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A TV dinner (also called prepackaged meal, ready-made meal, ready meal, frozen dinner, frozen meal, microwave meal) is a prepackaged frozen or chilled meal that usually comes as an individual portion. It requires very little preparation and contains all the elements for a single-serving meal. A TV dinner usually consists of a cut of meat, usually beef or chicken; with a vegetable, such as peas, carrots, corn, or potatoes; and sometimes a dessert, such as a brownie or apple cobbler. The entrée could also be pasta or a common type of fish, such as Atlantic cod. Rice is a common side item.
The term TV dinner is a genericized trademark originally used for a brand of packaged meal developed in 1953 by C.A. Swanson & Sons (the name in full was TV Brand Frozen Dinner). Swanson stopped using the name "TV Dinner" in 1962; in the United States the term remains synonymous with any prepackaged dinner purchased frozen in a supermarket and heated at home.
Several smaller companies had conceived of frozen dinners earlier (see Invention section below), but the first to achieve success was Swanson. The first Swanson-brand TV Dinner was produced in the United States and consisted of a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes packaged in a tray like those used at the time for airline food service. Each item was placed in its own compartment. The trays proved to be useful: the entire dinner could be removed from the outer packaging as a unit; the aluminum tray could be heated directly in the oven without any extra dishes; and one could eat the meal directly from the same tray. The product was cooked for 25 minutes at 425 °F (218 °C) and fit nicely on a TV tray table. The original TV Dinner sold for 98 cents, and had a production estimate of 5,000 dinners for the first year. Swanson far exceeded its expectations, and ended up selling more than 10 million of these dinners in the first year of production.
The name "TV dinner" came from the shape of the tray it was served on. The main entrée was in a bigger compartment on one side of the tray and the vegetables lined up in smaller compartments on the other side. The arrangement was similar to that of the front panels of a 1950s television set: a screen on the left and speakers and control on the right. There were other theories about the name of the TV dinner. One reason was that early packaging featured the image of a TV set. Another was that many families would eat these in front of a TV set.
Much has changed since the first TV Dinners were marketed. For instance, a wider variety of main courses – such as fried chicken, pizza, Salisbury steak and Mexican combinations – have been introduced. Competitors such as Banquet and Morton began offering prepackaged frozen dinners at a cheaper price than Swanson. Other changes include:
- 1960 – Swanson added desserts (such as apple cobbler and brownies) to a new four-compartment tray.
- 1964 – Night Hawk name originated from the Night Hawk steak houses that operated in Austin, Texas from 1939 through 1994. The original "diners" were open all night catering to the late-night crowd. The restaurants produced the first frozen Night Hawk "TV dinner" in 1964.
- 1969 – The first TV breakfasts were marketed (pancakes and sausage were the favorites). Great Starts Breakfasts and breakfast sandwiches (such as egg and Canadian bacon) followed later.
- 1973 – The first Swanson Hungry-Man dinners were marketed; these were larger portions of its regular dinner products. The American football player "Mean" Joe Greene was its spokesman.
- 1986 – The first microwave oven-safe trays were marketed.
Modern-day frozen dinners tend to come in microwave-safe containers. Product lines also tend to offer a larger variety of dinner types. These dinners, also known as microwave meals, can be purchased at most supermarkets. They are stored frozen. To prepare them, the plastic cover is removed or vented, and the meal is heated in a microwave oven for a few minutes. They are convenient since they essentially require no preparation time other than the heating, although some frozen dinners may require the preparer to briefly carry out an intermediary step (such as stirring mashed potatoes midway through the heating cycle) to ensure adequate heating and uniform consistency of component items.
In the United Kingdom, pre-prepared frozen meals first became widely available in the late 1970s. Since then they have steadily grown in popularity with the increased ownership of home freezers and microwave ovens. Demographic trends such as the growth of smaller households have also influenced the sale of this and other types of convenience food. In 2003, the United Kingdom spent £5 million a day on ready meals, and was the largest consumer in Europe.
Unfrozen pre-cooked ready meals, which are merely chilled and require less time to reheat, are also popular and are sold by most supermarkets. Chilled ready meals are intended for immediate reheating and consumption. Although most can be frozen by the consumer after purchase, they can either be heated from frozen or may have to be fully defrosted before reheating.
Many different varieties of frozen and chilled ready meals are now generally available in the UK, including "gourmet" recipes, organic and vegetarian dishes, traditional British and foreign cuisine, and smaller children's meals.
The identity of the TV Dinner's inventor has been disputed. In one account, first publicized in 1996, retired Swanson executive Gerry Thomas said he conceived the idea after the company found itself with a huge surplus of frozen turkeys because of poor Thanksgiving sales. Thomas' version of events has been challenged by the Los Angeles Times, members of the Swanson family and former Swanson employees. They credit the Swanson brothers with the invention.
Either way, Swanson's concept was not original. In 1944, William L. Maxson's frozen dinners were being served on airplanes. Other prepackaged meals were also marketed before Swanson's TV Dinner. In 1948, plain frozen fruits and vegetables were joined by what were then called 'dinner plates' with a main course, potato, and vegetable. Later, in 1952, the first frozen dinners on oven-ready aluminum trays were introduced by Quaker States Foods under the One-Eye Eskimo label. Quaker States Foods was joined by other companies including Frigi-Dinner, which offered such fare as beef stew with corn and peas, veal goulash with peas and potatoes, and chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice. However, Swanson, a large producer of canned and frozen poultry in Omaha, Nebraska, was able to promote the widespread sales and adaptation of frozen dinner by using its nationally-recognized brand name with an extensive national marketing campaign nicknamed "Operation Smash" and the clever advertising name of "TV Dinner," which tapped into the public's excitement around the new device.
The freezing process tends to degrade the taste of food and the meals are thus heavily processed with extra salt and fat to compensate. In addition, stabilizing the product for a long period typically means that companies will use partially hydrogenated vegetable oils for some items (typically dessert). Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are high in trans fats and may adversely affect cardiovascular health. The dinners are almost always significantly less nutritious than fresh food and are formulated to remain edible after long periods of storage, thus often requiring preservatives such as BHT. There is, however, some variability between brands.
In recent years there has been a push by a number of independent manufacturers and retailers to make meals that are low in salt and fat and free of artificial additives. In the UK, most British supermarkets also produce their own "healthy eating" brands. Nearly all chilled or frozen ready meals sold in the UK are now clearly labeled with the salt, sugar and fat content and the recommended daily intake. Concern about obesity and government publicity initiatives such as those by the Food Standards Agency and the National Health Service have encouraged manufacturers to reduce the levels of salt and fat in ready prepared food.[improper synthesis?]
A benefit of frozen dinners is that they are usually fully cooked during preparation, and only need to be reheated by the consumer. This eliminates the possibility of undercooking by misjudging microwave powers and cooking times, although packaging warnings often state that the food must be "piping hot" before consumption. More recently, however, frozen dinners have been created that are designed to be used as a steamer, allowing rapid cooking of essentially raw ingredients (typically fish and vegetables) immediately before consumption.
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