TV Dinners: A Thanksgiving Feast In A Tin-Foil Tray

Culture | January 23, 2018

Woman Choosing TV Dinner from Freezer: A woman examines a TV dinner box she has taken from the freezer. (Photo by William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The TV dinner, invented by Swanson in the '50s, was a frozen meal containing meat, vegetables and a dessert. For housewives of the day, it was the no-brainer answer to a hungry husband (and children) if she had a busy day or an evening away from home. When they first appeared, there were no microwave ovens, so the meal still required the family oven to prepare. No worries, though, because it was a modern woman’s dream come true.

TV dinners were convenient, prepackaged, individual meals complete with a meat, vegetable and starch, all in one. All one had to do was to select the meal of their choice, pop it in the preheated oven and wait. They were billed as single-serving meals that required very little preparation. The actual preparation was selecting the meal and loosening the foil before placing it in the oven. The concept actually made husbands wonder what the big deal was about getting dinner on the table.

Swanson Brought The First TV Dinners To Market

The distinction of the TV dinner was actually a genericized trademark used for prepackaged meals developed by C.A. Swanson & Sons in the early 1950s. The then-popular prepackaged dinner came in an aluminum tray that could be heated in an oven and was divided into sections to separate the meat, vegetables, starch… all the components of a well-rounded meal.

The First TV Dinner Was Modeled On A Thanksgiving Feast

A Banquet advertisement touts the TV dinner's questionable connection to Thanksgiving. Source: Pinterest

The first TV dinner consisted of a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, peas and sweet potatoes. Each food item was carefully placed in its assigned cavity in the aluminum pan. As a bonus, the meal could be eaten directly out of the cooking tray. It was a win-win phenomenon; dinner for the family with no dishes for the wife or mother. After the meal had been consumed, it was not uncommon to wash the foil container to make your own homemade TV dinner to freeze. Later, meals would include a dessert.

TV Dinners Freed Us From The Dinner Table. Was That A Good Thing?

The name "TV dinner" became popular because it was a given that if the family wasn’t eating together (at the family table), then it must be OK to eat in front of the television. Of course, this required TV trays. Most homes in the 1960s and 1970s had a set of TV trays for just such an occasion.

Additionally, the frozen dinners were supposedly named after the shape of the tray the food was served on. The arrangement of the food was said to be similar to that of the front panel of a television set with the screen (main course) on the left and the speakers and controls (sides and dessert) on the right.

You Can't Have A TV Dinner Every Night

When TV dinners were first introduced, they had an average cost of 98 cents per meal. Much too expensive to enjoy on a regular basis. They were definitely only for special occasions and dire emergencies. It was a rare treat and the only time that everyone in the family could have a different meal for dinner. An extra treat was to have a TV tray with the characters from your favorite TV show.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Food In 1950s | The 1950s

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.