The High-Flying Origins of the Frozen TV Dinner

Tom Blank of Weird History Food recounts the high-flying origins of frozen TV dinners, noting that its invention took place long before others took credit for it.

The Frozen TV dinner is one of those game-changing innovations that has more than one party claiming they invented it Gilbert and Clark Swanson of the Swanson brand claimed they invented the TV dinner in 1953 but history shows that their marketing department was really stretching the truth.

The actual inventor was William L. Maxson, a New Jersey veteran who grew more cauliflower in his garden than he could eat. Rather than throw it away, he seasoned the excess and then froze it. When he revisited the frozen cauliflower a year later, and it tasted good, he came up with the idea to package frozen food. He first presented the Naval Air Transport Service with his frozen, pre-packaged meals, and the idea caught on.

Maxson approached the Navy. Navy officials love the idea of light compact meals that cost pennies to make because aircraft carriers are pretty expensive now instead of receiving the usual canned mystery meat compressed cereal biscuits and cigarettes enlisted personnel on the aircraft of the Naval Air transport service would be served hot meals with food that looked smelled and tasted surprisingly good and just in time for World War II.

He also remarketed his dinners to private sector airlines. The frozen dinners became Sky Plates for Pan Am and were defrosted with a machine of Maxon’s design that was the predecessor to the air-fryer. The Sky Plate became so popular that many wanted it for their homes.

Maxson agreed to an exclusive deal with Pan-American Airways to serve the exact same Frozen military Meals to domestic passengers with civilian packaging and as news of his revolutionary invention began making its way to the public it was only a matter of time before the public wanted Sky plates for home consumption. so in September of 1946 one year after World War II was over Max and rebranded Sky plate as the Strato-Meal.

Soon, competitors, such as Quaker State Foods and Swanson, flooded the market and even tried to take credit for Maxson’s invention.

Swanson employees and family heirs who were around back then stated in interviews that it was Gilbert and Clark Swanson who came up with the ideam not Thomas but the truth is neither party did. the Swanson company just took Maxim’s Concept in Quaker State’s Foods all-aluminum tray and repackaged it in a great looking box. The only reason anyone believed Swanson’s story is because it was a multi-million dollar company with an established name and a bigger marketing budget.

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.