Happy Birthday, Swanson TV Dinner…

Retro Staff Comments

In the 1920s, Clarence Birdseye developed a quick freezing process in order to preserve foods without heavily compromising flavor. In quick freezing, food is frozen very fast, so only tiny ice crystals have a chance to form. While many companies attempted to make ready-made meals, it took nearly thirty years to see real success. That’s when Swanson Foods introduced the TV dinner.

The first TV dinner was sold on September 10, 1953, and became an instant hit during a time when families gathered in living rooms to watch classic shows together. Until then, the only “compartment” tray of food was served on airlines, and they weren’t commercially available.

Early TV Dinner Packaging

The early packaging for a Swanson’s TV Dinner looked like a television set.

Chalk it up to brilliant marketing and product packaging. Swanson’s divided tray meant meat didn’t touch the peas, or the mashed potatoes. That made it easy to get the kids to eat them, too. Ad designers created a box that resembled a television set, and some commercials depicted families eating their dinner on tray tables in front of the TV.

The first dinner was a Thanksgiving meal. It included Turkey, cornbread dressing, peas and sweet potatoes. Swanson didn’t add a dessert compartment to the TV dinner until 1960 (options included apple cobbler and brownies).

The original TV dinner had a cost of $0.98 and Swanson had estimated it would sell about 5,000 dinners in the first year. Instead, it’s reported consumers gobbled up more than 10 million.

Despite its popularity, Swanson dropped the name “TV dinner” from its packaging in 1962. Though, even today, people refer to them as such.

Later the company would introduce breakfast and lunch, and in 1973 the Hungry-Man dinners were marketed, providing larger portions for the “hungry man”.

Today, ready-made meals are typically heated in the microwave (Swanson’s microwave-safe trays were marketed in 1986), but some can also be heated in the oven. There are now hundreds of kinds of “TV dinners” produced by dozens of companies. They typically take up an entire freezer aisle at the average grocery store. Unlike yesteryear, though, where the TV dinner was seen as a way to still eat as a family in the living room (or a means for a busy mom to feed the kids), they’re more a staple in our busy lives and are often eaten alone, and not in front of the television.

1955 Swanson TV Dinner “Product Line” Commercial:


Did you grow up eating the classic TV dinner? Which meal was your favorite?



Last updated: Sep 10, 2013
Filed under: Retro Food and Recipes, Retro Memories Tagged with: advertising, classic television, food