TV dinners used to be all the craze


I remember eating TV dinners off a TV tray in front of the black and white television when I was a kid. This didn’t happen very often – my mother generally was a stickler for making sure everyone sat down together at the table at dinner time, so TV dinners were few and far between. Still, I looked on it as an adventure when it happened.

It’s not that TV dinners were all that good – in fact, I always thought they were pretty bad. I remember the corn was always mushy and the potatoes were always pasty and it was nothing like the things my mom cooked. I guess it was more about the event than it was the food.

At the time, I thought televisions and TV dinners were a naturally occurring part of the universe, As far as my limited experience went, they had always existed. It’s only later that I realized that it was all a recent innovation. In fact, TV dinners didn’t hit it big until 1954, two years before I was born.

Here is how it happened.

Frozen food had been around for a while, thanks to the efforts of Clarence Birdseye, who came up with the method of flash freezing food after living with Native Americans in northern Canada. In the 1940s, airlines experimented with frozen dinners on flights and some frozen dinners were being produced in other parts of the country. But it wasn’t until the Swanson brothers made a mistake that the TV dinner came into its own.

In 1953, the Swanson Co. overestimated the amount of frozen turkey it would sell during the Thanksgiving season – and it didn’t just miss by a little bit. Swanson had tons and tons of leftover turkey. The company stashed the turkey in refrigerated rail cars, which traveled the rails while a solution was found. The company faced a financial disaster.

The solution? Use aluminum trays with dividers and pack them full of turkey, potatoes and peas and sell them as a ready-made “dinner.” A Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas claimed to have come up with the idea (and later was even inducted into the Frozen Foods Hall of Fame –yes, there really is one), although the big cheeses at Swanson say they actually thought it up. No matter. Whoever came up with the idea, it was an instant success.

The real genius was marketing them as “TV dinners.” Television was the Big Craze of the 1950s, and now you could prepare and eat supper without missing a minute of your favorite show! More women were working than ever before and it was the smart thing to pop a frozen dinner into the oven instead of trying to make everything from scratch.

In 1954, Swanson sold 10 million TV dinners at 98 cents a pop, including some to my skeptical mother. Americans were buying televisions and refrigerators like there was no tomorrow, and TV dinners became a staple almost everywhere.

The dinners brought the TV trays with them. I thought eating on a TV tray was just about the coolest thing ever, even though I inevitably spilled something or knocked the tray over. A six-year-old with a pile of food and big glass of milk perched on a rickety tray while an exciting basketball game played on the television was a sure recipe for disaster.

TV dinners in the oven eventually gave way to microwave dinners, but frozen food is with us to stay. I’m really more interested in the TV trays. We still have some of them at my house, and not too long ago I broke them out when the grandkids were in town. I’m not sure they think eating off a TV tray is as cool as it seemed to me when I was their age – I guess times were simpler back then. Why, when I was growing up there wasn’t even a McDonald’s in Troy — but that’s a story for another time.

David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected].

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