TV dinners—those frozen, pre-cooked and pre-portioned meals that can be reheated and ready to eat in minutes—became an American culinary staple in the mid 20th century. But the true origin of this quarter-trillion-dollar industry may never be fully unwrapped.
TV dinners may not have emerged from factory ovens until the 1950s, but the industry’s pre-heating stage began as early as 1925. That was when naturalist and entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye developed and commercialized a method for quickly freezing fish. His epiphany came after living among the indigenous Inuit people in Canada and learning their food preservation skills.
Americans had been eating commercially frozen meat for nearly half a century, but the food was unpopular with consumers. Predominant methods of slow-freezing meats, poultry and fish typically caused them to lose their flavor and texture while thawing. With Birdseye’s double-belt, flash-freezing technology however, fleshy foods retained their original freshness, texture and flavor.
By the late 1930s, Birdseye had applied his patented technology to vegetables as well, creating the foundation for the modern American frozen food industry. But the marketplace wasn’t ready. Few American consumers had iceboxes in their homes. And refrigeration advancements still lagged on the commercial side, with insulated vehicles and sufficiently refrigerated supermarkets still rare.
Precursors to the TV Dinner
World War II accelerated the use of frozen meals. In 1944, Maxson Food Systems Inc. used Birdseye’s flash-freezing technology to create frozen pre-packaged dinners to be sold exclusively to military and civilian air carriers. The meals, called “Strato-Plates” or “Sky Plates,” consisted of a partitioned serving of meat, a vegetable and a potato, reheated aboard the planes in Maxson “Whirlwind Electric Ovens,” a precursor to the convection oven. Founder W.L. Maxson planned to expand his company’s Strato-Plates to a wider consumer market, but died before the plan took off.
In 1947, entrepreneur Jack Fisher placed pre-frozen meals in aluminum trays and called them “Fridgi-Dinners.” Fisher marketed the meals exclusively to bars and taverns looking for a way to feed hungry patrons without hiring cooks. Though inching closer to the American consumer, the dinners remained outside the home.
Frozen Meals Go Mass Market
Frozen dinners finally came to the direct consumer market in 1949 when brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein founded Frozen Dinners Inc. under the One-Eyed Eskimo label, and began selling the product exclusively in the Pittsburgh area. By 1950, the company had produced more than 400,000 dinners. By 1954, after forming the Quaker State Food Corporation and expanding distribution around the eastern U.S., it had sold more than 2 million pre-packaged frozen meals.
It was around this time that Nebraska-based C.A. Swanson and Sons, a widely recognized food brand already known for its frozen poultry and chicken pot pies, took the frozen dinner concept to the national level. The catalyst? A catastrophically unsuccessful Thanksgiving holiday.
In early 1953, after low Thanksgiving bird sales, Swanson found itself with some 520,000 pounds—or 260 tons—of leftover turkeys. To keep them from thawing and going bad, Swanson placed the frozen fowl in 10 refrigerated railway cars. And since the cars’ refrigeration only worked when the vehicles were moving, the company shuttled the trains back and forth between its Nebraska headquarters and the East coast while executives desperately brainstormed solutions.
TV Dinner’s Disputed Origins
What happened after that isn’t in question. But who provided the inspiration is.
In one version of the story, Gerry Thomas, then a $200-a-month Swanson salesman just a few years into the job, recounts that he remembered seeing aluminum trays meant for frozen food while visiting a distributor’s warehouse in Pittsburgh.
Inspired by the tray, Thomas says, he sketched the idea of a three-compartment version that could double as both a cooking and serving tray—and presented it to his Swanson bosses. According to Thomas, the executives forged ahead with the idea, filling the trays with the leftover turkey and gravy over cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes.
Swanson embarked on a massive nationwide marketing campaign tying the dinners to the must-have prestige appliance of the moment: the television, with packaging cleverly designed to look like mini TVs, tuning knobs and all. Targeting harried women who worked outside the home—or just wanted a break from the daily grind of preparing family suppers—the meals were priced at 98 cents and bolstered with the guarantee of “dinner in 25 minutes.”
The Swanson “TV Dinner,” which hit grocery store cases on September 10, 1953, was an immediate success. In 1954, Swanson sold more than 10 million units, and the next year, 25 million. Sales grew exponentially from there, as Americans quickly warmed to the idea of noshing on convenient, pre-made Salisbury steak or pot roast in front of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke.” Other companies like Stouffer’s and Banquet soon piled on, and the frozen meal industry developed into a pillar of the American culinary-industrial complex, eventually earning billions of dollars in annual sales. It also forever changed how Americans take their meals, with far more people eating informally in front of the TV instead of gathering nightly at the dining room table.
For his role in helping bring the TV dinner concept to life, Thomas says he was given $1,000 and a promotion.
But other origin stories exist. Multiple sources within the company and Swanson family credit the brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, with dreaming up the tripartite plate and TV name. Gilbert Swanson, for one, is said to have been inspired by the airline food tray while flying to meet his banker. And Jack Mingo, author of How the Cadillac Got Its Fins and Other True Tales from the Annals of Business and Marketing, says Gilbert got the idea for the name “TV dinner” after hosting a party where guests were balancing food on their laps while watching TV.
This Woman Finessed the Food Science
There’s one key player whose contributions to the TV dinner no one disputes. Shortly after 21-year-old Betty Cronin began working for the company as a bacteriologist, Swanson execs tasked her with puzzling through the science of making frozen meals actually taste good. Her primary job: to figure out how to design dinners so all the components could be heated to their optimal taste, texture and consistency in the same amount of time—while continuing to look fresh and appetizing.
The fried chicken option posed particular problems, recalled Cronin in a 1989 Chicago Tribune interview: ”What kind of breading will stay on through freezing, not be too greasy and still taste good? That was our biggest challenge.”
Cronin said she and her friends became the guinea pigs, taste-testing all the dud experiments in late-night work sessions until she got it right.
As a result, she told the Tribune, “I’ve never had a TV dinner in my home.”