have vivid memories of the family sitting down together, not at the table, but in front of the set to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Donna Reed Show. There were practical reasons for the invention as well. Women were entering the workplace, and tv dinners made meal preparation quick and easy.

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The definition of a “tv dinner” is a frozen meal that is prepackaged, typically in some type of plastic. Several decades ago it was cooked in the oven, and today it is primarily cooked in the microwave. It requires almost no preparation and usually consists of a cut of meat, a vegetable, and a dessert.

Originally, “TV dinner” was trademarked by C.A. Swanson & Sons in 1953, and it was called “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” and was packaged in an aluminum tray. In 1953, Swanson sold about 5000 dinners.

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The first Swanson dinner was a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, cornbread stuffing, peas, and sweet potatoes. Gerry Thomas, who worked for Swanson, claims he invented the idea, because Swanson was left with so many turkeys after the holiday season, but the Swanson family has challenged that assertion. Gilbert and Clarke Swanson stated they developed the concept and the process of synchronization, so the foods all cooked in the same amount of time.

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While there is still no definitive answer on the Swanson design, there is little controversy that the first frozen meal was developed by Maxson Food Systems, Inc. in 1945. They called their dinners “Strato-Plates” and they were made to reheat and serve on military and civilian airplanes. The food had separate compartments and usually were composed of a meat, vegetable, and potato.

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Jack Fisher’s FridgiDinners were introduced in the late 1940s.  These packages were sold to bars and taverns.

Four years before Swanson’s product came out on the market, Albert and Meyer Bernstein sold packaged frozen dinners in the Pittsburgh area. They were produced under the brand name of “One-Eyed Eskimo.” By 1950, they produced more than 400,000 frozen dinners. In 1952 the brothers formed Quaker State Food Corporation and expanded their distribution to more markets, all east of the Mississippi. In 1954, when Swanson TV dinners were sold nationwide, Quaker State had sold more than two and a half million dinners.

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Selling nationwide and promoted as a meal to eat in front of the television, Swanson tends to get the credit for the new fad. The pewter tray covered in aluminum foil could be heated in, eaten from, and then thrown away. It was cooked for 25 minutes in a 425-degree oven. It sold for $.98 and most people ate it on a “tv tray” in front of the television.

In 1960, Swanson added desserts, often apple cobbler or a brownie. In 1969, the first breakfast meals were marketed. Pancakes and sausage was the big favorite.

“Hungry Man” dinners were introduced in 1973. These tv meals featured larger portions. Mean Joe Greene from the Pittsburgh Steelers was the spokesman for these calorie-laden dinners. A typical Hungry Man meal contains a whopping 860 calories with 39 grams of fat and 1350 milligrams of sodium. In 1986, microwave meals became available, while the 1990s introduced special kid meals.

The production of these meals is highly automated. There are three steps to the process: food prep, tray filling, and freezing. In the first step, fruits and vegetables are washed and placed into a container to be steamed or boiled, or blanching, as we know it in the kitchen. This should destroy enzymes that can cause chemical changes in the flavor and color of some of the foods. Fat is trimmed from the meat and it’s cut into standard sizes. They are seasoned and cooked in an oven. The “filling lines” put the food into container compartments. Liquid nitrogen is used for cryogenic freezing. The nitrogen is actually sprayed on the food which boils when it comes in contact with the frozen food. Called “flash freezing,” the process is supposed to retain a higher quality of the food. Dinners are then covered with paper or foil and vacuum-sealed, so the food does not dry out. The dinners are stored at -18 degrees during shipping and storage.

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The freezing process might be safe, but there is much controversy about how healthy most of these meals are. The dinners are heavily processed with salt and fat to add back in flavor. Since they need a longer shelf life, partially hydrogenated oils are used. These are high in trans fats and are being banned in some areas. The dinners are typically less nutritious than fresh food and sometimes require questionable preservatives.

Today there is a trend to produce healthier versions of these meals. Weight Watchers, Amy’s, and Lean Cuisine are brands that have a better reputation for their ingredients.

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TV dinners have changed drastically since 1953. There is a much wider variety of items to choose from: pasta, Mexican, Thai, you name it. Many grocery delis now produce their own versions, typically made from scratch. They are much healthier, and their hefty price tag proves it. Swanson has retained only 10% of the annual sales.

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I read several statistics that said the average American enjoys, ok that might be a stretch, but the average American consumes 72 prepackaged dinners a year. In 1962, Swanson was afraid that the designation “tv dinner” would discourage customers from using the frozen meals for breakfast and lunch, so they dropped the designation. I thought it was amazing that we still refer to these meals as “tv dinners” almost 60 years later.

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It makes one wonder what our great grandchildren will be eating in another 60 years. Unfortunately, too many of them will be eating in front of the television rather than around a table discussing the day’s events. Perhaps that is the most nostalgic thing about the 1950s.

6 thoughts on “Give Me Six Minutes, and I’ll Give You Supper: The Story of the TV Dinner

  1. I remember TV dinners quite a bit from when I was younger. It was always fun to pick them out-based off the dessert mainly of course! I ashamedly went through a Hungry Man phase. That could not have been pretty. I hadn’t put much thought into frozen meals and how they all needed to be cooked at the same time and temperature. Interesting concept that is fun to learn about how it is a product of it’s time.

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  2. Great idea for a post. I hated cooked vegetables as a kid (still do), so my favorite was Swanson’s Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. My mom had three raucous boys, so I’m sure these meals really helped her!

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  3. Pingback: Peas & Carrots & TV Dinners - just in time for Thanksgiving

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