What Is a TV Dinner and What Was the First One?

What is a TV dinner? Let’s dig into the history of this undeniable piece of American culinary history. 

It’s a Saturday night in 1994. Your best friend comes for a sleepover. The plan: watch the SNICK lineup of The Adventures of Pete and Pete, The Ren and Stimpy Show, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? and then attempt to stay awake long enough for Saturday Night Live. The menu: Kid Cuisine—tepid chicken nuggets, soggy fries, and a boiling hot fudge brownie. At this moment, life is perfect.

If this engages your nostalgia, you aren’t alone. The combination of TV and dinner has been around since the 1950s. The only difference is your parents (or grandparents) were watching Lucy and Desi instead of Pete and Pete. But TV dinners are more than just dinner in front of a TV. What is a TV dinner? And who invented the TV dinner? Read on to find out. 

What is a TV dinner?

A TV dinner refers to any pre-packaged, frozen meal that can be heated up in the microwave or the oven. Meant to serve a single person, the container is partitioned into several sections, each holding the individual parts of the dinner; entree, starch, vegetable, and dessert are typical inclusions.

While the original versions started this way and continue to exist, the TV dinner has evolved over time as tastes have changed. Sometimes it’s a “bowl” instead of a plate, mixing all the ingredients together a la a Chipotle order. And while the original TV dinners were more American classics like turkey, chicken, or Salisbury steak, the modern versions encompass far more cuisine types, including Indian, Mexican, Italian, and Chinese, to name a few.

Who invented the TV dinner?

There’s a disagreement about the TV dinner’s origins. Who knew that everyone wanted a piece of this action? The first version of the frozen, pre-packaged dinner popped up in 1945 when, according to the Library of Congress, a company called Maxson Food Systems, Inc. created something called “Strato-Plates,” which consisted of a meat, vegetable, and potato, each separated into its own section of a plastic plate. These Strato-Plates were used by the military and eaten as dinner service on commercial flights. But can it count as a TV dinner if it’s eaten in the air and not at least in the vicinity of a TV in someone’s home?

Commercial availability of TV dinner-style frozen meals began in 1947 when a Philadelphia company called FrigiDinner offered them. Availability spread in 1952 when another Pennsylvania company called Quaker State Foods started marketing a frozen dinner called “One-Eyed Eskimo” to customers east of the Mississippi. In 1953, Swanson’s was the first to sell and market the frozen meal as a TV dinner. The name stuck and they exploded in popularity. 

Why is it called TV dinner?

It’s called a TV dinner because it could be eaten in front of the TV. 

The 1950s were marked by commercial innovation. Perhaps the most impactful was the television which, by 1955, could be found in half of all American homes. Replacing the strictly audio medium of the radio, you couldn’t just put the TV on in the living room and enjoy it while eating dinner in the dining room. 

But, thanks to the ease of TV dinners, you didn’t have to miss that must-watch television show. You and the family could gather around the warm glow of the tube while still having quality dinner time together, just at separate little TV trays.

The TV dinner became an easy and cheap—Swanson’s TV dinners cost less than a buck—option for the busy homemaker who still wanted their family to have a square meal. Not to mention those men living the bachelor life, who could easily toss a TV dinner in the oven after a long day of work, smoking cigarettes, and drinking whiskey.

What was the first TV dinner?

Swanson’s first TV dinner was a Thanksgiving feast: turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and frozen peas. The story goes that Swanson had way too many turkeys after a weak sales performance, so their recipe was born of using leftover stock.

Even though we’ve come a long way in the frozen food industry, classic dishes like this are still dominant, they are just sometimes marketed differently. There’s Kid Cuisine for the little ones, and Hungry Man for big, sloppy dinners, and Banquet meals for only the classiest of at-home diners. There’s a TV dinner out there for everyone. What a wonderful world it is.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!

Your thoughts.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *