Even the healthiest eaters have a special place in their hearts for TV dinners.
Nearly everyone grew up eating frozen dinners, and there’s something about popping a frozen tray in the microwave and having a steaming multi-dish meal ready in minutes that brings out the kid in all of us. But even if you’re eating a Lean Cuisine for lunch right now, we bet that there are some things you didn’t know about this American classic.
The TV dinner can actually trace its history to airplanes, and a company called Maxson Food Systems that began manufacturing frozen meals that could be reheated in the sky in 1945, according to the Library of Congress. These “Strato-Plates” featured three compartments (for meat, a vegetable, and potato), and they were incredibly easy to heat and serve. These in turn inspired brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein to start a company called Frozen Dinners Inc. in 1949, which sold frozen dinners in the Pittsburgh area under the brand name One-Eyed Eskimo. The concept didn’t go national, however, until 1954, when Swanson Foods, which was already known for its canned and frozen foods, started selling a frozen dinner of its own, which was launched with a huge marketing and advertising push as well as a snappy new name: TV Dinners.
The very first Swanson TV Dinner consisted of sliced turkey, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, and peas, and this newfangled and space-age way of dining caught on like wildfire. Not only did it only require 25 minutes in a 425-degree oven, it allowed everyone from busy moms to bachelors to feed themselves or their family a full meal for a low price. Over the years, the formula was refined: desserts were added, breakfasts and sandwiches came around, and in 1973 Swanson launched Hungry-Man dinners, which were larger than normal TV dinners (with “Mean” Joe Greene as its spokesman).
Today, there are more frozen dinners than you can count in every supermarket freezer aisle, both healthy and unhealthy. There are frozen dinners for kids, frozen dinners for men, frozen dinners geared toward women, even vegan frozen dinners.
Even though it may seem like there’s a movement away from processed frozen foods and toward fresh and healthy meals, the frozen dinner industry still generates $4.5 billion in sales each year and continues to innovate-- if not grow.
1. The Term ‘TV Dinner’ Is Trademarked
Like Xerox, Band-Aid, and Thermos, “TV Dinner” is a trademarked term that’s been “genericized” over the years. Even though the term was originally a brand name for Swanson’s frozen dinners, it’s become synonymous with any supermarket-bought packaged frozen dinner.
2. The Tray Was Modeled After Those Used by Airlines
When Swanson set out to develop their TV Dinners, they turned to the earliest models of frozen dinners, created by Maxson nearly 10 years earlier. These aluminum trays had three compartments and could be heated in any oven.
3. There Are Conflicting Theories as to Why They’re Called TV Dinners
Most people think that TV dinners got their name because they were geared toward being eaten in front of another major 1950s innovation, the television. However, another theory is that they were named TV Dinners because early packaging featured a TV set, and some say that it’s because early versions resembled 1950s-era TV sets.
4. The Origin Story Is Surprisingly Contentious
The oft-repeated origin story of Swanson’s TV Dinners is that executive Gerry Thomas single-handedly conceived of the idea after learning that the company had a huge surplus of frozen turkeys due to poor Thanksgiving sales. Not only did he claim that he designed the three-compartment aluminum tray after encountering a similar one on an airplane, he also said that he coined the term “TV Dinner.” However, after his passing, Swanson countered that the surplus turkey story was made up, that company owner W. Clarke Swanson was actually the one who had the idea to sell a product that had actually already existed for some time, and that the company’s marketing department came up with the name.
5. More than 10 Million Were Sold in Its First Year of Production
When Swanson decided to roll out TV dinners, they estimated the first year’s production to be at around 5,000 units. In reality, more than 10 million were sold in that year alone.
Check out more fun facts about TV dinners.
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