Frozen TV Dinners We Miss From Childhood

Frozen Dinners We Still Miss

Cheapism; Getty Images; Swanson Hungry-Man Turkey Pie TV Dinner, 1970's by Allen (CC BY-NC)

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TV Dinner Tonight
TV Dinner Tonight by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC)

Blah Appetit

Most people over a certain age have memories of eating frozen TV dinners. For some, it's laughing at Lucy and Ricky while chewing on a hunk of gravy-slathered turkey. For others, it's trying Polynesian food for the first time while watching the Solid Gold Dancers gyrate to the week's top 10 hits. And, while the food might not have made much of an impression, there was something about being able to watch TV while you ate — not to mention noticing your mom didn't seem totally stressed out — that left many of us with pleasant memories of what was often a less-than-pleasant meal. Read on for a little history and perspective on TV dinners, as well as some of our favorite mediocre meals from the '50s through the '90s.

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1961 Swanson Turkey TV Dinners Ad, "Trust Swanson"
1961 Swanson Turkey TV Dinners Ad, "Trust Swanson" by Classic Film (CC BY-NC)

The Birth of the Frozen TV Dinner

The frozen TV dinner's origin story begins with a half-million-pound mistake. In 1952, C.A. Swanson & Sons overestimated the number of Thanksgiving turkeys the American public would consume. When it became clear that 260 tons of frozen turkey would go unclaimed, lore has it that a Swanson sales rep named Gerry Thomas came to the rescue. Thomas took inspiration from frozen airline meals packaged on aluminum trays and suggested using these to package the turkey surplus with sides. In the next year, Swanson sold more than 10 million meals for 98 cents each, and the rest is culinarily dubious history. (Some say it was the Swansons themselves who came up with the concept.) 

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The Feminist Connection
Sherman/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Feminist Connection

TV dinners no doubt gave women more time to do things other than slaving over a hot oven, and are often listed as a possible factor in the rise of feminism. While that's debatable, the invention did launch one woman's career. A Swanson bacteriologist named Betty Cronin was put in charge of developing the product, according to Mental Floss, and had mostly "male underlings." Cronin was eventually promoted to head of product development and used her friends as taste testers; presumably because the quality of the food was less than stellar, they started making demands. "Don't bring any more of these out here unless you bring us a lot of beer, too," they told her. 

The Original: Swanson's Turkey TV Dinner

The Original: Swanson's Turkey TV Dinner

Whoever's stroke of genius they were, those first frozen turkey TV dinners came with portions of cornbread dressing, gravy, peas, sweet potatoes, and pats of butter. Chicken and beef versions soon followed. An ad for the products showed a sharply dressed housewife looking at her watch and declaring, "I'm late, but dinner won't be."

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Swanson Fried Chicken TV Dinner Box
Swanson Fried Chicken TV Dinner Box by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC)

Swanson Fried Chicken

In the early 1960s, Swanson introduced a TV dinner that came with three pieces of fried chicken, potatoes whipped with milk and butter, and "tender" mixed vegetables. Later in the decade, Swanson would introduce the "exclusive home style touch" of an apple- and peach-slices dessert to this same meal. "No wonder there's always a full house on Swanson Night," ads declared. 

Swanson Chopped Sirloin Beef

Swanson Chopped Sirloin Beef

By the time this version came out in the mid-'60s, Swanson had 11 TV dinner variations on the market, including one with fried shrimp. The sirloin beef tray came with "rich" brown gravy, buttered peas, and French fries. Swanson also debuted a Salisbury Steak and mushroom gravy dinner with corn, peas, and apple cobbler. A writer for Bon Appétit ate one 15 years after its expiration date — "and lived!" 

Swanson International Dinners

Swanson International Dinners

Apparently trying to think outside the tray, Swanson got a bit more creative around 1967 with TV dinners that seemed quite loosely inspired by the culinary traditions of other cultures. These included German, Polynesian, Italian, Mexican, and Chinese dinners. The ads promised to "bring authentic, foreign-style right to your table … in any language, you can trust Swanson." 

Chicken & Dumplings

Morton's Chicken & Dumplings

Just before the dawn of the 1970s, Morton joined the TV dinner fray with a three-course version. The meal included the usuals — buttered peas and whipped potatoes — but also a "frosty fruit salad" with bite-sized marshmallows that could be removed to thaw before putting the tray into the oven. Dessert was a "luscious walnut brownie." 

Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake with cream filling.
Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake with cream filling. by Evan-Amos (CC BY)

Morton Twinkie Supper

While other companies were trying to provide fruit-focused desserts, around 1974 Morton just got lazy, introducing TV dinners of beef patties, spaghetti, and pizza that shoved a Twinkie into the mix. What happened to the company that brilliantly combined fruit and marshmallows, or supplied a "luscious" brownie, you ask? Delicious cream filling happened, that's what. (Actually, Morton was acquired by Con Agra in the '80s.)

Vintage Ad #2,335: Libbyland Adventure Dinners
Vintage Ad #2,335: Libbyland Adventure Dinners by Jaime (CC BY-NC)

Libbyland Safari Supper

Billed as "the first frozen dinners for kids," Libbyland's packaging included pop-up animal cartoon characters. Variations included a Pirate Picnic, Sundown Supper, Sea Diver's Dinner, and Safari Supper, and each came with something called "Milk Magic." 

1956 Chun King TV Dinner Advertisement Readers Digest October 1956
1956 Chun King TV Dinner Advertisement Readers Digest October 1956 by SenseiAlan (CC BY)

Chun King Cantonese Style Dinner

The Chun King brand served up shrimp and unspecified "meat" egg rolls with a chicken chop suey and "fluffy" white rice. Interestingly, Chun King, billed as "the royalty of American-Oriental Foods," was owned by Jeno Paulucci, creator of Jeno's Pizza Rolls and frozen pizza. 

Swanson Hungry-Man Turkey Pie TV Dinner, 1970's
Swanson Hungry-Man Turkey Pie TV Dinner, 1970's by Allen (CC BY-NC)


In the '70s, Swanson introduced this larger-portion variation of the regular TV dinner, claiming it was for those who wanted to "eat like a man" and people with a "hearty appetite." Hawked in TV commercials by the likes of football Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene, it came in versions such as fish 'n' chips, Salisbury steak, fried chicken, and turkey pot pie. More than 40 years later, you can still get a microwaveable Hungry-Man dinner, albeit not without some health concerns. 

Ham Dinner

Morton Ham Dinner

This was pretty standard fare — sliced apples, buttered peas, sweet potatoes — but included a ham steak smothered in "raisin sauce." That is, apparently, still a thing that people willingly eat

Banquet Mac and Cheese
Banquet Mac and Cheese by Willis Lam (CC BY-SA)

Banquet Macaroni & Cheese Dinner

Finally, a brand that recognized that Americans just want cheese and carbs, even if it is served with the ubiquitous buttered peas and glazed carrots.  

Vintage 1973 Food Ad, Stouffer's Frozen Foods, Corn Souffle, Scalloped Potatoes, Broccoli au Gratin
Vintage 1973 Food Ad, Stouffer's Frozen Foods, Corn Souffle, Scalloped Potatoes, Broccoli au Gratin by Classic Film (CC BY-NC)

Stouffer's Frozen Dinners

A 1978 ad for the Stouffer's line of TV dinners read: "Today your husband left on a business trip. You've finally got a chance to start reading that new novel. And somehow, tonight, you don't feel like eating those leftovers. It's a good day for Stouffer's." Quite a construct for a frozen meal borne of mediocrity, and maybe too much. As The New York Times reported in 1984, Stouffer's sales plunged after 1978.

My lunch Day 21 1/26/09
My lunch Day 21 1/26/09 by Caroline Bucky (CC BY-NC)

Lean Cuisines

In 1981, Stouffer's launched a comeback with this low-cal version of the TV dinner, promoting the dubious claim that "never before have so few calories tasted so good." Lean Cuisines were huge at the time, due largely to the marketing tactic promising that those who ate them — mostly women — were, "On Your Way to Being Lean." Meals included chicken and vegetables, Oriental beef, and zucchini lasagna. Celebrities such as country singer Barbara Mandrell and actress Lynn Redgrave acted as spokespeople for the brand. 

Kid Cuisine

Kid Cuisine

Busy parents in the 1990s were urged to serve their kids these frozen dinner abominations from ConAgra that included entrees such as chicken nuggets, pizza, ravioli, and corn dogs. Each came with a "Fun Pack" of collectible stickers and games. Those who remember eating them as kids recall them being "terrible," "awful," and "disgusting."

Tyson Meal Kit

Frozen Meals of the Future

Today, more than 65 years after the invention of the TV dinner, they're still a thing, although few people call them that anymore. You can still find Lean Cuisines and Hungry-Man products in grocery store frozen aisles, and Trader Joe's is doing its best to make them actually palatable. But the real future might be in frozen meal "kits." Stouffer's has them, as do Kroger, Tyson, and a handful of others. Same deal, more 21st century name. Which means that Sept. 10 you can still celebrate "National TV Dinner Day" — because yes, that, just like raisin sauce, is a thing that exists in the world today.  

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