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TV Dinners

For any American growing up in the 1950s or 1960s, “TV Dinners” took over part of the brain, part of the heart, whether you liked them or lot, even if you rarely ate them. C.A. Swanson & Sons used “TV Dinner” as a brand name only for about ten years after they introduced the frozen dinners in 1953; though similar products are still popular today under many different brand names, the title stuck as a descriptive term.

A TV Dinner is a manufactured meal purchased frozen from a food market and designed to be heated up at home in a “no fuss no mess no work” context. The original TV Dinners were sold in aluminum trays with separate compartments for a meat, a starch and a vegetable: fried chicken with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, for example, or the original turkey (on a bed of stuffing) with peas and potatoes. Later TV Dinners added a fourth compartment for a small desert item or cake.

While several previous attempts had been made by various companies to market pre-manufactured meals, Swanson found itself in the right place at the right time. Expecting to sell only a few thousand of the dinners, Swanson sold ten million the first year. The TV Dinner name struck a chord with a public just beginning to become addicted to the nightly television ritual. The convenient disposable metal tray fit nicely on a folding TV table, with room to spare. Best of all, the entire dinner process, from shopping to cooking to cleanup, became vastly simplified. The trend to avoid cooking at home, which continues in the United States today, got one of its first major pushes.

Strange as it may seem now, consumers prepared these dinners in a conventional oven, a process that may have taken up to 40 minutes (including pre-heating) for a meal that some ate as a pre-dinner snack. The switch to microwave cooking in the 1980s saw a change from aluminum to microwave-safe plastic trays. In 1987, a 1955-era tray was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s treasury of American artifacts. It shares quarters in the museum with such milestones as the first Kodak film camera of 1888, a 1937 pair of nylon stockings, an 1879 Edison lightbulb, an original nineteenth century pair of Levi Strauss jeans, and a set of Crayola crayons from 1903. Love them or despise them, few cultural critics would question the Smithsonian’s judgment in immortalizing the TV Dinner as an American icon. In 1999, Gerry Thomas, the Swanson marketer often credited as the inventor of TV Dinners, had the honor of putting his handprints, as well as an imprint of a three-compartment TV Dinner tray, in the cement of the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside Mann’s Chinese Theater.

In their day, TV Dinners were criticized both on taste grounds (“tastes like cardboard” was the usual remark), and on health grounds (high in fats and sodium). The careful shopper today can find frozen health and diet meals, vegetarian meals, ethnic delights, full breakfasts, and still have access to the old favorites—macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and the rest—albeit in the larger sizes demanded by today’s eating public.

Swanson put out a line of nostalgia TV Dinners in 1999. At a considerable markup, diners at some restaurants can relive their younger days by consuming a carefully produced replica of one of the original TV Dinners.