The TV dinner….taking the family away from the table!

The TV Dinner concept took hold in 1954 when Swanson’s frozen meals appeared…they were a welcome lifesaver for busy mothers and a delight for the entire family. The dinner was a prepackaged frozen meal in an aluminum tray, packed inside a cardboard box, that could be heated in the oven, and all ready to eat in just 25 minutes. Best news yet? The meal could be eaten out of the same tray it was heated in! Yes, eaten WITHOUT a plate,
We won’t kid you…there were quite a few people and companies instrumental in the concept of a complete meal that need only to be heated before eating. While the frozen dinner’s lineage can be credited way back to 1923 when Clarence Birdseye invented a packing and flash-freezing of fresh food products, we’re looking deeper into the complete frozen meal…

Like many firsts, the story of the development of the TV dinner is not straightforward. Before we slip-slide through history, discovering who created the TV dinner, let’s make a note that the first company to use the name and successfully market the TV Dinner was Swanson. That said, the invention of the TV dinner has been attributed to several different sources, primarily the Swanson Brothers, Gerry Thomas, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc.

Maxson Food Systems, Inc. manufactured the earliest complete frozen meal in 1945… “Strato-Plates” – complete meals preheated on the plane for military and civilian airplane passengers. The meals were comprised of a meat, vegetable and potato in its own slotted compartment served on a plastic plate. The frozen meals, however, never went into the world of retail.

Next, on the food front with frozen dinners was Jack Fisher’s “FridgiDinners” produced in the late 1940’s. The FridgiDinners were sold to facilities such as bars and taverns.

Another source says frozen dinners weren’t much of a success until 1949, when the Bernstein Brothers organized Frozen Dinners, Inc. They packaged frozen dinners on aluminum trays with three compartments and sold them in the Pittsburgh, PA area under the One-Eyed Eskimo label. Fast forward, by 1950, the company had produced over 400,000 frozen dinners. In 1952 the Bernstein brothers formed the Quaker State Food Corporation expanding distribution to markets east of the Mississippi. By 1954, Quaker State Foods had sold over 2,500,000 frozen dinners.

Still others strongly testify to the fact that it was the Swanson brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, who developed the TV dinner….

When 1954 rolled around on squeaky wheels, the well known and respected Swanson’s, who had already experienced moderate success with frozen meat pies, produced the frozen meals and launched a massive advertising campaign for these delectable dinners.

The company sold 10 million of the dinners in the first year of production. They also branded their frozen dinner as the TV Dinner, which helped to transform their frozen meals into a cultural icon.


Now, the story changes a little and begins to get even more interesting here…

Some believe the most credited inventor of the TV dinner was Gerry Thomas (Feb. 17, 1922 – July 18, 2005), a salesman for C.A. Swanson & Son in 1948.  The story goes something like this…while company executives were in a panic when about 520,000 pounds of unsold birds remained left over after the holiday seasons in refrigerated boxcars…Thomas approached Swanson’s owners and suggested a solution to their turkey woes. He told them that, while in Pittsburgh at a distributor he had seen a meal tray Pan American Airways was creating to serve hot food on overseas flights…a single compartment tray with foil .  Thomas explained that he had further transformed the concept into a three compartment tray.

The Swanson Company embraced Thomas’s  idea…recalled the extra Thanksgiving turkeys back to their facilities, cooked them and placed them in the three-compartment aluminum trays alongside cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas. The Company marketed the dinner like crazy using the relatively new cultural phenomenon of television! The retail price of each dinner (marketed as a TV Dinner) was roughly about $1 each. The company sold 10 million TV dinners in 1954, the first year of production.

Thomas was given a $100 raise and a bonus of $1,000 for his invention, and asked Swanson to renegotiate his contract for a penny a dinner as long as he lived. A decision he later regretted. The American Frozen Food Institute honored him in their “Frozen Food Hall of Fame” as the inventor of the TV dinner and he secured a place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where his handprints were featured alongside a tray print.. His role as the inventor is disputed.

The original aluminum tray is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution, next to Fonzie’s jacket.So who really invented the TV dinner? It depends on your definition.  But whatever the case, TV dinners were a food bonanza!


Why is the word TV associated with this frozen dinner meal ?

That’s an easy one…packages were designed to resemble a TV screen. The aluminum tray had rounded edges much like the TV screens of the 1950s, and it fit nicely on a TV snack table, while watching TV. The name TV Dinner was constantly referenced, re-enforced, and marketed (by Swanson above) for this frozen dinner.

A note for the nostalgia buffs…those original aluminum trays, synonymous with the TV dinner’s heyday, have been immortalized. In 1986, they earned a prestigious resting place in the Smithsonian Institution and in 1997, the tray secured its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Today, the frozen food trays have come a long way baby. They are made of microwaveable material and still a viable, if not popular meal, in this fast moving world in which we live, and eat, …and watch TV.

 turkey advertisement


Library of Congress

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