TV Dinners Were Not Always Microwaveable

Is there anything more comforting than a home-cooked meal? The kind that mom prepared so it's hot and ready by the time everyone in the family gets home. The table is set, all the basic food groups are represented, and there are smiles all around, while Fido waits on the floor, hoping to snag a fallen roll.

For the most part, this just isn't the typical American's reality. There are now two working parents with children in multiple activities, busy singles, latch-key teenagers, and tired night shifters. It's no wonder quickly prepared ready meals are still popular.  For the most part, one simply unwraps the portion-controlled tray, pops it in the microwave, and, minutes later, a satisfying meal is served. According to Statista, 127.92 million Americans consumed frozen dinners (a.k.a.TV dinners, a.k.a. microwave dinners) in 2020. Indeed this figure had much to do with the COVID-19 pandemic which saw restaurants close and Americans staying at home. Supermarket News reports that frozen food sales increased by 21% over 2019 sales.

Food companies have made our meals incredibly simple with an impressive variety of frozen options for every taste and diet imaginable. Take a walk through the freezer section of the grocery store and see for yourself — entire aisles are now devoted to the king of convenience food. Consumers are so accustomed to these meal options that it's hard to believe that before the late 1980s, microwave meals weren't a thing. To be clear, frozen meals certainly existed, but they weren't meant for the microwave.

Pass the oven mitts

Per, frozen dinners came to the direct consumer market in 1949 when Frozen Dinners Inc. began selling the dinners exclusively in the Pittsburgh area. It wasn't until the early 50s however, that Swanson brought the meals to the mass market. The company's first frozen meal consisted of frozen, pre-cooked turkey slices plus cornbread stuffing and sweet potatoes, all placed in an aluminum tray. Trays were baked in the oven for 25 minutes and ready to be enjoyed. The convenience of the trays allowed the meals to be eaten while enjoying an unprecedented new invention in American households: the television (via Smithsonian Magazine).

It wasn't long until companies like Stouffer's and Banquet (now a powerhouse among popular frozen food brands) entered the game and TV dinners became a billion-dollar industry (per America's love affair with the popular oven-baked trays continued for decades until the next big thing came about. Per Smithsonian Magazine, the Campbell Soup Company invented microwave-safe trays in 1986 which brought the cooking time of frozen, pre-cooked meals down to mere minutes. Some say the quality of the meals suffered with this change, but time is a precious thing that, often, trumps everything else. 

With the lasting effects of the COVID pandemic continuing even today, it's no wonder that people continue to spend more time at home. Therefore, the popularity of TV dinners is likely to stick around for some time.