In the fall of 1953, the frozen-food company of C.A. Swanson & Sons of Omaha, Nebraska, was left with what must be a record in turkey leftovers: ten railroad cars packed with 520,000 pounds of turkey.
Swanson had massively overestimated the number of birds Americans planned to purchase for Thanksgiving, and so now was stuck shuttling a trainload of spurned turkeys back and forth between the Midwest and the East Coast in order to keep the electricity on in the refrigerated cars, thus keeping the turkeys safely cold.
At its wit’s end, the company put out an all-points bulletin to employees, asking for solutions to the turkey problem. The winner was salesman Gerry Thomas, who proposed that Swanson turn the turkeys into frozen dinners. Thomas suggested that the meals be packaged in a three-compartment aluminum-foil tray—a version of the trays then used to serve in-flight meals on airplanes— and sold as TV Dinners, in colorful boxes designed to look like television sets, complete with screens and tuning and volume knobs.
Swanson couldn’t have hopped on a better bandwagon. Television was the hot technology of the day: While just 9 percent of American homes boasted a TV in 1950, by 1954, 56 percent had televisions and sales would continue to boom. Ten years later, in 1964, 92 percent of American families had a TV.
Swanson’s first made-for-TV meal consisted of turkey (with cornbread stuffing and gravy), sweet potatoes, and peas. These sold for 98 cents apiece, could be thawed and cooked in just 25 minutes, and hit the spot with families clustered around the tube watching “I Love Lucy,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Gunsmoke,” and “What’s My Line?”
Over ten million TV dinners were sold in the first year of production; and by 1959, Americans were spending half a billion dollars a year on frozen meals. Swanson, in response to increasing demand, expanded its food repertoire, adding meatloaf, fried chicken, Salisbury steak, carrots, mashed potatoes, and green beans. In 1960, the year “The Flintstones” and “The Andy Griffith Show” hit the screen, they added a fourth compartment to the trays for dessert, allowing TV diners to polish off their frozen meals with chocolate brownies or apple cobbler.
Gerry Thomas’s idea for frozen meals wasn’t new. Commercial frozen food had been on the market since the 1930’s, using a fast-freeze procedure developed by Clarence Birdseye—who got the idea during a five-year stint as a field naturalist and fur trader in Labrador, watching the local Eskimos’ technique for freezing fish. Frozen meals were introduced on long air flights during World War II and, post-war, a scattering of food purveyors attempted to introduce frozen meals to supermarkets, but without much success.
TV dinners emerged at just the right time to start a trend. American women, many working outside the home while still bearing the brunt of the housework, were thrilled with the speed and convenience of frozen dinners. Ads showed women in spiffy outfits happily brandishing TV dinners accompanied by such captions as “I’m late—but dinner won’t be!,” “No work before, no dishes after!,” and ”Extra guest for dinner? You’re ready for him!” (See this 1955 Swanson’s TV Dinner ad.)
Men were less tickled; much of Swanson’s complaint mail came from disgruntled husbands who claimed that TV dinners weren’t a patch on home cooking. They were right; the TV meals had novel, high-tech glamour. This was the stuff the Jetsons ate, but taste wasn’t a strong point.
The TV dinner not only had a negative impact on home cooking; it also played a part in the steady erosion of traditional family relationships. Easily prepared TV dinners meant that family members could eat at their own convenience and at different times, rather than gathering together around the dinner table. And even when families did sit down together, the insidious pairing of frozen dinner and TV often meant that, rather than social interaction and conversation, people focused on the television set, watching a show while eating their TV meals on folding TV tray tables. Canny television executives scheduled family-appealing programs such as kids’ shows and the nightly news at dinnertime.
Up to 66 percent of Americans today eat meals while watching TV, while in Britain, a 2012 survey showed, six out of ten meals are eaten in front of the television. Healthwise, on both sides of the pond, this may not be a good idea. Distracted eating, studies show, leads us to pack on pounds; those who aren’t paying attention to what they eat tend to ignore crucial hunger signals and therefore consume more calories than they need. Kids who eat in front of the TV are more likely to chow down on junk food.
While the frozen-meal business today has evolved (see Can a Former Womens’ Clothing Guru Change the Conversation About Food?), and still rakes in $9 billion each year, recent indications are that the TV dinner phenomenon is losing steam. Reasons include cost-effectiveness, the current resurgence of interest in home cooking, and concerns about freshness, local eating, and overall nutrition.
With any luck, perhaps the next step will be to turn off the TV, power down the computer, and switch off the mobile phone and gather around the dinner table again.