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FOOD HOLIDAY: National TV Dinner Day

Since we spend our days (and nights) tasting artisan food products, we don’t eat many frozen dinners.

But in grade school, they were a favorite meal. It was an easy way for our working mother to serve us a dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes and peas—and three slices of apple “cobbler” for dessert. There were other varieties, but we only remember the turkey.

The novelty of eating food from the separate tray compartments was greater than our childhood awareness of how fine our mother’s home cooking was. So on days when she was headed out for the evening, we happily ate TV Dinners.

Long before the advent of microwaved food, millions of Americans ate them regularly. The name TV Brand Frozen Dinner is the registered trademark of C.A. Swanson & Sons, which introduced the frozen meals in 1953. They weren’t the first to sell frozen meals, but they were the first nationally successful brand.*


Swanson made the first successful frozen
dinner. TV Dinner photo courtesy


* The first variety was turkey, peas and sweet potatoes with cornbread dressing.

The TV Dinner tray design was adapted from trays then used for airline meals, with each food item in a separate compartment. Just remove the tray from the box and place it in the oven: a convenient way to get dinner on both the airline tray table and the kitchen table.

There are different versions of the origin of the name, TV Dinner. Some say that the arrangement of the tray compartments was similar to that of the front panels of 1950s television sets. Another explanation, which we prefer, is that families would eat TV Dinners in front of the TV set (as ours did).

TV Dinners were introduced as television sales were skyrocketing. Before the War Production Board halted manufacture in April 1942, a mere 8,000 television sets were made in the U.S. After the war ended, a combination of war-related technological advances, the expansion of television networks and the drop in prices due to mass production enabled the television set to replace the radio as the source for daily family entertainment and news.

Families sitting around the television eating TV dinners: To quote Walter Cronkite, “And that’s the way it was.”

FOOD NOTE: The term “TV Dinner,” which became a generic product reference (like Kleenex), was dropped by Swanson as times changed. The category become known as “frozen meals” or “microwave meals.” And the oven and aluminum trays were ditched for the microwave and microwaveable plastic.


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