While you may not think America’s most celebrated homemade holiday feast has anything to do with a modest frozen TV dinner, the two forever share a slice of history. The first mass produced TV dinner was, in fact, literally made from Thanksgiving leftovers.
As the story goes, in 1952, someone in charge of purchasing at Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons seriously overestimated how much turkey Americans would consume that Thanksgiving. With 520,000 pounds of frozen turkey to unload, a company salesman named Gerry Thomas had a light bulb idea.
Thomas, having been inspired by the neatly packaged Pan Am Airlines airplane food, ordered 5,000 aluminum trays. He recruited women, armed with scoops and spatulas, to run his culinary assembly line, and work began making mini Thanksgiving feasts full of turkey, corn-bread dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes, thus creating the first-ever TV dinner.
The original TV Dinners sold for 98 cents and came in a foil-covered, aluminum tray ready to be heated in the oven. The cardboard box the meal came in was designed to look like a television set. Each food item came in its own compartment. Each tray was cooked for 25 minutes at 425ºF — a real time saver for the day.
An estimated 10 million meals were sold that first year.
In a 1999 Associated Press article, Thomas humbly said, “I really didn’t invent the dinner. I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name, and developed some unique packaging.”
The name “TV dinner” was, in fact, coined by Thomas. At the time, televisions were a status symbol, and Thomas thought the name conveyed their major selling point, convenience. Swanson executives agreed.
While the origins of the frozen dinner are occasionally disputed (The Library of Congress attributes the TV dinner to three different sources: Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc.), the name “TV Dinner” is likely the secret that lead to the meals runaway success. It made the meals an everyday household item that gave housewives more free time, while tying it firmly to the tv craze.
Much has changed since TV dinners first hit the market. A wide variety of main dishes — such as Salisbury steak and spaghetti — have been introduced, as well as different cuisines including Mexican and Chinese. Desserts were added in 1960 and the first breakfast varieties came to market in 1969. In 1986, the first microwaveable trays were introduced.