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A Brief History of TV Dinners

It’s a family meal scene that’s as American as a Norman Rockwell painting: Mom, dad, and kids gathered around a flickering television set with frozen dinner trays balanced on their knees, eyes trained on the screen in front of them. Nowadays it might seem like a pretty classic picture (or a tired old stereotype), but at one point TV dinners were as new and cool as television itself. Here’s how these freezer standbys got their start.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of the TV dinners, the necessity was twofold: First, C.A. Swanson and Sons company had an excess of Thanksgiving turkeys that, due to lack of chilled storage space, were going back and forth across the country in refrigerated railway cars to stay cold. How to use them up? Secondly, more American women and wives were working outside the home after WWII and, as it turns out, dinner just wasn’t making itself (imagine that!).

What to eat? Legend has it that TV dinners were the brainchild a Swanson salesman who was inspired by the aluminum, three-section trays used to serve airline meals. In 1954, C.A. Swanson introduced the first frozen “TV dinner” — turkey and gravy on cornbread with peas and sweet potatoes.

Now, nearly 50 years later, there’s a whole section of the grocery store dedicated to frozen prepared meals. The containers are made of microwave-friendly paper instead of aluminum, and the meals themselves have gone way beyond the traditional sectioned trays of the 1950s — you can find frozen palak paneer next to vegan ravioli on ice. The convenience of freezer-ready food can’t be denied, but we don’t have to depend on your grocery store’s selection. Cooking and freezing dinners to keep on hand for busy nights is healthier and less expensive — check out our freezer-friendly food slideshow for recipe ideas. Oh, and let's turn off that TV for a bit, shall we? 

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