Although the process of freezing food had been around since the end of the 19th century, by the early 1950s refrigeration technology had advanced far enough to be affordable for the average family.
By 1953, 33 million families owned a refrigerator, and the manufacturers were gradually increasing the size of the freezer compartments in them.
In addition, families were looking for convenience at dinnertime.
Swanson Foods was a large, American producer of canned and frozen poultry. In 1954, the company adapted some of the freezing techniques pioneered by Clarence Birdseye, a segmented aluminium tray (that was being used for airline food at the time) turkey, potatoes, vegetables, a clever name and a huge advertising budget to create the first “TV dinner” (the name was coined by its inventor, Gerry Thomas).
Within a year, Swanson had sold 13 million of the dinners and American consumers couldn’t resist the convenience – the TV dinner could be ready after “only” 25 minutes in the oven.
Competitors were quick to jump on the bandwagon and by the end of the 1950s, Americans were spending half a billion dollars on the convenient meals every year.
Prepared frozen meals first became widely available in the UK in the 1970s with companies such as Birdseye at the helm.
The British still eat more “ready meals” than anywhere else in Europe, consuming on average one per week (followed by France, Germany and Spain).
The arrival of the microwave revolutionised the TV dinner industry and the first microwave oven-safe trays were marketed in 1986, with the long-used metal tray swapped for a plastic one suitable for microwaves. This soon became the industry standard.
By the 1980s, diners were becoming more health-conscious and the Lean Cuisine brand (then owned by Nestle) began in 1981.
The TV dinner has had a lasting impact on society.
Today, two-thirds of Americans eat their dinner in front of the television and a study by the Co-op showed that in Britain, more than half of the population have a screen present during mealtimes, with the average dinnertime lasting just 21 minutes.