what is tv food

TV dinners—those frozen, pre-cooked and pre-portioned meals that can be reheated and ready to eat in minutes—became an American culinary staple in the mid 20th century. But the true origin of this quarter-trillion-dollar industry may never be fully unwrapped.

TV dinners may not have emerged from factory ovens until the 1950s, but the industrys pre-heating stage began as early as 1925. That was when naturalist and entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye developed and commercialized a method for quickly freezing fish. His epiphany came after living among the indigenous Inuit people in Canada and learning their food preservation skills.

Americans had been eating commercially frozen meat for nearly half a century, but the food was unpopular with consumers. Predominant methods of slow-freezing meats, poultry and fish typically caused them to lose their flavor and texture while thawing. With Birdseye’s double-belt, flash-freezing technology however, fleshy foods retained their original freshness, texture and flavor.

WATCH: Full episodes of The Food That Built America online now. New episodes premiere Sundays at 9/8c on HISTORY.

By the late 1930s, Birdseye had applied his patented technology to vegetables as well, creating the foundation for the modern American frozen food industry. But the marketplace wasn’t ready. Few American consumers had iceboxes in their homes. And refrigeration advancements still lagged on the commercial side, with insulated vehicles and sufficiently refrigerated supermarkets still rare.

A frozen meal (also called TV dinner in Canada and US), prepackaged meal, ready-made meal, ready meal (UK), frozen dinner, and microwave meal is ultra-processed food portioned for an individual.
what is tv food

TV Dinner’s Disputed Origins

What happened after that isn’t in question. But who provided the inspiration is.

In one version of the story, Gerry Thomas, then a $200-a-month Swanson salesman just a few years into the job, recounts that he remembered seeing aluminum trays meant for frozen food while visiting a distributor’s warehouse in Pittsburgh.

Inspired by the tray, Thomas says, he sketched the idea of a three-compartment version that could double as both a cooking and serving tray—and presented it to his Swanson bosses. According to Thomas, the executives forged ahead with the idea, filling the trays with the leftover turkey and gravy over cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes.

Swanson embarked on a massive nationwide marketing campaign tying the dinners to the must-have prestige appliance of the moment: the television, with packaging cleverly designed to look like mini TVs, tuning knobs and all. Targeting harried women who worked outside the home—or just wanted a break from the daily grind of preparing family suppers—the meals were priced at 98 cents and bolstered with the guarantee of “dinner in 25 minutes.”

The Swanson “TV Dinner,” which hit grocery store cases on September 10, 1953, was an immediate success. In 1954, Swanson sold more than 10 million units, and the next year, 25 million. Sales grew exponentially from there, as Americans quickly warmed to the idea of noshing on convenient, pre-made Salisbury steak or pot roast in front of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke.” Other companies like Stouffers and Banquet soon piled on, and the frozen meal industry developed into a pillar of the American culinary-industrial complex, eventually earning billions of dollars in annual sales. It also forever changed how Americans take their meals, with far more people eating informally in front of the TV instead of gathering nightly at the dining room table.

For his role in helping bring the TV dinner concept to life, Thomas says he was given $1,000 and a promotion.

But other origin stories exist. Multiple sources within the company and Swanson family credit the brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, with dreaming up the tripartite plate and TV name. Gilbert Swanson, for one, is said to have been inspired by the airline food tray while flying to meet his banker. And Jack Mingo, author of How the Cadillac Got Its Fins and Other True Tales from the Annals of Business and Marketing, says Gilbert got the idea for the name “TV dinner” after hosting a party where guests were balancing food on their laps while watching TV.

Precursors to the TV Dinner

World War II accelerated the use of frozen meals. In 1944, Maxson Food Systems Inc. used Birdseye’s flash-freezing technology to create frozen pre-packaged dinners to be sold exclusively to military and civilian air carriers. The meals, called “Strato-Plates” or “Sky Plates,” consisted of a partitioned serving of meat, a vegetable and a potato, reheated aboard the planes in Maxson “Whirlwind Electric Ovens,” a precursor to the convection oven. Founder W.L. Maxson planned to expand his companys Strato-Plates to a wider consumer market but died before the plan took off.

In 1947, entrepreneur Jack Fisher placed pre-frozen meals in aluminum trays and called them “Fridgi-Dinners.” Fisher marketed the meals exclusively to bars and taverns looking for a way to feed hungry patrons without hiring cooks. Though inching closer to the American consumer, the dinners remained outside the home.

WATCH: Full episodes of The Food That Built America online now.

The Delicious History of TV Dinners


Why do they call it a TV dinner?

The concept really took hold in 1954 when Swanson’s frozen meals appeared. Swanson was a well-known brand that consumers recognized, and Swanson launched a massive advertising campaign for their product. They also coined the phrase TV Dinner, which helped to transform their frozen meals into a cultural icon.

Are TV dinners healthy?

While frozen meals are a convenient way to eat a balanced meal, it’s easy to be led astray–they’re also known for being packed with sodium, calories, and saturated fat, making moderation important. With the correct guidance, however, frozen meals can be part of healthy eating plan!

What were the Swanson TV dinners in the 1950s?

The TV Dinners originally sold for 89 cents and included turkey, gravy, corn bread dressing, whipped sweet potatoes and peas. A year after they were introduced, an advertisement in the Sept. 10, 1954 Orlando Sentinel had Swanson TV Dinners (turkey or chicken) on sale for 79 cents.

Do they make TV dinners?

Today, there are thousands of different types of frozen dinner products on the market, and more products are being introduced each day. The earliest TV dinners included a meat product, potatoes and a vegetable and a dessert.

Why is food TV so popular?

This is why food TV first entranced people: They were watching interesting people make things that looked good to eat and were presented with incredible sweetness, gentle music, and nothing but an obvious desire to generously share a little miracle which can be performed at home. Hulu has it.

What is the best TV food to eat?

When it comes to TV food, it doesn’t get better than a burrito bowl. Partner this meat-free topping with rice, plenty of guac, salsa, and chips. 3. Homemade Pizza Pizza is a perfect partner to just about anything you’re watching.

How much does a TV dinner cost?

While the standard TV dinner costs around $4 (depending on the brand and where you buy), Mosaic costs $9.99 per meal on the eight-meals-per-week plan, Freshly costs $9.99 per meal on the six-meals-per-week plan, and Kettlebell Kitchen costs $11.95 per meal on the six-meal-per-week plan. (They also offer à la carte options for $11.95 per meal.)

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