10 Breakthroughs in TV Dinners

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].

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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