These old-school delights — main course, a side or two, and sometimes dessert (or even soup) — came in compartmented aluminum trays and were cooked in the oven, which somehow gave the retro dinners a charm that you don’t quite get from today’s microwave meals.
For some families, TV dinners were a special treat, but for many, it seems the trend represented a decline in the quality of dinnertime fare.
As you’ll see below, at least one newspaper retrospective (published in the 1970s, on the 25th anniversary of the TV dinner phenomenon) was less than glowing.
It’s kind of amusing that the writer alluded to the likely demise of frozen dinners, given that our current-day frozen food aisles are stuffed with a huge variety of frozen meal options — even if we don’t call them TV dinners anymore.
In fact, in some places you can still get frozen Salisbury steak, turkey dinner, fried chicken or meatloaf meals for as low as $1.99 (!), as remarkable as that is.
But before you hurry off to enjoy (or not) the modern-day versions of these classics, let’s take a moment to drool over these oh-so-tempting retro advertisements for TV dinners from back when they were a post-war novelty.
And tell us in the comments how you remember the TV dinners of your childhood? Were they a dreaded part of your dinner routine, or an occasional treat that you remember with delight?
The history of TV dinners, 25 years on (1976)
By Paul Weingarten, The Chicago Tribune – November 25, 1976
TV dinners serve up traditional turkey, too
The final Thanksgiving before the coming of TV dinners was Nov. 22, 1951 — a brisk, gray day. Chicagoans expected rain, perhaps snow, by morning.
Families gathered for the traditional repast of turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and hot pumpkin pie. Those without families had the choice of a dole at a local mission, or yesterday’s reheated meatloaf.
Meanwhile, the first great assault on American cooking and eating habits was waiting in the wings. Within months, thawing would come to mean more than just warming yourself after a wintry stroll. It would become an essential preliminary to cooking dinner in many homes.
TURKEY DINNER, THEN considered a special “holiday only” treat, would be knocked from its perch to become routine weekly fare in middle-class homes nationwide.
It began in January, 1952, when the first 25 cases of frozen turkey dinners were shipped to stores in Omaha. It had turkey with cornbread stuffing, gravy, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes in butter and orange sauce.
The dinner weighed 12 ounces and sold for $1.09. On the package, the dinner was pictured on the screen of a miniature television, complete with tuning dials.
The nation’s first frozen dinner was dubbed “TV dinner” by Gilbert Swanson, chairman of the board of the family’s poultry business, C. A. Swanson & Sons.
One night at a party, Swanson and a few guests watched Ted Mack’s “Family Hour,” sponsored by the company, while other guests made merry. One guest commented that it looked odd for Swanson and the others to be balancing trays on their laps so they could eat dinner while watching television.
IT REMINDED SWANSON of the frozen prepared dinner his company soon would market. Why not, he wondered aloud, call it a “TV dinner?” He was politely ignored. His guests continued watching television.
But the TV dinner was to become synonymous with frozen prepared dinners, as Kleenex has come to mean tissue, and Jello, gelatin.
The initial $1.09 price was too high for the middle class. But soon it settled to 59 cents, and the frozen dinner was welcomed by middle-class homemakers as the first blow for their emancipation from the kitchen.
Thanksgiving TV dinners
While television has become a Thanksgiving staple, especially for football fans, the dinner it inspired has developed a curious image.
For some, the frozen dinner signaled a family quarrel, or Mom’s late return home. They remember choking down strangely metallic-tasting peas, grayish, crusty mashed potatoes, and limp slivers of soggy turkey.
They gag at the memory of a gimmicky and tasteless substitute for home cooking, and they wince at the thought of thousands of lonely Americans who will pull a TV dinner, preferably turkey, from the freezer on Thanksgiving afternoon, heat it, and give thanks in solitude.
TV dinner history & the joy of frozen meals
FOR OTHERS, the frozen dinner was a mysterious and different treat, perhaps saved for a time when otherwise strict parents would allow children to eat dinner while watching television.
They recall the dinners as a culinary delight — something Mom could never match. The sizzling foil, neat compartments of food, and bold new tastes stick in their minds.
The recession, combined with changing attitudes about cooking and convenience foods, has taken a bite out of the $600 million a year industry. Last year, Americans ate 557 million pounds of frozen dinners, compared with 590 million pounds in 1974. Few are indifferent about frozen dinners.
Some call the dinner the precursor of the fast-food revolution, the progenitor of the “junk food” habit. Even for many convenience food junkies, the dinners carry the stigma of being “artificial.” Moreover, many now see cooking as a leisure pastime rather than a chore.
In addition, there has been a dramatic shift in the statistical profile of frozen-dinner eaters. An industry study shows frozen dinners now are eaten most frequently by those 65 or over and 18 to 25 years old, blacks or nonwhites, those with an annual income of less than $5,000, and families where the homemaker is employed part-time or full-time.
Looking back on a quarter century of vintage TV dinners
ON THE EVE OF ITS 25th anniversary, the original TV dinner no longer has that name, or the miniature television screen on the package. It weighs a half-ounce less, and inflation has pushed the price to 79 cents.
The dinner has lost ground over the last few years, partly because the portions aren’t large enough for most adult appetites.
Although the new larger-portion dinners have picked up some of the slack, it is questionable that the dinner will ever regain its former stature.
Most stores report negligible increases in turkey TV dinner sales near Thanksgiving, but Dominick’s Finer Foods stores maintain a larger stock of the dinners, and a wider shelf display.
The prospect of eating a TV dinner on Thanksgiving is again split. For those who detest TV dinners, the prospect of having one on Thanksgiving is only slightly better than fasting.
For loyalists, a Thanksgiving TV dinner could mean no noisy relatives and children, no arguments about whether to watch football games, and no frazzled nerves or piles of dirty dishes afterward.
Turkey with all the trimmings, ready in 25 minutes (1955)
No thawing necessary with scrumptious Swanson individual TV dinners.
Beef pot roast (1955)
A frozen beef pot roast dinner complete, with little brown potatoes. No cooking for you! No dishes to do! The whole delicious dinner, gravy and all, comes deep-frozen in individual foil-covered trays.
Just pop them in the oven (no thawing needed), heat for 25 minutes, and dinner’s ready! … What a meal! Perfect for sudden guests. Keep several in your freezer. You’ll find them at frozen food counters now.
Vintage Morton TV dinners and freezer meals (1959)
Morton “Old Kentucky Recipes” demand prize, premium fixin’s… just as you do. Thick, juicy slices of turkey cooked to a tender turn… heaped high over a moist and savory dressing… with “Old Kentucky” giblet gravy over all. Buttered peas and whipped potatoes round it out… just heat and serve them proudly!
Vintage 1950s Rosarita Mexican food TV dinners
A Mexican meal in minutes! …the cooking is done for you by Rosarita!
HERE IS MEXICAN-STYLE MAGIC! Complete dinners with no preparation, no mixing, no pots and pans, not even a dish to wash! Rosarita does the cooking!
These wonderful, economical frozen dinners are cooked in our spotless kitchens under U. S. Government supervision, expertly seasoned, ready to heat and serve in individual, disposable aluminum trays.
Try the Mexican Style Dinner or the Enchilada Dinner shown above. Enchiladas filled to bursting with creamy, melted cheddar cheese, a touch of onions and our famous Enchilada Sauce. Tamale with the full, sunny flavor of Mexican cooking. Refried Beans, seasoned to the peak of goodness. Plump, fluffy Spanish Rice with our own tantalizing seasonings and sauce.
Made in the U. S. A. for American tastes, Rosarita frozen or canned foods are not too hot — not too bland — just right with a true Mexican flavor your whole family will enjoy.
Vintage TV dinners: Fried chicken (1961)
Trust Swanson… they know the special secret of tender-crisp fried chicken.
You get back to real fried chicken in Swanson TV Brand Dinners… juicy, tender chicken, fried golden brown, and frozen by experts. Three preferred pieces, potatoes whipped with milk and butter, and tender mixed vegetables.
Old Swanson brand TV dinners: Hash, hot dogs & spaghetti (1960s)
NEW! CORNED BEEF HASH DINNER with apple slices and peas in butter sauce
NEW! BEANS & FRANKS DINNER with apple slices, old-fashioned dinner roll
NEW! SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS DINNER with apple slices and peas in butter some
Folks have liked them so well — for so long — that we just naturally decided to bring them to you as Swanson Dinners.
Now Swanson sweetens up this famous fried chicken dinner with apple & peach slices (1968)
Only the best parts of the chicken, tender and crispy brown. Creamy whipped potatoes. Mixed vegetables in butter sauce for extra flavor.
And for an extra homey touch, sweet apple and peach slices. No wonder there’s always a full house on Swanson Night.
Who else gives you all-beef sirloin in a frozen dinner?
There’s no comparison! Only a Swanson TV Brand Dinner boasts a tender, juicy all-beef sirloin like this! Tender peas, too, and French fries that set a new high in crispy good flavor.
Vintage TV dinners with chicken noodle soup (1965)
Everything from soup to dessert in a 3 course frozen dinner from Swanson
Only Swanson gives you a complete Salisbury Steak Dinner like this. Just look at all the good things you get. Whet your appetite with Campbell’s famous Chicken Noodle Soup. Tender chicken and melt-in-your-mouth egg noodles abound in the rich, golden broth.
The entree is savory Salisbury Steak with a delicately flavored mushroom gravy. Green peas in seasoned butter sauce. Whole potatoes whipped with fresh milk and creamery butter. Apple-Apricot Crisp is the dessert. A delightful dish of spicy fruit with a crunchy topping.
It’s a complete dinner with everything from soup to dessert. Enjoy all five 3 Course Dinners: Salisbury Steak, Beef, Turkey, Fried Chicken, and New Mixed Seafood Grill.
Swanson TV Brand Fried Shrimp Dinner (1960s)
Trust Swanson for the best shrimp money can buy — fried crisp and tender
Now you can enjoy the delicate flavor of ocean shrimp,butterfly-cut, in a Swanson TV Brand Fried Shrimp Dinner. Swanson selects only the fanciest shrimp, then captures their ocean-fresh flavor through quick freezing. Enriched breading and careful deep frying give the shrimp that light, golden crispness.
To round out the treat: special cocktail sauce, tangy and subtly spiced. Crispy French fries. Peas in butter sauce.
Vintage TV dinner from 1965 with turkey, peas & mashed potatoes (1965)
You get going fast with a good hot meal (like this tender turkey with all the trimmings) and spend the free time as you please.
Frozen International vintage TV dinners (1967)
A world away from the everyday… Italian (lasagna with meat and ricotta cheese), Chinese (chicken chow mein and fried rice with egg), Mexican (a beef enchilada and two beef tamales) & German (sauerbraten and spaetzle) dinners
How do you like your meatloaf? (1968)
Topped with tomato sauce…or lavished with brown gravy? Only Swanson gives you a choice! Trust Swanson for two deliciously different meat loaf dinners. Choose your favorite for tonight.
With tomato sauce: A savory meatloaf dinner with tender green beans, golden hashed brown potato nuggets, and a Swanson exclusive — a chocolate nut brownie as an added sweet touch.
With brown gravy: A complete 3-course meatloaf dinner with Campbell’s Chicken with Rice soup, whipped potatoes, fancy mixed vegetables in seasoned sauce, and the perfect dessert for a delightful meal — apple cake cobbler.
Classic Swanson TV dinners from 1968
Now Swanson brightens up this chopped sirloin dinner with a fluffy blueberry muffin. (Almost makes a party out of “Swanson Night”)
Morton vintage TV dinners: Chicken & dumplings (1969)
What a great, cool way to start the meal! A frosty fruit salad with bite-size marshmallows. So easy to thaw and serve. Ready to eat by the time you take the rest of the meal out of the oven!
The complete meal includes: tender chunks of chicken, light, airy dumplings in rich gravy, garden peas, buttery whipped potatoes, and dessert… a luscious walnut brownie. Prepared with great time and care.
Now Swanson cheers up this tender Turkey Dinner with cranberry sauce. (Let’s hear it for “Swanson Night”)
Tender, moist white and dark meat, gravy and Pepperidge Farm dressing. Creamy whipped potatoes. Peas in butter sauce for extra flavor. A little something extra to cheer about — tangy cranberry sauce. Hooray! It’s almost dinnertime.
Banquet fried chicken frozen dinner (1972)
For these vintage TV dinners: “Heat and serve” isn’t the best part (eating is)
The first time you bought a Banquet dinner you were looking for something quick and easy. Right? Then you discovered (surprise!) that it was good too.
Maybe it is surprising that something as quick and easy as a frozen dinner can taste so good. Until you know the philosophy at Banquet: we think good food is more important than quick food. Or easy food.
And we think you think so too. Convenience and goodness make a great combination. But if we ever had to sacrifice one of them now you know which it would be.
Banquet brand Salisbury steak TV dinner (1971)
Chun King Chinatown-style frozen dinners with two entrees (1975)
You’ll be delighted by the complementary tastes of two entrees, new Shrimp Chow Mein & Pepper Oriental Dinner (8 full ounces of entree in all). Delicious and distinctively different Shrimp Chow Mein with succulent whole shrimp, PLUS a brand new entree, Pepper Oriental (juicy tender beef, crisp vegetables, cooked in Chun King’s exclusive sauce).
To complete this meal we’ve included our own specially prepared fried rice, and two crunchy Chun King Egg Rolls. And for even more variety, try our other Chinatown Style Dinner-Chicken Chow Mein & Sweet and Sour Pork, too.
Swanson frozen breakfast in aluminum TV dinner trays (1971)
Swanson makes it easy to send him off with a good hot breakfast. Send everybody out happy and satisfied. It’s easy with Swanson Frozen Breakfasts. Pop into the oven for 20 minutes. Don’t even pre-heat.
Pancakes and sausage patties. French toast and sausage patties. Scrambled eggs, sausage patty and country-style fried potatoes. Add juice and milk and you’ve got a hot nourishing breakfast! Thanks to Swanson.
Libbyland Adventure Dinners with the foods kids like (1971)
The Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon) December 15, 1971, Wed
Libbyland Adventure Dinners are the first frozen dinners just for kids. Each one has its own adventure carton filled with the foods kids are reported to like best.
These unusual dinners are designed to make mealtime more fun for children and mothers by offering portions of foods kids will eat and seasoned especial-ly to their tastes. Plus a clever puzzle-game on the folding carton, which opens to form a clever serving tray.
Libbyland adventures begin with a Sundown Supper of a hamburger on a bun, beans and franks in tomato sauce, buttered corn, French fries and chocolate pudding for dessert. Also included in each dinner is a surprise flavor of Milk Magic flavoring mix to turn milk into fun flavors that cows never dreamed of.
For lunch, there’s a Libbyland Pirate Picnic, a hot dog, macaroni shells and meatballs in tomato sauce, corn, potato puffs and chocolate pudding. Each 11-ounce square meal for kids takes about 25 minutes in the oven to heat and serve. Libbyland Adventure Dinners cost 69 cents each.
Libbyland Adventure dinners with the kids food like… and the convenience busy mothers look for
Vintage old-fashioned fried chicken TV dinner (1955)
Remember how Mom used to get up early every Sunday to fix a scrumptious chicken dinner? We do… so we’ve patterned our newest TV dinner after that good, old-fashioned feast.
MODERN-DAY IDEAS: Top 10 budget-friendly freezer meals you can make
Vintage Swanson brand TV dinners/pie (1957)
Try the oven-quick beef dinner that tastes home-cooked. Tender, lean slices of beef… savory beef gravy…3, not 2, vegetables: buttered peas, corn sauteed in butter, and little new potatoes… never was there so much good eating in a frozen dinner!
Swanson frozen beef dinner (1962)
Specially selected cuts of lean beef in natural gravy. Only a Swanson TV Brand Beef Dinner could taste this good!
Why? Because one of the cooking secrets Swanson knows is how to prepare beef so that it’s really juicy and tender.
Trust Swanson… They know the secret of juicy, tender beef (1961)
… Special for flavory beef, made even better by skillful Swanson cookery. Special for three garden vegetables… sweet golden corn, tender peas, little browned potatoes.
12 kinds of vintage TV dinners (1961)
There’s no comparison! Only Swanson brings you such a tempting array of your favorite dishes… all generous hearty helpings… all cooked the way you like them best.
- Fried chicken
- Loin of pork
- Chopped sirloin beef
- Macaroni and cheese
- Sugar-cured ham
- Fried shrimp
- Filet of haddock
- Swiss steak
- Meat loaf
- Creamed chicken
Vintage Chun King Chinese food TV dinner (1957)
New hit for busy holiday time… Chun King Frozen Cantonese Dinner. A complete oriental meal all ready to pop in the oven
IT’S A HOLIDAY IN ITSELF — this a delightfully different, no-work dinner. Three of those wonderful Chun King American-Oriental foods all dished up for you on a shiny serving tray.
And look at all you get: Two Cantonese egg rolls made from delicate little fresh shrimp, meat, vegetables and fresh eggs wrapped in crispy-thin posh, Famous Chicken Chop Suey with the big pieces of tender chicken and almonds. Fluffy Oriental white rice. Sound good for tonight. . . and for those holiday busy-times?
This Cantonese Dinner is only one of many Chun King frozen delicacies — everything from chicken chow mein to egg rolls. Chun King is the name that’s bringing new excitement to frozen food cabinets. Look for it when you shop. The Royalty of American-Oriental Foods.
Swanson frozen TV dinner with turkey, apples & fries (1963)
Enjoy the many different kinds of Swanson TV Brand Dinners… for the finest meats and poultry and seafood found in any frozen dinners.
Frozen Swiss steak dinner with gravy, green beans & potatoes (1960)
Trust Swanson – Their Swiss steak is the kind you can cut with a fork
There’s no comparison … and no mistaking a Swanson TV Brand Swiss Steak Dinner! The lean, juicy beef is so tender and flavorful.
Served up with rich brown gravy, green beans, and buttered whipped potatoes. For good frozen dinners, trust Swanson!