Remembering the TV Dinner, Somewhat Fondly

TV tray dining

1950’s lifestyle. The centerpiece is the TV. While television was invented more than a decade before it wasn’t until the 1950’s that TV took off and assumed its place front and center in the family living room. TV brought the entertainment home. And well it did because it was a decade that saw more and more Americans becoming homeowners as well as TV owners. Post war prosperity, GI benefits and early-stage white flight brought families like the one shown above (black families were redlined out of this migration) to the suburbs. 

While the television was one of the most essential pieces of furniture in the suburban home, another was the TV tray table. And atop the TV tray table? A TV dinner. The TV dinner captured the essence of the 50’s. It was an era that marveled at modern conveniences. And what was more convenient than a freezer full of pre-made dinners the preparation for which involved no more than turning on the oven. And while the 50’s can hardly be considered an era for the liberation of women, the housewives of the time were increasingly abandoning the habit of spending the afternoon over the stove, often in favor of joining the workforce.

Swanson, the premier maker of TV dinners, captured this in one of its early ads: “Now Mom is in on the TV fun at the start, and thanks to Swanson she’s ready to serve an extra-special chicken dinner.” Another ad showed mom bursting through the door, proudly proclaiming “I’m late, but dinner won’t be.”

Swanson did not invent the TV dinner. What they did was present it in the familiar aluminum tray, create the packaging, supply the moniker and promote it, heavily. The first TV dinner was a Thanksgiving style offering, turkey with cornmeal dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and peas.

I remember four different Swanson TV dinners: turkey, beef, fried chicken and Salisbury steak. I understand there was also a fish dinner, but those never found their way into my family’s freezer. The original TV dinners came in an aluminum tray with three sections. The largest was for the entree, and a key element of this was gravy. The TV dinner featured a thick, gelatinous gravy, the main ingredients of which were likely cornstarch and salt, as well as some coloring in different shades of brown depending on beef or turkey. Salisbury steak is something I’ve never really experienced outside of a TV dinner. It could also be called a hamburger with gravy. The other two sections of the tray included potatoes and a vegetable. The potatoes likely came from some kind of powder rather than real potatoes, but they did have a bit of real butter on top, butter being another of Swanson’s products. The vegetable, corn or green beans, peas, carrots or a combination thereof where the standard frozen vegetables of the day. About the best that could be said of them is that they allowed for the perception that you were getting a balanced meal.

TV dinner
That lump of stuff in the bottom section is Salisbury steak.

Initially the TV dinner cost less than a dollar. Preparation consisted of shoving it in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes. The fried chicken dinner, my favorite, was a little trickier. You had to take the dinner out of the oven after the first 15 minutes and cut away the part of the foil that covered the chicken portion of the dinner so that the chicken would come out crispy. And it did. 

I ate dozens, if not hundreds of TV dinners. Even though my mom worked, she usually cooked a dinner. But the TV dinners were ready and waiting in the freezer in case my mom was going out or just for a snack as I got older and ate more. I considered them a treat. 

Were they healthy? Definitely not. The foods were generally high in fat and sodium, something that was done to add flavor because the flash-freezing process denigrated the taste of the food. You also would find that TV dinners pretty much tasted the same whether you just bought them or if they had been in the freezer for months.  Trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils accomplished that. 

I wasn’t the only one eating TV dinners. In 1954, a year after Swanson introduced them, the company sold 10 million of them.  By 1956 that number had increased to 13 million. In that year, Swanson was bought out by the Campbell Soup Company. Some competitors emerged, the one I remember being Banquet. Generally they were cheaper but not as good. Being as my appetite for frozen fried chicken at the time was unlimited, I partook of the Banquet version as well. 

The Swanson company was, after the sale, not particularly innovative and it would eventually lose share to companies that marketed a broader range of frozen dinners.  One of the two main innovations that Swanson made was the introduction of a dessert, filling a fourth section of the aluminum serving tray with either a small brownie or a sticky apple cobbler. The other was the advent of the “Hungry Man” dinner. Same stuff, just more of it. 

Hungry Man dinner
The Hungry Man dinner, presumably because hungry men wanted an extra piece of chicken. The dessert, a brownie, is top center.

By 1982, the brand name TV dinner was retired. The company used the Hungry Man brand, and still does, though the unit has since been sold to PInnacle Foods. And in the 80’s, here’s the first family, sitting with their TV trays in place in the White House. Being true conservatives, they are trying to demonstrate that nothing had changed in the last thirty years.

TV dinners at the White House

And as for the subject of nothing having changed, it was earlier this year that the Tribune Publishing’s web site thedailymeal.com tagged the Hungry Man chicken dinner on its list of the “unhealthiest.”  “Despite packaging that makes it look like a nutritious dinner mom could have made from her vintage recipes, Hungry-Man’s mesquite chicken dinner has 1,050 calories and 72 grams of fat. Containing more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium, it comes just shy of meeting the daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At such a high amount, the sodium alone could put your blood pressure through the roof.”

I probably haven’t had a TV dinner since I graduated college, although I likely snuck in a box or two of frozen fried chicken. 

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25 Responses to Remembering the TV Dinner, Somewhat Fondly

  1. imogenglad says:

    They look like airline meals!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes I eat those .99 cent pot pies and I am always confused by my equal feelings of nostalgia and disgust.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Memories! Have to say I hated tv dinners, but we used the tv tables a lot! Love the old pics.

    Like

  4. Those are American ones did we have in the UK? I like anything that looks like airline food!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Libbyland! (oh, you must Google it … ) was a TV dinner that was made just for kids. Cartoon designs were pressed into the aluminum pans which I guess was to encourage kids to clean their plates so we could see what cartoon was at the bottom of the pan. I loved them … but they may also be part of the reason I’m now a vegetarian. I had forgotten all about them until I read your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Brings back memories!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Lyn Douglas says:

    I lived in Hawaii in the 70’s and I ate these exact same tv dinners many times. Sounds dreadful now, but when you are young you are bullet proof and you do what fits in to your busy life. Your post actually brings back some great memories. Lyn

    Liked by 1 person

  8. We had TV dinners in the 60’s when Dad worked 2nd shift. Whatever our choice, we had to eat all the veggies. I despised green peas, why were they always teamed up with the best dessert choices? I was about 8-9 yrs old, got caught tossing my peas in the trash once after saying I ate them all. Had to sit in the ‘bad’ chair for 15 minutes. LOL I still hate peas, of course!

    And we still have frozen meals in a box. Gourmet to boot! Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Henry Lewis says:

    Wanting to be thought of as ‘modern’ because of purchasing and eating ever more processed food looks really dumb in retrospect. Swanson’s turkey dinner was my favorite–yuck.

    Like

  10. Ken Dowell says:

    They had to sell you on something other than the quality of the food.

    Like

  11. Pam Lazos says:

    Because my mom was Italian, we never got TV dinners, Ken. That would have been a sacrilege, but you know what? I’m glad (although at the time a bit jealous) because my health didn’t start the slippery slope down in childhood! And actually, on the very few occasions we tried them, they were terrible!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. allenrizzi says:

    I remember that strange taste that accompanied the Salisbury Steak. I was never sure exactly what I was eating but it was good at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Donna Janke says:

    We didn’t have TV dinners very often, but when we did they felt like a treat. Why, I don’t know. My mother’s cooking was much tastier.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Kelly MacKay says:

    I can still sense how the potatoes felt eating them

    Liked by 1 person

  15. We were definitely not a TV dinner household, but I was such a picky eater as a kid that sometimes my mother would buy me Stouffer’s frozen lasagna and pizza (not the French bread ones, they used to make normal pizzas with a cornmeal coated crust that I loved) because they were one of the few things I would willingly eat. Thinking about that lasagna now makes me feel a bit ill (especially as a vegetarian), but I enjoyed them at the time, and I enjoyed your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. It was a way to keep ourselves alive without messing up the kitchen and spending hours preparing and cleaning up. There was a lasagne dinner that I really liked, with an almond pudding. For a short time, special kids TV dinners were sold with a packet of chocolate powder to add to milk. I’d love to find that chocolate powder again – probably terrible for you but would be fun to try one more time. Haven’t had a TV dinner in over 30 years, but it was fun while it lasted. Would do it again if I had to.

    Liked by 1 person

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