Merriam-Webster defines the TV dinner as “a quick-frozen packaged dinner (as of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable) that requires only heating before it is served.” These were originally designed as three-course meals — typically a protein, a vegetable, and a starch — arrayed in segmented aluminum-foil trays; desserts were added later. The aluminum was subsequently replaced by non-metallic microwave-safe materials.
The TV dinner’s origin story goes like this: In the fall of 1953, Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons, which produced frozen and canned foods, massively overestimated the market for frozen holiday turkeys and found itself with 10 railroad cars packed with 520,000 pounds’ worth of the birds. It asked employees for suggestions as to how the surplus turkey could be used, and a salesman named Gerry Thomas suggested turning them into frozen dinners, packaged in three-compartment aluminum trays.
Television was a hot commodity just then. In 1950, a mere 9% of American homes had sets. By 1954, the number had soared to 56%. Because the frozen meals were compact and quick and easy to prepare, Swanson dubbed them “TV dinners” — originally packaging them in boxes designed to resemble TV screens, complete with two-dimensional tuning knobs.
Though it’s a good tale, there are a number of things wrong with it. To begin with, there were already three-part frozen dinners. A company called Maxson Food Systems, Inc. started making them for use on airplanes in 1945. Later that decade, an entrepreneur named Jack Fisher sold similar “FridgiDinners” to bars, and in 1949, brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein founded Frozen Dinners, Inc. and sold frozen meals in three-part aluminum trays in the Pittsburgh area, under the unfortunately named One-Eyed Eskimo label.
More to the point, Gerry Thomas might not have had a role in the Swanson’s product at all. Though his obituary in the New York Times in 2005 credited him with inventing and naming the TV dinner, the paper subsequently published a correction noting that “there have been competing claims, including one from the Swanson family that W. Clarke Swanson, an owner of the company in the 1950s, had the idea.”
Whatever their origins, TV dinners were a hit. In their first full year of production, 1954, Swanson sold 25 million of them. In 1965, according to the trade journal “Quick Frozen Food,” TV dinners racked up $280 million in sales. That was just the beginning. In 2016, the last year for which figures are available, sales of frozen lunch and dinner entrees in U.S. retail stores reached $17.8 billion.
Industry analysts today think their popularity has peaked and predict a slow but steady decline in the sales of frozen foods of all kinds, in the coming years. For now, though, they still occupy a lot of square footage in grocery store freezer cases, and as long as TV dinners — or whatever you want to call them — are a part of our dietary lives, it’s good to know which ones are best (and worst) for us.
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