Pre-packed trays of food, containing some sort of meat, a couple of vegetables, potatoes or bread and sometimes even a dessert, have long been sold and bought as TV dinners. Available in supermarkets and specialty food stores since the 1950s, the TV Dinner is a unique American cultural icon which, when it was developed, fulfilled two major post-war trends: convenient cooking and the lure of the idiot box, the television.
Such was the unprecedented popularity of TV Dinners when they were first introduced to the American consumer in the mid 1950s that 10 million of them were sold in the year they were introduced. Celebrities from Howdy Doody to President Eisenhower touted the dinners and housewives across America began to see them as a new liberation from the kitchen.
Swanson, well known American food major of its time, is credited with creating the first TV Dinner, as well as for coining the name. Even though the company stopped calling their meal trays “TV Dinners" in the 1960s, they had so caught the imagination of the American public that the appellation stuck. A representative tray was placed in the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 to commemorate the TV Dinner’s role in popular American culture.
The Story of the TV Dinner
There is a curious story about the origin of the first heat-and-eat TV Dinner. Post Christmas in 1953, the management at Swanson found itself left with a vast quantity of unsold turkey. Gerry Thomas, a salesman there, hit upon the idea of converting the unsold stock into simple meal trays that could be consumed after reheating. It was obviously an idea whose time had come, for unlike previous ventures into the frozen dinner market by other companies, this newly dubbed TV Dinner was a runaway hit.
The TV Dinner had some precedents. Maxson Food Systems launched their “Strato-Plates” in 1945 – complete meals that were reheated on the plane for military and civilian airplane passengers. These, quite like TV Dinners, were combinations of meat, vegetable and potato, each housed in its own separate compartment on a plastic plate.
However, due to financial reasons and the death of their founder, Maxson frozen meals never went to the retail market. Some feel that Maxson’s product does not qualify as a true TV dinner, since it was consumed on an airplane rather than in the consumer’s home.
The late 1940's saw yet another variation of the frozen meal – Jack Fisher's FridgiDinners. Sold primarily in bars and taverns, FridgiDinners did not quite take off. These were followed by Frozen Dinners, Inc in 1949 – a company run by Albert and Meyer Bernstein. They had a limited market range, however, for they sold only to markets in the Pittsburgh area. Changing its name to Quaker State Food Corporation in 1952, the Bernstein brothers expanded distribution to markets east of the Mississippi. However, even though the demand for these frozen dinners was growing substantially, it was really not until Swanson’s TV Dinners were launched, that the concept really captured the imagination of US consumers.
How Healthy are They?
TV Dinners as sold in supermarkets are often described as nutritional disasters. Like canned soups and broths, they usually have an overabundance of sodium, either in the form of table salt or soy sauce.
Many brands also contain significantly high quantities of hydrogenated vegetable oils which help in preserving the food for longer periods of time. These oils contain trans fats, that can adversely affect cardiovascular health.
TV Dinners largely consist of processed food, which was fresh a long time ago. Advocates of fresh food believe that consumers buy convenience at the expense of health when they buy TV Dinners.
The processed meats in TV Dinners often look pinkish and fresh. Sadly, this is not always what it seems – manufacturers add sodium nitrite to preserve meat and to impart a healthy pinkish hue to it. When meats containing this compound are digested, a carcinogen Nitrosamine is released.
TV Dinners are often notoriously low in vegetables. In fact some contain less than one tablespoon of vegetables, a portion fit for a one-year old!
How to Ensure Eating Healthy with TV Dinners
Start by searching for frozen dinners that contain vegetables -- and we're not talking about a mere garnish! If your TV Dinner does not contain vegetables, add a cup of cooked vegetables to your meal to balance it out, or have it with some tossed salad.
Reading Food Labels will ensure you make an informed dinner choice.
- Look for a TV Dinner with less than 400 calories.
- Check how many servings it contains. Sometimes, what looks like a meal for one, like a chicken lasagna or two small burritos, could actually be listed as two servings. If you do not read the label, you could end up consuming double the calories on the label.
- You should ideally choose a meal in which less than a third of the total fat is saturated fat. For example, if a TV Dinner has 15 g of fat, less than 5 g of that should be saturated.
- Avoid dinners which have hydrogenated fats – this is just another term for trans fats.
- Limit Sodium. Look for frozen meals that contain between 500 to 800 mg of sodium. In case the sodium level is high, eat less sauce – this invariably uses sodium for flavoring
The Bottom Line
Nutritionists hate them, overworked homemakers can’t help but appreciate their convenience. While TV Dinners should ideally not be part of your daily diets, there is certainly no harm in eating them once in a while. Some brands now even offer high amounts of nutrients like vitamins A and C. Some offer frozen vegetables or fruits, which many experts believe retain nutrients longer than canned or even fresh versions.
More than half a century after the first TV Dinner appeared on supermarket shelves, today most world cuisines are available in segmented trays.
Sainsburys and Tescos in the UK, for instance have a larger variety of Indian meal trays than what one might find in India! In the US as well, there are frozen meals available to suit any cuisine, any occasion and any sort of diet. For consumers, the variety is mind-boggling. All they need to do is to make informed choices after decoding the food labels, and enjoy a TV Dinner once in a while.
- Christian Science Monitor Article
- The TV Dinner
- Evolution of the TV Dinner
- Reviews of well known TV dinner brands
- Popular TV Dinner Brands
- More Reviews