10 Breakthroughs in TV Dinners

TV dinners have come a long way from their start in the 1950s.
Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Thinkstock

If there's a single, quintessential food tradition that reveals something about the American lifestyle, it might just be the TV dinner. It's simple and egalitarian -- for the price of one of those fancy coffee drinks, you get a full meal, including meat or poultry, potatoes, a vegetable and a dessert. It's convenient, because you can grab one from the freezer and cook the whole shebang at once in a single tray, either in a conventional oven or a microwave. It takes just a minute to open the package, which is perfect for a nation of people who seem perpetually on the go. And best of all, the little tray is ideal for eating in front of the television set, or at your desk at work. So it's not surprising that Americans typically eat TV dinners six times each month, and spend $7.9 billion annually on the frozen, prepackaged repasts [sources: Caplan, Lempert].

The TV dinner is such a hallowed American institution, in fact, that as the Apollo 8 astronauts hurtled home from lunar orbit in December 1968, they told the world by radio that they were celebrating Christmas by eating TV dinners brought to them by Santa [source: United Press International].


You'd be tempted to think that the Pilgrims brought TV dinners with them on the Mayflower, but in reality, the TV dinner is a relatively modern invention. Clarence Birdseye first came up with a quick way to freeze food in 1926, and the first frozen dinner was marketed on a large scale in the mid-1950s [source: Library of Congress]. But like most other things in our trend-loving culture, the basic TV dinner has gone through considerable evolution over the decades. Here's a look at 10 innovations that continue to please our palates.

10: The Compartmentalized Tray

The first true blockbuster in the history of the TV dinner was a somewhat saucy turkey-and-potato affair.
CSA Images/Vetta/Getty Images

One of the key features of a traditional TV dinner is the compartmentalized tray, which neatly separates the various foods in the pre-cooked meal and keeps them from running together and forming an unappealing mess when you reheat them. The first such tray seems to have been developed for use on United Airlines back in 1937, for the first kitchen on an airplane.

Around 1945, Maxson Food Systems created the first frozen three-course meal that fit into such a tray. Maxson began supplying those meals to Pan American Airways, along with a convection oven specially designed for use on airplanes [source: Smith].


From there, though, the origin story of TV dinners gets a bit murky. In 1946, Maxson marketed a consumer version of its airline meal-in-a-tray, the Strato Meal, in a grocery store in New Jersey. It came on a compartmentalized tray made of cardboard [source: Nickerson]. A few years later, Pittsburgh-based entrepreneurs Albert and Meyer Bernstein marketed a similar product, but in an aluminum tray. It was sold only in Pittsburgh, but was a big success, moving 400,000 units in 1950. The Bernsteins went on to found Quaker State Food Corp. [source: Bortner].

But both of those manufacturers became also-rans in 1954, when C.A. Swanson & Sons, a Nebraska-based poultry processor, started marketing its version of the meal-in-a-tray. In some accounts, Swanson sales executive Gerry Thomas got the inspiration after flying on Pan Am and seeing the airline's trays. One of Swanson's best moves was to call its product a "TV Dinner" and put it in a package designed to look like a TV set -- a ploy to capitalize on the growing popularity of the relatively young technology. By 1956, Swanson was king of the TV dinner, selling 13 million of them per year, thanks to a massive TV marketing campaign and a lower-cost product (20 cents a meal versus Quaker State's 98 cents a meal) [source: Bortner]. Today, one of Swanson's trays is kept in the Smithsonian Institution's collection [source: Smith].

9: Other Entrees Besides Turkey

As if meatloaf night by itself wasn't exciting enough to the children of the 1950s ... Little did they imagine meatloaf could one day be thawed from an icy hibernation within minutes of their asking.
CSA Images/Vetta/Getty Images

When Swanson began marketing the TV dinner in 1954, it started off with a single version containing sliced turkey. According to Andrew F. Smith's "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," the poultry processor picked turkey because it had an oversupply of the birds, thanks to its practice of guaranteeing farmers a set purchase price for any turkeys that they raised for the company. Swanson executive Gerry Thomas said originally this policy had been instituted to make sure that Swanson didn't run out of product during the Thanksgiving season, but by the 1950s, farmers had produced so many birds, the company had thousands of pounds of meat moving across the country in refrigerated railcars because it didn't have enough cold storage warehouse space [source: Smith].

The refrigerated railcar story has since been challenged, and in a 2003 interview, Thomas described it as a "metaphor" [source: Rivenberg]. But one fact is indisputable: After the turkey TV dinner became a huge success, the company quickly introduced versions containing fried chicken or beef pot roast, along with peas, corn sautéed in butter, potatoes and gravy [sources: Pittsburgh Press, Youngstown Vindicator].


Many of the early Swanson's recipes were devised by a young employee named Betty Cronin, who actually was a bacteriologist rather than a chef. But that was OK, because many of her challenges involved finding ways to keep foods surviving the freezing, storage and reheating process. For example, she labored long and hard to devise a fried chicken recipe with breading that wouldn't fall off when it was frozen or become greasy upon reheating, and still tasted good enough to eat -- with the same cooking time as its two sides [source: Gladstone]. Quite a feat.

8: The Folding TV Table

Before you have a TV party ... You've got to have a TV table.
Jim Corwin/Photolibrary/Getty Images

In the 1950s, not everyone had a TV, so it was not uncommon to find 10 or so people gathered around one set. So how would they eat those marvelous TV dinners? Early frozen meals came in trays made of aluminum -- a metal which conducts heat really well. People couldn't just set them in their laps, unless they wanted to risk getting burned in a particularly painful way.

Fortunately, a solution already existed to that dilemma. Folding tables had probably been around for a long time, but in 1946, a Los Angeles inventor named Henry V. Gaudette applied for a patent for a new, improved version, with rotating legs that could be anchored in an X shape under the tray. Not only was that configuration more rigid and stable than previous folding tables, but when the table was collapsed, it was completely flat, which made it easy to store [source Gaudette].


Gaudette's invention was ideal for eating while watching TV, and by the early 1950s -- even before Swanson introduced the TV dinner -- cheap metal versions of the folding tray table were being advertised in newspapers. A 1955 ad in the St. Petersburg Times touts a TV snack table, offered for a bargain price of $1.67, that was "ideal for your TV guests" and came in a stain-resistant enameled design with a choice of three decorative patterns [source: St. Petersburg Times].

7: Dessert Joins the Meal

Brownies, pies, cinnamon-slathered apples ... TV dinners learned to pack a lot of sugary satisfaction into a little square.
Noah Clayton/Photodisc/Getty Images

Initially, TV dinners just included the basic combination of meat, potatoes and veggies. As novel as these ready-for-action meals were in their earliest years, your average sweet tooth knew that there was something missing: dessert.

The trouble was, those desserts required at least some separate preparation. And that was a problem, because as neuroscientists later discovered, once these TV-dinner-loving Americans sat down in front of their TV sets with their aluminum trays, the alpha brain waves induced by the TV programming caused them to slip into a state of passivity and reduced consciousness [source: Potter]. That probably tended to make it tougher for them to rise up and get a helping of pudding or a slice of pie, even if they had a craving for a sugar rush.


Swanson initially tried marketing a separate frozen fruit pie product designed to be baked while heating a TV dinner [source: Schenectady Gazette]. But eventually, in the early 1960s, the company added a fourth space in the tray that was filled with a serving of apple or cherry cobbler or else a chocolate brownie [sources: Rosenberg, Andrews]. These desserts could be served hot, and wouldn't dry out or burn, when heated in the oven at the same 425 degrees F (218 C) for 25 minutes as the rest of the dinner.

6: TV Breakfasts

You've heard breakfast is the most important meal -- whether or not that's true, it's a good excuse to make extra frozen waffles.
Donald Erickson/E+/Getty Images

Since Americans immediately loved the convenience of TV dinners, it probably was inevitable that "ready meals" for other times of the day would emerge. One obvious target of opportunity was breakfast. Pre-sweetened breakfast cereals were introduced in the 1940s, and Pop-Tarts, the first toaster pastry, in 1964 [source: Smith].

Frozen breakfast foods may have begun with the Dorsa brothers, a trio of entrepreneurs from San Jose, Calif., who devised a waffle-cooking machine in the 1930s and began marketing what eventually became the Eggo brand of frozen waffles, in 1953 [sources: National Archives, Stephey]. Eggo is now owned by the Kellogg Co.


The first full-fledged, multi-item frozen breakfast probably was marketed in 1969, when Swanson -- by then, owned by Campbell Soup -- introduced a line of morning meals. They came in three varieties: pancakes and sausage patties; scrambled eggs with a sausage patty and fried potatoes; and French toast with -- you guessed it -- sausage patties. Swanson's marketing campaign pushed the idea that TV breakfasts restored "the forgotten meal" that housewives had been neglecting to prepare for their families [source: Dougherty].

5:Dinners for Dieters

Frozen food should probably never replace fresh fruits and veggies entirely, but TV dinners offer many healthier options than they once did.
Baona/E+/Getty Images

Absent-mindedly shoveling a fried chicken TV dinner into your mouth while you watch "Two and a Half Men" is a convenient way to fill your stomach. But it isn't all that great for the waistline. That problem was exacerbated in the 1970s when TV dinner-makers began offering supersized portions to appeal to the voracious male appetite -- meals that could exceed 1,000 calories and 70 percent of the daily recommended allowance for fat in a single serving [source: Men's Health].

But help for dieters arrived in the mid-1980s, after ConAgra chairman Charles M. Harper suffered a heart attack that landed him in intensive care. Once Harper got out of the hospital, he took a hard look at his own lifestyle, and gave up the slabs of roast beef and hot fudge sundaes that he once loved. But he also realized that the changes he was making might resonate with health-conscious consumers. He launched the Healthy Choice line of low-fat, low-salt, low-calorie frozen dinners.


They weren't the first such products, but they were the first successful ones. By the early 1990s, Healthy Choice products had more than $350 million in annual sales, and accounted for 10 percent of the entire frozen dinner market -- about the same percentage as the brand holds today. Lean Cuisine, another health-conscious brand, led the single-serve frozen dinner market with 20.7 percent of market share in 2012 [sources: Hall, Newman].

4:Microwavable Plastic Trays

Microwavable plastic trays made frozen food even easier -- and cut cooking times down to less than a fifth of what they once were.
Tetra Images/Getty Images

Early TV dinners were less labor-intensive than cooking from scratch, but they weren't the ultimate in immediate gratification, since it still took 25 minutes or so to re-heat them in the oven. That eventually would change, thanks to scientists' invention during World War II of the magnetron, an electron tube that improved the capability of radar systems to spot Nazi aircraft.

A Raytheon engineer named Percy LeBaron Spencer was working on improving radar technology when he noticed that the microwaves given off by the magnetron had melted a candy bar in his pocket. In 1945, Raytheon filed a patent for a microwave cooking process, and eventually licensed the technology to the Tappan Stove Company. In 1955, Tappan introduced the first home microwave oven. But it wasn't until the mid-1970s, when the ovens became smaller and more affordable, that they started to catch on. By 1986, a quarter of American homes owned microwave ovens, and 90 percent have them today [source: Ganapati].


The potential of microwave ovens wasn't lost upon frozen dinner manufacturers. But the old-fashioned aluminum trays were a no-go for microwaving, since electric current would be conducted through the metal, and give off sparks that possibly could start a fire. In 1986, Campbell Soup's Frozen Food Division, which owned Swanson, retired the aluminum tray for all 61 varieties of its frozen dinners, and replaced them with containers made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET -- the same plastic used in soda bottles [source: Kircheimer].

While some people fear a link between plastic and cancer, Harvard Medical School says not to worry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration closely regulates the packaging of microwavable food, and requires manufacturers to demonstrate that the amount of plastic that leaches into the food is less than 1/100th of the amount per pound of body weight shown to harm laboratory animals over a lifetime [sources: Harvard Family Health Guide].

3: The Crisping Sleeve

The microwave susceptor produces radiant energy, like a conventional oven, to create a "browning" effect on everything from Hot Pockets to microwavable panini.
Robert Linton/E+/Getty Images

Microwaves reduced TV dinner cooking time to five or so minutes, and brought convenience-loving, perpetually-in-a-hurry Americans one step closer to immediate gratification. But they still had to put up with certain dining formalities, such as using a knife and fork. But what if you could eliminate all those extras, and just strip dinner right down to the primal consumption experience, as if you were a latter-day caveman gnawing on a hunk of roasted mastodon, with nary a worry?

Ergo, the phenomenal appeal of hand-held frozen ready meals such as Hot Pockets. The famed "Hot Pocket" is a microwaveable frozen turnover containing meat and cheese, developed in the early 1980s by Paul and David Merage and their father Andre, an Iranian émigré family who resettled in southern California [sources: Hot Pockets, Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. Hot Pockets have become such a male dietary staple that late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon and his house band, the Roots, performed an ode titled "We Love Hot Pockets" on his show in 2010 [source: Brion].


The technological secret behind the rise of such frozen hand-held meals -- like egg rolls, panini, enchiladas and the ever-popular corn dog -- is the packaging itself, which is constructed of paper or cardboard and laminated with a metalized film called a susceptor, which converts microwave energy to radiant heat and allows the food to brown [source: Inline Packaging]. The first so-called crisping sleeve apparently was patented by Minneapolis inventor William A. Brastad back in 1981 [source: Brastad].

2: Steam Cooking

Steamed vegetables retain a bright color and crisp texture that can make an ordinary frozen dinner recipe much more appealing.
MASAHIRO MORIGAKI/a.collectionRF/Getty Images

To be sure, there are still plenty of TV dinner aficionados who'll hungrily scarf down a Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and chocolate brownie, and then dump those green beans into the trash. But these days, there's also a new generation of health-conscious ready meal consumers who relish the thought of chomping on some nutritionally rich veggies. Microwave cooking, as it turns out, probably preserves more of the good stuff (think vitamin C, etc.) than stove-top boiling, because the microwave energy penetrates the food more quickly, resulting in shorter cooking times (too much heat tends to destroy nutrients) [source: Ferrari]. The problem, though, is that the veggies tend to get all dried out and yucky.

That's why a technology called microwave steaming, developed in the mid-2000s and first marketed in the U.S. by Birdseye, quickly became a hit [source: Horowitz]. In 2007, ConAgra came out with Healthy Choice Café Steamers, the first line of complete meals that could be steam-cooked. The product uses a disposable apparatus called a Steam Cooker -- a bowl that contains sauce, plus a steamer basket with meat, vegetables and pasta that nests on top of the bowl. When you put them in the microwave, steam rising from the sauce cooks the items in the basket. Then you pull them out of the oven and mix them all together and ... voila! Say hello to crisp veggies with sauce and sliced meat [source: ConAgra].


While micro-steamed veggies are not any healthier than vegetables microwaved the conventional way, they tend to look better. And if people end up eating a lot more vegetables as a result, it's all good [source: Horowitz].

1: Gourmet and Ethnic Cuisine

Did the makers of the original turkey "TV Dinner" ever imagine they were establishing precedent for a future of instant, fragrant curry dishes from the microwave?
Stockbyte/Getty Images

By the 1980s, Americans were no longer merely content with TV dinners that could be reheated and eaten quickly. Increasingly, they hankered for ready meals that actually tasted good as well. Producers responded with what they called "premium frozen meals," which were designed to offer more flavorful fare, from brands such as Banquet Foods' Light and Elegant, Stouffer's Lean Cuisine and others. Restaurant chains as diverse as P.F. Chang's and Boston Market offer some of their entrees as frozen foods. By 2009, U.S. consumers were buying nearly $900 million worth of such "premium" frozen meals annually, according to one market study [source: Marketresearch.com]. And a third of that was for ethnic cuisines, like Thai and Indian [source: Marder].

The trend toward better-tasting, more interesting TV dinners encompasses more than just using different ingredients. New freezing and reheating processes aim to protect the spicy and/or delicate taste of ethnic cuisines. Vijay Vij, a Canada-based maker of frozen Indian dinners, for example, recommends reheating them in a saucepan full of water. Another outfit, Virginia-based Cuisine Solutions, markets gourmet frozen foods that are created in -- and intended to be reheated in -- a special temperature-controlled water bath, a process called sous vide. Interestingly, it takes about 30 minutes to heat food that way -- circling back to the original cooking time of the TV dinner [source: Ashford].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Breakthroughs in TV Dinners

My father was a butcher and owned a corner grocery store, so when I was growing up, I seldom ate anything but freshly-cooked beef, chicken and fish that my mom made. That shaped my tastes, and I have to confess that I've never really even had a desire to try a TV dinner. I adopted a mostly vegetarian diet some years ago and still pretty much stick to it, so it's unlikely that I'll dig into a Hungry Man dinner anytime soon. I have started to buy them at the supermarket, though, because my meat-loving teenage son enjoys them.

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