For many people today, plopping down in front of the tube with dinner on a tray may seem like second nature.
But 40 years ago, the mating of those two favorite American pastimes was only just getting under way. The matchmaker was the frozen food industry, with help from supermarket operators, and the offspring -- the TV dinner -- has been a fixture ever since.
It was in 1954 that C.A. Swanson & Sons, Omaha, Neb., combined the two developing technologies of frozen food processing and television broadcasting, and became the first company to nationally distribute a formalized TV dinner.
To enforce the product's concept, the dinners came complete with graphics that made the front of the package look like a television set.
Products approaching the concept had been around for nearly 10 years before that. W.L. Maxson Co., New York; FrigiDinner, Philadelphia; and Quaker State Foods Corp., Braddock, Pa., all had tried, with varying degrees of success, to produce and market frozen dinners. But it was Swanson that found the
Meanwhile, frozen food as a concept, and as a department within the supermarket, was coming into its own in that time period. In the early 1950s, entire departments were contained in little more than a 12-foot coffin freezer case.
But families were starting to buy refrigerators that had freezer compartments of their own, waiting to be filled. Many women, remaining a part of the work force after World War II drew them to factories and offices, were finding themselves pressed for time.
Consumers were enamored of the convenience afforded by frozen foods. New products such as fruit and baked goods were being frozen and introduced daily.
But the one product -- the one package -- that got the most attention was the Swanson TV Dinner. The package featured a photo of the contents -- roast turkey on corn bread, buttered peas, sweet potatoes and gravy -- superimposed on a "TV screen" that was surrounded with a wood-grain panel complete with knobs.
Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist at Swanson in 1954 and today a consultant for Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., said the tie-in to television was a key factor in the success of the new products.
"Television was just coming into homes at that time. The programming was only on about three or four hours a day, and if you had a set, you watched it when the programs were on," she said.
Most of the programming was on in the late afternoon and early evening, and people would gather around the set to watch.
"The idea was to feed them while they watched TV. A portable meal they could carry into the living room to eat while they watched TV made a lot of sense."
The dinners were a hit from the start. The company considered it a gamble when its first production order called for 5,000 turkey dinners.
Swanson beat all odds by selling 10 million dinners that year. Campbell Soup executives marveled at the instant success of Swanson dinners, and Campbell was quick to purchase Swanson in 1955.
A year later, another industry forerunner, Banquet, introduced its first frozen dinner, a fried chicken meal.
Frozen entrees, which appeared at about the same time as dinners, also began to pick up steam. Although entrees actually comprise a separate category from dinners, a look at their development over the years reveals several similarities to the history of dinners.
While Swanson was linking the tube with the tray, the Stouffer family opened a production plant, also in 1954, to make take-home versions of popular menu items found at its chain of restaurants.
The Stouffers had, in fact, entered the frozen food business a short time earlier when they began freezing popular menu items from a restaurant of theirs in the Shaker Square area of Cleveland and selling them at an adjacent retail outlet called the 227 Club.
Others were soon to follow, most notably On-Cor: first with 14-ounce entrees in 1956 and then with its now familiar 2-pound entrees in 1958.
Grocers contacted by SN said the convenience, quality and price value of frozen dinners have kept them popular over the years and should continue to do so for years to come.
"Since the development of frozen foods, TV dinners have remained in the limelight of the frozen food case," said a spokeswoman for Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif. "They are just as popular, if not more popular, today than they were 40 years ago, when they were first introduced. They continue to increase in popularity and they have strong sales." Val Vivenzio, director of frozen food and dairy at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said convenience always has been a strong point of dinners, but so has quality.
"The ones that survive are the ones where they uphold the quality. Swanson seems to have been tops in that field of upholding the quality of frozen dinners," he said.
That quality, industry veterans said, has continually been improved.
"As you think back to TV dinners of years and years ago, they were very cheap. They were a budget-type thing. Obviously the quality wasn't there, as it is today," said Jim Blackwell, frozen food buyer at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.
"I think over the years they certainly upgraded quality and they've also upgraded variety," he added. "They've got a tremendous variety, not only in TV dinners, but entrees. As you kind of got out of the mode of the little cheap TV dinner that you remember of years ago, you've gone to many upscale-type things in that category."
That shift to more upscale products brought new customers into the fold, said a spokeswoman for Kroger Co., Cincinnati.
"I think when the food became upgraded in them, and [manufacturers] became more sophisticated in their offerings, that increased their popularity. It wasn't just turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans anymore. You could get a greater variety, and they moved into an area of greater choice. I would think that increased their sales," the spokeswoman said.
Bill Romley Jr., director of produce and frozen food operations at Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., was in the grocery industry for eight years before Swanson introduced the TV dinner. What Romley said he has seen is the ascent of entrees as the next major evolutionary step after the first TV dinners. "Entrees have come up and really taken the bright spot in that area," limiting the number of SKUs for complete dinners, he noted.
Bill Vitulli, vice president of government and community relations for A&P, Montvale, N.J., in the supermarket industry for more than 50 years, remembers stores before they had frozen food sections. While other frozen food products were greeted with enthusiasm, TV dinners, he said, created much more excitement.
"They were an innovation," he said. "It was a great convenience and they were reasonably priced. It's hard to remember back 40 years, but I remember featuring A&P dinners 25 years ago at three for $1."
Vitulli has been amazed at the changes in frozen dinner offerings over the years.
"Everything you find in other areas of the store can now be found in TV dinners," he said. "If you want a meat dinner, a poultry dinner, ethnic and so on, you can get it. They can put in to dinners, combinations that just boggle the mind."
A big change took place in the category when low-calorie items were introduced. Weight Watchers entrees became available nationwide in the late 1960s, but the real impact of "healthy" foods began much later. Stouffer's launched its Lean Cuisine line in 1981 and others soon followed suit.
"What's gone on over the last six or seven years has just been remarkable. That's when Healthy Choice came in; and Stouffer's is so big and powerful," said Blackwell of Ukrop's.
"Now when people come over to the frozens section, they're buying not only for quality, but for nutritional value also," Blackwell said.
Big Y's Vivenzio agreed.
"The biggest changes in terms of the product type have been the reduced-calorie entrees that may or may not have low-salt, low-calorie and other kinds of healthy aspirations," he said.
Even the category's name has become old-hat. Although most people know exactly what's being talked about when the phrase "TV dinner" is mentioned, Swanson took the words "TV Dinner" off its packages in the 1960s.
"Packaging changes have been tremendous," said Vivenzio of Big Y. "Between the boil-in-bag and the microwave pouches, packaging has changed from the aluminum trays to the microwavable plastic trays."
Blackwell of Ukrop's, who has been in the grocery business for 31 years, said the ease or preparation of frozen dinners, a strong point in 1954, is still an asset today and has helped the category grow.