Frozen TV Dinners – A Cornerstone of the American Diet

A typical TV Dinner.
Image via Wikipedia

Shocking but true -  the average American eats 6 frozen meals a month.

The first TV dinner appeared in 1953 under the Swanson brand as a solution for busy moms who had begun joining the workforce and could no longer spend hours in the kitchen preparing daily meals. The dinner included turkey, corn bread and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes. It cost $0.98.

This was the beginning of a revolution. Combining an entree and two sides in a three part aluminum container that could be heated, eaten from, and then discarded proved to be a great convenience for consumers.

Read on for some fascinating facts…

To this day, convenience is top reason reason people buy frozen dinners.

The US frozen food industry sells around $30 billion worth of products annually, of which 30% (around $9 billion) are “TV dinners”.

New “healthy” formulations as well as ethnic variations are the biggest category drivers these days.

Interestingly, the frozen dinner industry considers their biggest competitor to be take out meals, not home prepared food!

There are over 300 companies marketing frozen foods. The leading brands are Stouffer’s by Nestle, including Lean Cuisine, ConAgra’s
Banquet Home-style Bakes, Kid Cuisine, Crock-Pot Classics and Marie Callender’s, and Pinnacle Foods’ Hungry Man and Swanson.

The “healthy” frozen food trend began in the mid-80′s when the CEO of Con-Agra suffered a hart attack. Upon returning to work, he could not find a frozen entree that his doctors would approve. Thus was born the “Healthy Choices” brand. The FDA regulates the use of “Healthy” in food marketing, and these meals are required to contain less than 480mg of sodium.

What you need to know:

While we like to encourage people to prepare their own dinners, Frozen dinners are not going away any time soon. So if you want the convenience of a TV dinner, please invest just a moment to choose the one that is the least detrimental to your health.

Start by checking the sodium level. Anything higher than 1000mg is totally crazy (almost half the daily allowance of 2300mg) . Look for values lower than 600mg, ideally less than 480mg. For example, Hungry Man Classic Fried Chicken has 1600mg of sodium(!), while Lean Cuisine Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta boasts only 590mg.

Then take a look at the fats and saturated fats. The Hunry Man dinner has no less than 59g of fat (90% of your daily value), 13 of which are saturated.

Additionally, most  frozen dinners pack plenty of  preservatives such as BHT (possible carcinogen), polysorbate 8, propylene glycol (used in your car’s antifreeze). Try to avoid these preservatives if possible. A Kid’s favorite – Kid Cuisine Frozen Dinner, Bug Safari, Chicken Breast Nuggets – contains no less than  BHT, Sodium Phosphate,  Yellow No. 5 , Yellow No. 6, Red No. 40, Blue No. 1, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, and Disodium Phosphate.

Sugar is also very popular, sometimes as a replacement for fat in low-fat dinners. Sugar comes in many names and forms, but an easy way to get the total is to look at the nutrition label and see how many grams are reported per serving. Every 5 grams are equivalent to 1 teaspoon! As an example, the aforementioned Kid Cuisine Frozen Dinner contains 18 grams.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you’re going to walk down that frozen dinner aisle at the supermarket, take a minute to look at the nutrition labels and choose something with a short ingredient list, sodium lower than 600mg, low saturated fats, and low sugar. Good luck !?

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  • Rob Smart

    I was surprised to read in your post that “the frozen dinner industry considers their biggest competitor to be take out meals, not home prepared food.”

    Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising since what people are looking for is a fast meal with little fuss. It makes me wonder whether innovations in food retailing that reduce steps in the process of preparing home cooked meals might be able to put a dent in this $9 billion a year industry.

    Food for thought…


    Rob Smart

  • staff

    Supermarkets already provide many shortcuts. A few examples:

    - Frozen cookie dough
    - Pre-marinated meta and poultry
    - Pancake mix
    - pre-washed spring mix

    What more?

  • Rob Smart

    Just came back to reread my comment and saw your response. You asked, “What more?”

    What I had in mind wasn’t simple things like pre-marinated meat and poultry or pre-washed spring mix. Instead, when I consider step reductions I think about every step in the process of cooking meals at home (versus reheating).

    Those steps include finding recipes, check pantries and making lists, transportation to and from stores, prepping ingredients, and cooking meals.

    The trick in my mind is finding ways to reduce or eliminate some of these steps in such a way that consumers prefer the alternative. Otherwise, the impact will be minimal.

    With that being the challenge, I’ve got to get back to work!