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Who Invented the TV Dinner?

February 24, 2021 in History

By Aaron Randle

It came. It thawed. It conquered. Along the way, the frozen meal in a box had multiple creators.

TV dinners—those frozen, pre-cooked and pre-portioned meals that can be reheated and ready to eat in minutes—became an American culinary staple in the mid 20th century. But the true origin of this quarter-trillion-dollar industry may never be fully unwrapped.

TV dinners may not have emerged from factory ovens until the 1950s, but the industry’s pre-heating stage began as early as 1925. That was when naturalist and entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye developed and commercialized a method for quickly freezing fish. His epiphany came after living among the indigenous Inuit people in Canada and learning their food preservation skills.

Americans had been eating commercially frozen meat for nearly half a century, but the food was unpopular with consumers. Predominant methods of slow-freezing meats, poultry and fish typically caused them to lose their flavor and texture while thawing. With Birdseye’s double-belt, flash-freezing technology however, fleshy foods retained their original freshness, texture and flavor.

By the late 1930s, Birdseye had applied his patented technology to vegetables as well, creating the foundation for the modern American frozen food industry. But the marketplace wasn’t ready. Few American consumers had iceboxes in their homes. And refrigeration advancements still lagged on the commercial side, with insulated vehicles and sufficiently refrigerated supermarkets still rare.

READ MORE: How the Modern Frozen Food Industry Took Inspiration from the Inuits

Precursors to the TV Dinner

Worker surveys boxes of Bird’s Eye frozen foods as they move along a conveyor belt, c. 1922.

World War II accelerated the use of frozen meals. In 1944, Maxson Food Systems Inc. used Birdseye’s flash-freezing technology to create frozen pre-packaged dinners to be sold exclusively to military and civilian air carriers. The meals, called “Strato-Plates” or “Sky Plates,” consisted of a partitioned serving of meat, a vegetable and a potato, reheated aboard the planes in Maxson “Whirlwind Electric Ovens,” a precursor to the convection oven. Founder W.L. Maxson planned to expand his company’s Strato-Plates to a wider consumer market, but died before the plan took off.

In 1947, entrepreneur Jack Fisher placed pre-frozen meals in aluminum trays and called them “Fridgi-Dinners.” Fisher marketed the meals exclusively to bars and taverns looking for a way to feed hungry patrons without hiring cooks. Though inching closer to the American consumer, the dinners remained outside the home.

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