The first TV dinners came from a mistake. That mistake led to a childhood of quick and easy meals.
In the early 1950s, someone at the company Swanson made 260 tons of turkey for Thanksgiving. Typically, that’s not an issue. However, in this particular instance, the 260 tons was extra turkey.
That was a problem.
According to a fascinating video on the Cheddar Explains YouTube channel, management at Swanson didn’t know what to do, so they did what anyone would do. They put the turkey on 10 train cars equipped with freezers and drove the meat back and forth between the Midwest and the east coast.
Well, maybe not everyone would have done that, but they did. It gave them time to think up a way to sell the turkey and not lose a fortune.
A sales rep named Gerry Thomas is credited with the answer: create a meal like the ones served by airlines and the military.
A metal tray with dividers was the solution. The company added mashed potatoes and another vegetable and the presentation was complete.
But the marketing twist is likely what made it take off. Swanson tied the meal to something new at the time. Television.
In 1954, only about half of Americans had a TV set. But that didn’t stop people from buying Swanson TV dinners.
People were excited about this new way to eat. Moms liked them because it was something that could go from freezer to table in about 20 minutes. Kids liked them because they were different.
Never mind the fact that their nutritional value wasn’t that great and sitting in front of the TV took attention away from each other and put it on The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. But that’s another column.
Believe it or not, “TV Dinners” was removed from the packaging in 1962. The company felt that it limited consumer’s understanding that the meal could be eaten other places besides in front of the tube.
Swanson wasn’t the first to sell frozen food. Clarence Birdseye sold frozen foods bearing his name beginning in the 1920s. Other companies also followed suit, including Banquet.
In the 1970s, my mom bought Banquet frozen chicken in a box. It was a mainstay on our after-church Sunday dinner table and went well with fresh mashed potatoes, gravy, corn on the cob, and biscuits.
I recall many ladies from earlier generations taking great offense to Banquet frozen chicken. They would never serve Sunday chicken that hadn’t been running in the backyard just two hours before.
I’ve had chicken that fresh and I’ve had frozen Banquet fried chicken from a box. The latter is tasty enough that I was happy to forgo the necessary preparation requirements as they relate to chickens that were in the backyard a couple of hours before dinner.
The selection of meals available in TV dinners also expanded from just turkey, to include Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and other food offerings. The enchilada TV dinners were a favorite of mine.
Convenience was a major reason for the success of TV dinners. But the advent of the microwave oven as a staple of American kitchens took that convenience a step further. What had once taken a half hour to heat in the oven, could now be piping hot in just minutes in a microwave.
My parents were one of the first people of anyone I knew to invest in a microwave. The Litton Oven they bought cost as much as a Buick and weighed about the same as one. My dad had to remove the bottom part of the cabinet to get it to fit. But, by golly, we got our frozen chicken faster.
Those same ladies who snubbed TV dinners also didn’t think much of microwaves for the same reason. Their loss.
Sometime in the 80s or 90s while we weren’t looking, someone sneaked into the TV dinner factories and started putting healthy food on the trays.
High-sodium Mexican entrees were supplanted by Lean Cuisine steamed chicken, broccoli and rice.
They thought we didn’t notice, but we did.
It’s getting more difficult to find the old style TV dinners, and I haven’t been able to find the Banquet frozen chicken in a box in years. Shelf space has been reserved for Lean Cuisine and Jenny Craig.
I tried Jenny Craig once and after three months, I lost $700.
So, I stick to what I know. TV dinners are solid, taste good, and stick to your ribs.
At least I hope that’s what that feeling is. Just in case it’s not, I’m going to find some Banquet fried chicken in a box and microwave it to knock it loose.