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A TV dinner is a pre-cooked, frozen dinner made for one person. The term TV dinner dates back to the Swanson Company's TV Brand Frozen Dinner that first debuted in 1953. Although TV dinner became a generic American term after Swanson stopped using the name in 1962, today's TV dinners are usually called frozen dinners or frozen meals. Most of these individual frozen meals are microwavable, although some can be reheated in a conventional oven.
Swanson's original 1953 TV Brand Frozen Dinner came in an aluminum foil tray with three sections. The main area contained sliced turkey with cornbread dressing and the two smaller compartments held frozen peas and sweet potatoes. TV dinners with main dishes such as Salisbury steak and fried chicken followed later. The fourth dessert section wasn't a part of the Swanson TV dinners until 1960 and the earliest desserts were fruit cobblers and brownies.
Swanson smartly marketed their TV Brand Frozen Dinner to a new target market -- the television watcher. Swanson's early packaging even featured a picture of a TV set. Television as a new entertainment medium began expanding tremendously in the United States in the early 1950s as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started giving broadcasting licenses to many communities. By 1955, half of all American homes had a television set. Swanson's convenient pre-cooked TV dinner allowed people to eat a hot meal together without anyone having to miss his or her favorite television show.
Although Swanson did stop using the name TV Brand Frozen Dinner in 1962, the company produced variations of their pre-cooked dinners to keep up with consumer demand. For example, in 1973 Swanson introduced The Hungry Man frozen dinner. This meal had larger portions and targeted single and divorced men with minimal cooking skills and large appetites who wanted a convenient, satisfying hot meal when they came home from work.
Many people today bring pre-cooked microwavable frozen dinners to prepare in a lunch room at work or school. The lower fat versions are popular with people trying to lose weight as the portion sizes are controlled. A TV dinner today is not likely to be in a sectioned tray, although some still are. Many frozen dinners now are one item meals such as lasagna, pasta with vegetables, pizza, meat pies and macaroni and cheese.
I was glad when the more modern frozen dinners came out, like Healthy Choice and Budget Gourmet. I could just pop those TV dinner trays into the microwave and have a decent meal in minutes. The original TV dinners had to be cooked in an oven for a while, and the portions were sometimes skimpy.
Every once in a while I get nostalgic for an old-school TV dinner and I'll get a Hungry Man dinner from the grocery store. I'd say the quality of the food is much better now, and the portion sizes are bigger.
I remember the original Swanson's TV dinners, and how much I didn't like them at the time. It was so hard to get the fried chicken and the vegetables done at the same time. By the time the chicken got crispy, the vegetables would be steamed to death. I don't even want to discuss those mashed potatoes. If a TV dinner had frozen corn in it, then it was okay. The diced carrots and peas looked impossibly orange and green.
I didn't have a problem with eating the individual frozen items by themselves. We'd often have frozen sliced turkey with gravy or frozen fried chicken. It just seemed like they weren't quite the same when they were inside a TV dinner.
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