How the TV Dinner Revolutionized American Life

CSA-Printstock/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (tv dinner), RobinOlimb/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

The first TV dinner may have been one of the smartest uses of Thanksgiving leftovers of all time. According to former Swanson employee Gerry Thomas, the frozen food company had about 520,000 pounds of surplus turkey after the holiday in 1952. They stored the meat on refrigerated rail cars while they desperately brainstormed ways to salvage it.

The winning idea reportedly came from Thomas. On a business trip, he noticed a fancy metal tray that airlines were just starting to use to serve warm meals on flights. This got him thinking—what if he brought the same technology to home kitchens? Two years later, Swanson’s Thanksgiving-dinner-in-a-box hit grocery stores. The meal consisted of turkey, gravy, buttered peas, sweet potatoes, and cornbread dressing in a segmented, heat-proof tray. It was designed to be enjoyed in front of a hot new appliance called the television—there were even fake dials and knobs printed on the packaging. Mealtime would never be the same.

Gerry Thomas’s account makes for a great story, but its legitimacy is debatable, to say the least. In the early 2000s, the Los Angeles Times reported that several insiders, including former Swanson employees and descendants of the company’s founder, didn’t agree with Thomas’s version of events. Former employees said the company had eight stories of freezer space that could have held the turkeys, making refrigerated trains unnecessary. Thomas admitted that he may have misremembered some details, but he stood behind his basic narrative until his death in 2005. 

It turns out the history of the TV dinner isn’t as simple as pressing a few buttons on a microwave. To get the story straight, let’s jump back to the early 20th century.

The Refrigerator Revolution

While inventions like cars and planes were changing how people got around, high-tech appliances were transforming life inside the home. One of the most important domestic innovations of this era was the refrigerator. 

Prior to the 1920s, ice boxes were thought of as the cutting-edge of home refrigeration. These wood cabinets were insulated, allowing them to keep large blocks of ice frozen for long periods of time. The ice kept any food in the box chilled and preserved, which was revolutionary for households. Before ice boxes started becoming common in the mid-19th century, fresh foods had to be pickled, cured, canned, or eaten before they went bad. There were earlier innovations in refrigeration, like the yakhchāls of ancient Persia—but iceboxes were a game-changer.

That said, they weren't perfect. The ice blocks had to be replenished about once a week, and a drip dish that collected melt water had to be emptied regularly. 

76A Refrigerator
The 76A refrigerator. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

The refrigeration industry really heated up in the late 1920s. Companies like Frigidaire and Kelvinator had originally come out of the automobile industry and started working on home refrigeration.

In 1927, GE introduced its monitor-top fridge, which combined a cool air compressor and a cold box into one appliance. It wasn’t the first such refrigerator; GE even boasted, “We did not … go into production until the research had been finished.” But with its simplicity of installation and quickly-found popularity, you can think of the monitor-top fridge occupying the same role in refrigeration that iPods did in the world of mp3 players: not the first in, but a big deal, nonetheless. Its success paved the way for even more changes. In 1928, scientists from DuPont, General Motors, and Frigidaire worked together to invent Freon, a trademarked name for the refrigerants used to keep the units cool. 

Basically, your standard refrigerator generates cold air by condensing a gas into a liquid, evaporating it, and repeating the process. Older compressors used toxic gasses like methyl chloride, which could potentially leak and poison members of the household. 

Freon was the first refrigerant that was both nontoxic and effective. (It was also effective at depleting the earth’s ozone layer, incidentally, so the classic formulation has since been replaced.)

Eight percent of American households owned a refrigerator at the start of the 1930s. By 1944, that number rose to 85 percent. In the late 1940s, freezers were introduced to the home, which allowed consumers to preserve their food even longer.

The refrigeration revolution did more than reduce food waste. Fridges and freezers were among several inventions often credited with helping liberate women from the domestic sphere. Before the appliances went mainstream, female heads of household had to devote many hours each week to either growing food, preserving it, or taking trips to the market to ensure their kitchens were well-stocked. All the time the fridge saved freed up women to pursue activities outside the home. According to a 2008 analysis, the number of employed married women jumped from 5 percent in 1900 to 51 percent in 1980. Numerous factors contributed to this cultural shift, but many experts cite new domestic technology as a major catalyst. 

The Rise of Frozen Meals

Swanson was one of many food companies that benefited from the refrigeration boom. In 1899, Swedish immigrant Carl Swanson got his start selling wholesale groceries in Omaha, Nebraska. The business transitioned to food processing in the 1920s, and Swanson became one of the biggest names in the industry. Following Carl Swanson’s death in 1949, his sons Gilbert C. and W. Clarke took over the business, and they began experimenting with pre-made frozen dinners. 

Swanson’s frozen chicken pot pie hit the freezer section in 1951, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The product took full advantage of the modern kitchen while meeting the customer’s growing desire to make a home-cooked meal without spending a ton of time and effort. Three years later, Swanson’s TV dinner took this concept to the next level. 

Woman Choosing TV Dinner from Freezer
A woman taking a Swanson TV dinner from the freezer. / Steven Gottlieb/GettyImages

The idea to package frozen food in trays didn’t come from Swanson, though. The first complete meal of this kind was produced by Maxson Food Systems, Inc. back in 1944. Like the TV dinner, Maxson's Strato-Plates served different components of a meal in separate compartments of the same heat-proof vessel. But instead of people's homes, this product was consumed in airplanes. Maxson tried to commercialize the product as “‘Sky-Plate’ cooked meat dinners,” but they never took off. It was just too expensive and too hard to manufacture. 

The challenge was taken over by other manufacturers. Brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein started selling frozen meals in aluminum trays in 1949, to great success: They sold more than 2.5 million dinners in five years. So no, Swanson wasn’t exactly a pioneer when it came to selling frozen food in compartmented trays, but the company did make a clever branding decision that set their product apart: adding TV to the name. 

The Name of the Game

Around the same time that domestic appliances were freeing women from some of the responsibilities of the kitchen, the television was compelling people to spend more time in their living rooms. Black-and-white TVs were adopted more quickly than any other device of the era. The number of sets in the U.S. grew 2000-fold in just five years following World War II. By 1955, half of all homes in the country owned a television.

At this point, stations were only airing a few hours of new programming a day, and Americans made time to watch it. These shows weren’t available whenever the viewers were. Primetime was after school and work—a.k.a. the time traditionally spent in the kitchen and around the dining table. People still needed to eat, but their old schedule no longer fit into their new lifestyle. 

Family Watching Television
Family watching television circa the 1950s. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Enter Swanson’s TV dinner. The meal came in a special aluminum tray that could go directly from the freezer to the oven to the table to the trash. Like every other part of the Swanson story, the details around its name are disputed, but Gerry Thomas claims he chose the name because TVs were a hot household commodity, and he thought the dinners could piggy-back off the glow.

Whatever the origin of the name, TV dinners were a hit: In the product’s first year, Swanson sold millions.

Transforming the way Americans eat wasn’t a piece of cake, though—or a piece of frighteningly hot brownie. Cooking a starch, meat, sauce, and vegetable together in the same tray posed numerous logistical challenges. Betty Cronin was tasked with solving them. She joined Swanson as a bacteriologist in 1953 and she was quickly promoted to director of product development. She figured out the method for cooking multiple frozen components for the same length of time now known as synchronization. It involved cooking the various foods separately before freezing them and making sure the different portion sizes were just right. In addition to making the precooked frozen food taste as good as possible, she also ensured it wouldn’t make consumers sick. 

Like refrigerators, TV dinners were credited with reducing the time women spent in the kitchen. The food item was also similar in that it was generally more appreciated by women than men. In a 1999 interview, Gerry Thomas recalled receiving hate mail from men who wanted their wives to make home-cooked meals like their mothers used to make. He told AP, “Women got used to the idea of freedom that men always had.”

Frozen vs. Fresh

The idea that quick frozen dinners are inferior to fresh meals still persists today. Part of that comes from the myth that freezing food lowers its nutritional value.

While it is true that food tends to be most nutritious when it’s at its freshest, there are still plenty of vitamins and minerals in your frozen meal. Veggies that were frozen right after they were harvested may be even more nutritious than produce that's been sitting in your fridge for several days. Of course, pre-prepared frozen meals tend to be higher in added fat, salt, and sugar than what you'd find at the farmer’s market. So while the TV dinner may be the greatest convenience food of the last century, it didn’t do much for the country’s collective health.

TV dinners underwent a few more innovations in the following decades. Desserts got their own tray compartments in the 1960s, and in the 1980s, manufacturers introduced containers that were safe for microwaves. You also won’t see the name TV dinner on packages any more. That’s because the makers want consumers to eat the meal in any room at any time of day. Despite these changes, the concept of a full meal in one convenient, partitioned tray hasn’t changed much in the past 70 years.

So next time you eat a Salisbury steak and a brownie that tastes a little like green beans out of the same tray while watching The Bachelor, thank Gerry Thomas. Or maybe Gilbert and Clarke Swanson. According to Betty Cronin, Carl Swanson’s sons were the ones who first had the idea to sell a frozen meal in a tray. Today, the Library of Congress cites both Thomas and the Swansons as inventors.

No matter whom we attribute the TV dinner to, we should remember that the technology of the mid-20th century deserves a lot of the credit. And, really, wait five minutes before biting into that brownie. It’s not worth the pain.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube. You can stay up to date on the newest episodes of Food History by subscribing to our YouTube channel here.