Thanksgiving dinner
Source: Getty Images

Gobble Gobble! Thanksgiving Leftovers Basically Birthed the Entire TV Dinner Industry


Nov. 23 2021, Published 4:21 p.m. ET

It's safe to say that there are a fair amount of modern conveniences that most people just take for granted in day-to-day life. Case in point: frozen dinners. The market for affordable, filling, and easy food has boomed over the last half-century, and the market for what can be frozen and sold at supermarkets has grown exponentially in that time.

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However simple and normal as it may seem to grab a frozen dinner, that convenience was not available to people just a few short decades ago. Believe it or not, the entire industry's birth came less out of desire and more out of desperation. Keep reading to find out how Thanksgiving leftovers formed the basis for the entire TV dinner industry as it exists today.

TV dinner
Source: Getty Images
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TV dinners and Thanksgiving leftovers are more intertwined than you might think.

The history of the TV dinner can be traced back to 1953 and the C.A. Swanson & Sons food company. Someone working there at the time reportedly miscalculated the number of turkeys that would be needed for that year's Thanksgiving festivities, resulting in a truly absurd surplus of birds. Faced with an excess of around 10 refrigerated railroad cars stuffed with 260 tons of turkeys, Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas had a genius idea to move the product.

Inspired by the sleek and popular airplane meals offered at the time, Gerry pitched to Swanson executives that the company take all of the excess turkey and package them in small aluminum containers alongside corn bread, gravy, peas, and sweet potatoes to be sold frozen at supermarkets nationwide.

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The dinners were an almost-instant hit. Priced at 98 cents per tray, about ten million turkey TV dinners were sold in 1954 alone. They were marketed very well, targeting the chic business class who needed a good meal but didn't have the time to toil in the kitchen. TV dinners also did exceptionally well due to the rise in popularity of the TV.

TV dinner
Source: Getty Images
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In the 1950s, Americans were spending more and more time gathering around the television, and the proliferation of this technology allowed for a new normal to be established where families enjoyed their evening meals while watching a show together. The synergy of the technology and the convenient, easily palatable dinner offerings turned a last-minute idea to sell excess turkeys into one of the biggest staples of the food industry today: frozen dinners.

A lot has changed in the time since the invention of TV dinners. Today, Swanson, which was bought out by Pinnacle Foods, only retains a small fraction of the total frozen dinner market. According to Allied Market Research, the whole industry was valued around $291.8 billion in 2019, and may end up reaching around $404.8 billion by 2027.

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