Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

At 50, TV dinner is still cookin'

(Page 2 of 2)

"You can't blame the TV dinner for taking the family away from the table," Ms. Fussell points out. "The TV did that. And, actually, it was another form of togetherness - eating tray next to tray in front of the TV."

Skip to next paragraph

"Society had changed a lot since World War II," says Deborah Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist who appears on the Food Network program "Good Eats."

"People were working and living urban lives," Ms. Duchon explains. "Cars made us mobile, and teenagers had their own lives. Convenience became a priority for us. In the '50s, society became very futuristic. We wondered what our lives would be like in the year 2000, and were very interested in technology and machinery. People embraced TV trays and TV dinners not because the food was good - it was awful - but because it was futuristic and convenient."

In that way, "food was an expression of the values of society," she says.

Still, futuristc and convenient weren't all Americans wanted. They didn't want to skip dessert for the sake of the future. In 1960, as TV viewers enjoyed the homegrown stories of Mayberry, Swanson sweetened their meals by adding desserts - and a fourth compartment - to the dinner trays.

Then another idea occurred to the marketing department: If frozen prepackaged meatloaf was good for dinner, wouldn't it work just as well at lunch? In 1962 Swanson dropped the "TV Dinners" name to suggest that the meals were good any time of day. To reinforce this point, Swanson Breakfasts were introduced in 1969, and children around the country met Big Bird, Ernie, and the "Sesame Street" crew while eating reheated eggs that year.

Imitators galore

Just like real television programming, TV dinners had sequels and copycats. Many companies tuned into convenience foods.

Today, 50 years after that first segmented tray appeared in the frozen food sections of US grocery stores, shoppers can find just about any type of cuisine in frozen form.

There's 24-hour programming in the form of frozen food for any meal or occasion, from breakfast to snacks. And cooking times became faster than a game show lightning round, since the aluminum tray was canceled and replaced with plastic-crystallized polyethylene, which is ideal for the microwave.

Today's highest ratings go to family-size or individual meals that offer large portions of meat. For the most part, dessert has disappeared (Swanson cut them from the lineup in 2001) in favor of diet foods, which now make up a third of the market.

Even without the brownie, Americans keep eating frozen meals. Dollar sales grew an average 7.5 percent per year from 1998 to 2003, according to research by the Mintel International Group.

Trays as cultural icons

Although technology moved on, the original aluminum tray was not forgotten. In 1986, it took its place in the Smithsonian Institution, immortalized right next to Fonzie's jacket, the two most appropriate symbols of television's happy days. [Editor's note: The tray is currently on loan to the Copia museum in Napa, Calif. ]

Hollywood followed suit in 1997 when an aluminum tray - along with handprints of Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas - was placed in the cement outside Mann's Chinese Theatre alongside the marks of Lassie, Uncle Miltie, and other TV legends. In 1999, Hollywood produced a commemorative sequel, giving the tray its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As Americans mark the 50th anniversary of the sale of the first TV dinner, the concept of a convenient frozen meal has become ingrained in the culture. For 66 percent of families, the act of eating in front of the TV screen, which Swanson was the first to capitalize on, has been syndicated and is rerun nightly.