Once upon a time, a time our parents recalled well, a family would enjoy a nice dinner that mom had spent hours preparing, then afterwards gather around the radio for Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy, or the like.
The television changed all of that. The faster-moving jet age of the 50’s demanded more of everyone’s time just to keep up. Mom started working at her own job, in many cases, or she was involved with the PTA, the garden club, or other diversions. Dinner needed to be prepared more quickly. And that TV needed to be on by 5:00 to watch the evening news!
With that, in 1953 or 1954 (sources disagree), Swanson introduced us to the TV dinner, which could be heated in an oven, enjoyed in front of the idiot box, and tossed into the trash afterwards!
The ironic part about all of this was that families would eat their TV dinners and watch shows about the Cleavers, the Nelsons, and the Stones who would always enjoy dinner as a family around a regular table. Strange . . .
The idea supposedly occurred to Swanson exec Gerald Thomas, when the company had literally tons of leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. The aluminum tray idea came from the ones used by airlines. TV dinners were an immediate success, and turkey dinners are still the most popular Swanson frozen dinner. Interestingly, Swanson stopped calling them TV dinners in 1962. However, the rest of the world continued doing so.
Swanson’s original TV dinner featured turkey, corn bread dressing and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes. It cost 98 cents and came in a box that looked like a TV. It was sold frozen, but freezers were rare in 1954 homes, so they were usually consumed the same day they were bought.
However, years earlier, in 1945, a company called Maxson Food Systems created a self-contained meal consisting of meat, a vegetable, and mashed potatoes, each housed in its own separate compartment on a plastic plate. But Maxson’s product was only sold to airlines for inflight meals. If you’ll recall, they actually HAD inflight meals once. 😉
Though they toyed with the idea of selling the pre-packaged meals to the general public, it never happened. Hence, Swanson gets the honors for inventing the TV dinner.
You may or may not have noticed, but the aluminum trays we grew up with are not around anymore. As microwave ovens became more affordable and began proliferating, it was recognized that the metal trays needed to be upgraded. Swanson ditched them in favor of microwavable plastic ones in 1986.
Today, the idea of heating a frozen TV dinner in a conventional oven seems strange. But we Boomer kids can recall a time when mom didn’t feel like cooking, and dinner came in the form of a blazing hot aluminum tray that required the removal of a metallic foil cover before it could be consumed. And the whole thing fit perfectly on a portable tray in front of the couch.