Saturday, September 10, 2011

TV Dinners Since When.....

By Diane Forrest, RN

Ok, today we are really showing our age!  It's T.V. Dinner day.  Today they are just called frozen dinners, but back in the day when they were invented in 1953 they were called T.V. dinners.  In the early 1950's, televisions were still relatively new.  Only about 50% of households even had a television set.   This makes me think of the movie Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox.   The family is gathered around the table eating dinner when the father is adjusting the knobs on the brand new television set. 

As the story goes, Gerald Thomas, an executive at Swanson's, was stuck with 270 tons of frozen turkeys from Thanksgiving.  Since he had no place to store them, they were stashed in 10 refrigerated boxcars and traveled back and forth across the county.  Mr. Thomas had visited a distributor and noticed a metal tray they were developing to serve food for airplane meals.  A light bulb went off in his head like those cartoon characters got when they had an idea, and the tv dinner was born. 

Of course it took a lot of testing to get it just right.  They had to find which foods would cook together at the same time and temperature. Since they had all those turkeys, It was the first to be manufactured.  The first TV dinner consisted of sliced turkey and dressing with gravy, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas.  They were packaged in a box resembling a television set, and cost 98 cents.  The first year they figured they would start out by making 5000 of these dinners, but ended up selling 10 million by the end of the year!  Many people didn't have freezers at home, so they bought them and cooked them the same day.

Turkey dinners are still the top seller for Swanson, well except in Texas where the fried chicken dinners are the favorite.  In 1960 desserts were added, 1969 a new breakfast dinner was introduced, 1973 the "hungry man dinners" were designed for larger portions, and in 1986 the microwave platters were invented.

My early memories of T.V. dinners are of the children's dinners.  When my parents had some sort of event in the evenings to attend, we were allowed to have one of these magical meals. These were always a treat for my brother and I.  They had miniature hot dogs or hamburgers, tater tots, corn and a brownie that would burn the roof of your mouth.  It was like molten lava and of course I would eat it first before it had a chance to cool.   I also remember those chicken dinners where the chicken was soggy, the mashed potatoes were frozen in the middle, and those peas and carrots were the worst!

These days there are many companies that produce these frozen dinners.  When my husband would go grocery shopping he would stare at all the packages and load up on the dinners.  The pictures on the box would always look better than what was inside.  They are very convenient now that I am alone, but I don't get a full meal, just a  single serving of macaroni and cheese, or lasagna.  My son's wife, who is 21, still hasn't mastered the fine art of cooking, so she buys the kid cuisine dinners.

In 1962 Swanson stopped calling them TV dinners, however America has not.  They are an American Icon and in 1987 the original metal tray was inducted into the Smithsonian.   So today, on T.V. Dinner day, take the day off from cooking and pop your favorite meal in the microwave, sit in front of your television, and watch some old reruns of I Love Lucy on Nick at Night, and relive some memories from your childhood.


  1. I was just telling my children that t.v. dinners came in metal trays when I was a kid, and cooked in the oven. No microwaves took about half an hour to cook! I also told them it was a special treat that my brother and I had only when my Mom was unable to cook a meal that night. (Which wasn't very often!)
    I enjoyed your article...and was excited to see that someone else out there has good memories of those strange and magical t.v. dinners too! Thank you, Michele

  2. Thanks for reading Michele, I actually bought one of those turkey tv dinners the other night, haven't eaten it yet, but after reading this again, it may just be on the menu for supper!

  3. My brother and I ate those tv dinners when my elegant parents went to dinner parties. my mother wore a long velvet dress and smelled of beautiful perfume when she kissed us goodbye. Then we ate our favorite tv dinners on metal tv trays, set up in the living room while watching lady boxing matches with the baby sitter. We loved "Ring-side Rosie" and The Carol Burnett Show!