The overabundance of frozen food we have access to now can be a bit daunting, but the freezer aisle in grocery stories was not always as filled as it is today. Everything changed after Swanson formulated their first TV dinner.
These meals were marketed to the public as a convenience meal and a direct alternative to traditional cooking. Many people were seen in the ads happily sitting on the couch, with their family all gathered around to watch the TV. The name, “TV dinner,” came from the shape of the tray it was usually seen served on. The trays were made to fit on a TV tray table, a popular foldable table many people used a the time.
The first TV dinners made were easily reheated in the oven. They came in a shiny, fancy prepackaged aluminium foil container. These early primitive trays did not even have the ability to compartmentalize the type of food, and had everything all placed in one compartment. The first meal that was popularized was the Swanson-brand Thanksgiving meal dinner. It consisted of cornbread dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes.
During this era, while man was eager to set foot on the moon, Swanson was revolutionizing the frozen food market. They released new types of frozen meals, eventually coming to a wide variety from fried chicken, Salisbury steak, pizza or even Mexican themed meals. People started to become more accustomed to these types of meals and profits for Swanson soared.
In the early 60s Swanson added in desserts to their meals, along with a new redesigned four-compartment tray. This new tray was a massive improvement because it not only allowed for increased variety of frozen foods, but it also made clean separations between the compartments of food. Shortly thereafter, Swanson started to develop TV breakfasts. The most popular meal was pancakes and sausage, and few years later, the now ubiquitous breakfast sandwich, was introduced.
With all this legwork done to establish the demand for convenience foods, people’s eating habits changed and so did the supermarkets, to accommodate the new demand. Frozen food sections in stores expanded and the now multimillion dollar frozen food industry was born.
People now had access to all of these frozen options, but waiting an hour to have your food reheat and cook hardly seemed fast enough now. The production of the consumer microwave opened an entirely new avenue for TV dinners to capitalize on. Microwaves were everything this new bright, fast and easy future was supposed to be, they reheated food in minutes rather than hours. The TV dinners quickly adapted to the times, and in the early 80s microwave safe trays quickly came to replace the aluminium trays.
It is important to take the time to reflect on how things change with consumer choice, and something as simple as TV dinners are no exception. The next time I go and buy a “Healthy Choice” microwave TV dinner and pop that puppy into the microwave, the history behind the product will be in the back of my mind in between bites.