Since its inception in 1945, the humble frozen dinner has become a staple of American diets and American culinary history. Initially developed as a way to feed hungry airplane passengers, the TV dinner has evolved over the years and is now making a triumphant resurgence at hip restaurants nationwide that put a modern spin on an old classic.
Back in 1945, Maxson Food Systems Inc. tackled the problem of feeding hungry military personnel on long-haul flights. Prior to 1945, airplane travelers were stuck mostly with cold snacks on flights, unable to enjoy a hot meal. Maxson changed that by developing the first complete frozen meal, easily reheatable in an airplane.
Unfortunately, the CEO of Maxson Food Systems passed away before Strato-Plates could make it to civilian living rooms. In the late 1940s, however, Jack Fisher developed FridgiDinners, which looked very similar to the TV dinners we know and love. The dinners were sold primarily to bars and taverns to allow them to serve patrons dinner without hiring on a full kitchen staff. Unfortunately, FridgiDinners never really caught on.
Perhaps inspired by FridgiDinners and Strato-Plates, Albert and Meyer Bernstein opened Frozen Dinners Inc. in 1949 and began packaging frozen dinners in trays, selling them exclusively to supermarkets local to the Pittsburgh area. In a year, they sold about 400,000 frozen meals, and as demand grew, the Bernstein brothers expanded their business to serve markets east of the Mississippi River. In just five years, they had sold over 2.5 million frozen dinners, so demand was high.
The demand for easy, hearty, frozen dinners was plain to see, and in 1954 the Swanson brand took advantage by creating a line of frozen dinners and marketing them heavily to American citizens. The fact that Swanson was a well-known brand helped the popularity of frozen dinners skyrocket. This led to the coining of the term "TV dinner" and the development of the first true frozen TV dinner.
Most accounts agree that the Swanson company was the first to develop and market frozen dinners as "TV dinners," but the story gets muddy from there. The prevailing wisdom is that back in 1953, Gerry Thomas, a salesman for Swanson at the time, came up with the concept of selling a frozen meal in a TV-themed box.
That said, Thomas isn't the only one with a claim to TV dinner parentage. Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist who was instrumental in developing Swanson's synchronization process and making sure all the elements of the TV dinners took the same amount of time to cook, says that it was the Swanson brothers themselves who came up with the concept. She claims that the marketing and advertising teams were responsible for the TV dinner name, as well as the classic TV set-inspired packaging.
Back in 1960, Swanson moved from a three-compartment tray that held an entree, a side dish and a vegetable portion to a four-compartment tray. This allowed Swanson to include hot desserts like fruit cobbler, baked apples and brownies in the TV dinners and create an even more complete meal.
In the mid '60s, an Austin-based steakhouse chain called Night Hawk began making frozen TV dinners of its own. These TV dinners featured char-broiled steaks, beef patties and meatballs, and were representative of the fact that Swanson wasn't the only company making TV dinners anymore.
Banking on the frozen-food trend, a few companies began developing "TV breakfasts" in 1969, usually featuring pancakes, sausage and occasionally eggs. This created a gigantic offshoot of the frozen-meal industry that focused on breakfast foods and breakfast sandwiches.
By the 1970s, frozen dinners were becoming less popular in American households, due primarily to the fact that they were now competing with restaurants that exposed Americans to more authentic cuisines and flavors. To combat this, Swanson upped the portions, creating the larger, heartier "Hungry-Man" dinners that can still be seen on shelves today. To promote the meals, Swanson hired the famous football player Mean Joe Greene to act as spokesman for the brand.
By the time the '80s rolled around, there were dozens upon dozens of companies producing frozen dinners (including Lean Cuisine, which launched in 1981), and with the popularization of the microwave oven, it only made sense to create frozen dinners that could be prepared much more quickly. Starting in 1983, companies began packaging their frozen meals in microwave-safe containers to allow busy families to get their fill much faster.
After Lean Cuisine entered the market, many other brands followed, each with its own spin on the classic TV dinner. While Lean Cuisine (and later, in 1992, Healthy Ones) focused on healthy portioned meals, Stouffer's began to focus on making frozen meals portioned for families. Amy's Kitchen began preparing frozen dinners in 1987, focusing on organic, vegetarian,and non-GMO meals. It was at about this time when the term "TV dinner" started to lose meaning, since there were so many different competing brands making such different products. The phrase began to be used to refer to any frozen meal as companies diversified their target markets, whether it was dieters, vegetarians or people seeking to serve a whole family. Most of these specialty frozen meals were also sold at higher price points, starting a trend that continues to this day.
Perhaps it was a reaction to the more healthy direction that frozen meals had moved in since the 1970s, but in the mid-1990s and through the 2000s, companies like Swanson doubled down. Instead of offering healthier alternatives, Swanson created frozen dinners of truly epic proportions. The Hungry-Man XXL line of dinners (discontinued in the early 2010s) boasted about the sheer weight and often clocked in at a gut-busting 1,500 calories or more per meal. For those of you counting at home, that leaves about 500 calories out of your recommended daily allowance for breakfast, lunch, snacks, wine, beers, cocktails and pretty much everything else.
Seeing a space in the market, in 1990 ConAgra Foods created the Kid Cuisine brand, targeted at parents who wanted a quick way to prepare dinner for their kids or pack them lunch without having to make anything themselves. These meals looked a lot more like the classic TV dinners of the '70s and earlier but featured whimsical, kid-themed additions like chicken nuggets and noodles shaped like cartoon characters.
In the '90s, Stouffer's doubled down on its efforts to create family TV dinners with a line of easily microwaveable meals that were designed to feed an entire family of four at a fair price. Around this time, other companies began to follow suit, offering similar family meals. Perhaps most notably, restaurant chains like P.F. Chang's and T.G.I. Friday's started marketing more expensive bagged TV dinner versions of dishes served at their dine-in locations.
In the past few years, eateries like Chicago's (now-defunct, unfortunately) Brass Monkey and New York's 540 Park restaurant at the Regency Hotel have completely revamped the TV dinner, serving complete meals in classic TV trays with a high-cuisine twist. These meals take the humble TV dinner and elevate the food both in terms of flavor and price, with prices of $30 or more. Most interestingly, this year's James Beard Awards featured internationally recognized chefs preparing literal "TV dinners," meals inspired by characters on well-known TV shows.
It's fitting that the natural evolution of TV dinners has led here, to where home cooks are buying their own TV trays and making large meals over the weekend, freezing them and packing them up to take to the office. Oddly, with the rising price of frozen meals, this is a sort of back-to-basics move in the history of the TV dinner. Since the TV dinner was created as a way to quickly prepare a healthy meal without spending too much money, it's fitting that now home cooks are taking things back into their own hands, saving money and adding flavor by making TV dinners themselves.
Sam Greszes is unlockable by beating the game on Very Hard difficulty without losing a life. You must then defeat him to unlock him for Arcade and Versus modes. You can follow him on Twitter @samgreszeseses, and check out his podcast with David Rappoccio here. He also hosts weekly twitch streams at twitch.tv/robotsfightingdinosaurs.