Frozen Dinners

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Frozen Dinners

From the 1930s to the present, frozen dinners have allowed hungry individuals, who lack the time or cooking skills to whip up nutritious meals, to pop aluminum tins conveniently into the oven (and, later, plastic trays into the microwave) and soon be dining on chicken, roast beef, or macaroni and cheese. If this resulting "instant meal" is no gourmet's delight, and not as healthy as a well-balanced home-cooked meal, at least it is piping hot.

Frozen dinners were first marketed in the late 1930s, but they became wildly popular in the years after World War II (1939–45), when American life became more fast-paced. Women in particular, who traditionally prepared the daily family meals, now were preoccupied with other, outside-the-home pursuits. They were driving their children to and from Little League (see entry under 1930s—Sports and Games in volume 2) games or music and dancing (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) classes. Eventually, they were entering the workforce themselves as a result of a combination of the late-1960s feminist movement and a changing economy that often required women to add an additional paycheck to the family bank account. As such, elaborate, home-cooked meals became a luxury—and the invention and evolution of the frozen dinner was first a godsend, and then a cultural phenomenon that revolutionized American home life.

Frozen foods must be quickly frozen; slow freezing causes irreversible damage to the molecular structure of organic material, rendering it inedible when thawed. Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956), whose frozen food empire bears his name, was the first to develop the quick-freezing process. He employed two formulas, one involving the vaporization of ammonia and the other a cold calcium-chlorate solution. Birdseye initially quick-froze vegetables, fish, and fruit in 1924. The first products bearing his company name, Birds Eye, were meats, fish, spinach, peas, raspberries, and cherries. They were marketed in 1930. Later in the decade, General Foods began selling frozen meals on a limited basis. Many consumers initially viewed such items as inferior to fresh foodstuffs. In addition, fewer than half of all American households at the time were equipped with electric refrigerators (see entry under 1910s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) or iceboxes.

During the post–World War II era, the American middle-class was expanding, refrigerators were in abundant supply, and the frozen food industry exploded. Swanson began selling frozen chicken and beef pot pies in 1951. Four years later, the company mass-marketed "TV dinners" (see entry under 1950s— Food and Drink in volume 3), so named because they were not necessarily eaten in the dining room but were often placed on "TV trays" and consumed while watching television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3). The first TV dinner, which sold for around $1, was a turkey dinner that included gravy, peas, potatoes, and cornbread. While Birds Eye specialized in individual frozen items, other companies, such as Stouffer's, Banquet, and On-Core, joined the fast-food bandwagon. Dinners were even marketed in packaging that resembled a TV set. In 1972, Swanson launched its "Hungry Man Dinner" line, which included larger helpings of meat and potatoes. In recent decades, a range of frozen items, including pizza (see entry under 1940s—Food and Drink in volume 3), cakes, pies, ethnic cuisine, dietary products, and side dishes, also became available.

In 1955, Americans purchased 70 million frozen dinners. In 1960, the number had risen to 214 million. In 1994, it was 2 billion. The American Frozen Food Institute reported that by 2001, frozen entrees were among the top ten most served dinners in American homes and that the supermarket sales of frozen dinners had reached $5.3 billion.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

"Better than TV Dinners?" Consumer Reports (March 1984): pp. 126–27, 170.

"Frozen Food Trends." American Frozen Food Institute. (accessed February 8, 2002).

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.