In 1954, the Swanson Food Company changed the way Americans ate their meals. Prior to that date, families gathered around the kitchen table for lunch or breakfast, or around the dining room table for dinner or supper. Sometimes the radio was on, but never during a dinner or formal meal. But with the introduction of Swanson’s frozen meals, appropriately called TV Dinners, families gathered in the living room and watched TV as they peeled the foil off this amazing new product. And rather than on a dining room or kitchen table, Americans ate on TV trays.
Throughout the 1950’s and into the early 60s with the advent of color, Americans were captivated by the television set, almost as much as the modern generation loves their cell phones. The novelty of television, along with the quality of the programming, combined to create the ideal storm leading to the explosion of TV Dinners in popularity.
How popular? The original TV Dinner had a production estimate of 5,000 dinners for the entire first year. Swanson far exceeded those expectations, and ended up selling more than 10 million in the initial year of production.
The first Swanson-brand TV Dinner was produced in the United States and consisted of a “Thanksgiving Meal” of turkey, cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes, packaged neatly in an aluminum tray. Each item was placed in its own compartment. Soon, other combinations were added, such as Salisbury steak, meatloaf, fried chicken, and turkey, all served with a potato dish or starch and a vegetable. It was a really big deal when Swanson added a 4th tray compartment in 1960 that included a dessert – either apple cobbler or a brownie.
And even though the food was packaged in separate compartments, it was not unusual to find a pea of two in the potato section or perhaps some of the dessert nestled up to fried chicken. Someone once described TV Dinners as “practically edible”.
TV Dinners initially sold for 98 cents each, and believe it or not, that was a luxury for many families. Sirloin steak, for example, was just 55 cents a pound, a half-gallon of milk was 44 cents, and bread went for 15 cents a loaf. But Boomer children begged for the convenient meals and busy moms were happy to oblige. Even dads seemed to like the dinners, though they often required two in order to fill up a hungry, adult stomach. In a nutshell, TV Dinners were easy to prepare and there were no dishes to wash once dinner was over. Plus, the entire family got to eat on TV trays while watching TV together as a family.
Directions for cooking TV dinners were fairly simple. Peel back a corner of the foil (so the meal wouldn’t explode) and place the frozen meal or meals in a 425 oven for exactly 25 minutes. The 25-minute plan, however, didn’t always pan out. Sometimes the veggies were nuked, and sometimes parts of the meat were still cool. Ovens in those days varied widely in cooking times. But nobody complained, because they were eating with the family and watching great TV shows such as Walt Disney, Gunsmoke, Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, Ozzie and Harriet, Alfred Hitchcock, Bonanza, Burns and Allen, Your Show of Shows, Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, The Hit Parade, and many, many more.
I can do without the TV Dinners, but those really were great TV shows.