Peeking Under The Foil: A History Of TV Dinners

National TV dinner day is September 10th. When and how did our cultural and culinary obsession with TV dinners begin? We have the answer.

Nothing says nostalgia quite like TV dinners. Many of us have vivid memories of watching our favorite TV shows and enjoying those hot meals food in an aluminum tray containing sections with an entree, mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and maybe even a brownie. Okay, not the healthiest way to have dinner, but it certainly was a way of life. Ever wonder when and how our cultural and culinary obsession with  TV dinners began? With National TV Dinner Day celebrated on September 10th, it’s a great time to dig in!

Flash! Freeze, That Is…

No history of TV dinners would be complete without a look into the origins of frozen food. If you like to preserve your own food, then you know that there is one problem when it comes to freezing foods: they develop large ice crystals, which, once you thaw the food out, causes the food to lose its consistency and flavor. That’s one reason why we go to great lengths to wrap food in airtight packaging before we freeze it.

Thanks to Clarence Birdseye, a Canadian fur trader, he had a different idea. In 1924, he was working with Inuit fishermen, and he happened to notice that their catches, which froze almost immediately after being caught, tasted much better than fish that were frozen slowly. After this observation, he began working on a way to flash-freeze foods, a technique that was soon adopted by food producers around the world.

The 1950s brought a lot of changes to society. One of those changes was the influx of women in the workplace. With families in which both parents held full-time jobs, there was (and still is) less time to do things like cook balanced meals. So how do you prepare your family a balanced meal in record time?

Enter Swanson™, an already well-known food producer who, in 1953, made a terrible mistake. At Thanksgiving, the company vastly overestimated the American need for turkey. Once the holiday was over, they were left with 260 tons of turkey — and no idea what to do with it.

Gerry Thomas, a salesman for the company, came to the rescue. At the time, airlines were known to serve trays of pre-made food on flights. He combined that idea with Clarence Birdseye’s flash-freezing technique to create the world’s first TV dinner. He ordered aluminum trays, put together an assembly line, and before long, his turkey dinners complete with cornbread stuffing were available in supermarkets around the nation for 98 cents apiece. By the time 1954 came to a close, more than ten million of these turkey dinners had been purchased by busy families and bachelors all over the United States.

Fun Fact: According to the American Frozen Food Institute, the average American eats approximately 72 frozen meals a year. This includes desserts, pizzas, breakfast items, and more.

TV Dinners Are Born Thanks to

Of course, we know that in the early 1950s, the brand new and exciting household fixture, the television set, was taking center stage in American living rooms, and our love affair with it was intensifying. So much so, families often multitasked by eating their meals in front of it. These meals, because they were confined to an aluminum tray, were easily portable and thus easy to eat in front of the TV on specially-designed trays.

Of course, the majority of today’s TV dinners aren’t made from Swanson’s leftover Thanksgiving turkeys. Over time, the food industry took the idea of frozen meals and ran with it. By 1960, Swanson was selling frozen desserts. By 1973, there were dinner options for every hungry appetite, and in 1986, foil trays were replaced with plastic, and the first microwavable TV dinners were introduced.  As we moved into the new millennium, TV dinners evolved even further, with changes toward more healthier options (in fact they were soon referred to as “frozen dinners” rather than “TV dinners” to disassociate with a sedentary lifestyle).

Do you have a favorite? Tell us in the comments below.

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Amber Kanuckel

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.

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Stacey S.

Awesome I love history like this

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