The panko-breaded pork cutlet, served old-school-style with a mushroom and onion gravy, corn, and mashed potatoes, is “one of our favorite things,” says chef Kate Williams, owner of Karl’s in Detroit’s Siren Hotel. “Maybe it was one of our family meal meals or something once.” Williams now serves the dish on the Karl’s menu — but unlike the usual plates of diner classics, this one comes in a four-compartment aluminum tin, looking like another familiar meal: the TV dinner.
Over the past year, the pandemic has forced us to rethink how we get meals on the table. When case numbers were high and restaurants had to halt indoor dining, many people who were accustomed to eating out several nights a week had to scramble to figure out what to do for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meanwhile, restaurants have had to jump through hoops in order to adjust to months of ups and downs, constantly pivoting and finding creative ways to bring in enough cash to stay afloat. For most business owners, this meant embracing boxes and bags like never before. For some, it meant reimagining the old-school TV dinner. Williams wanted to pay homage to the original dinners in some way, “but it also fit perfectly with our style of food at Karl’s, so it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Like many innovations, the story of the development of the TV dinner — a usually frozen complete meal that needed only to be reheated in the oven before eating — is not straightforward. Gerry Thomas, a Swanson employee, is often credited as the inventor of the meals that debuted in 1953, but the first frozen dinner, created for the airline industry, actually dates to 1944, and other brands claim versions that launched in 1952. Still, it wasn’t until 1954, when the Swanson TV dinner was first sold in retail outlets, that it took off in the United States. Traditionalists viewed the TV dinner as an “abomination,” but it turned out to be incredibly lucrative: As millions of American women entered the workforce, wives and mothers who were no longer at home to cook elaborate meals had a prepared answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” By 1955, 64 percent of U.S. households had a television set; the frozen meal was essentially catering to the changing times.
These days, for many people, the TV dinner is more of a novelty, nostalgic down to the TV tray. But while there are remnants of it in the frozen foods aisle, from Amy’s to Stouffer’s, the iconic portioned aluminum trays were somewhat of a rarity in restaurants — until COVID-19 led some chefs to revisit the container. “There’s so much space for opportunity and creativity in TV dinners,” says Los Angeles chef Nyesha Arrington, who recently reimagined a Stouffer’s TV dinner in a video for Eater. “They don’t have to be meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They can be very fun and interesting.” For her, that means a play on Salisbury steak with a wild mushroom sauce and nacho cheese-inspired mac and cheese. “It’s a really creative way to [enjoy a meal], especially if you’re not a chef.”
Before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office announced the suspension of indoor dining in Chicago for a second time, Marvin’s Food & Fuel owner James Geier had established enough awareness to keep going the takeout route. Bbut his decision to introduce TV dinners — featuring dishes like lasagna, meatloaf, and enchiladas with roasted veggie sides and chocolate cake — was a way to bring the restaurant experience to customers’ homes. “People started dining at home more,” he says, “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to truly deliver full, properly plated meals to their homes while they’re watching TV?’”
In New York City, Hearth chef/owner Marco Canora’s “laptop dinners,” which are sold frozen, serve the same purpose. “Sometimes takeout doesn’t feel like you’re eating nutrient-dense goodness,” Canora says. “It’s an indulgence that comforts you, but it’s not exactly something that fills you with energy.” With meals like roasted salmon with salsa verde (portioned with risotto and roasted cauliflower and broccoli), chicken Parmesan (with compartments for baked ziti and broccoli rabe), and beef stew (with sides of polenta and root veggies), Canora hoped to create a solution. “I want an actual dinner… but I don’t want to spend more than 10 minutes in the kitchen.”
For Williams, the choice to tap into something fun and nostalgic seemed obvious. “The world was on fire, and people were craving stuff from their childhood and comfort food,” she says. When her stylish luncheonette reopened briefly in the fall for indoor dining, she added to-go TV dinners (and breakfasts) for folks who weren’t comfortable with eating in person during the pandemic.
One look at Karl’s online menu — the separate compartments of the aluminum trays, each tray containing a full meal (think: warm chicken tenders with coleslaw and potatoes with garlic butter) — and you’re immediately transported back. “We just had a lot of fun with the branding of it,” Williams says. “We did movie recommendations with the meals, too.” Reheating instructions came along with suggestions to pair spaghetti and meatballs with Goodfellas and the kids’ mac and cheese with Troop Beverly Hills.
Geier says there has only been one negative: For many diners, there isn’t enough dessert. And there are some challenges to creating dinners where all the components are reheated simultaneously. Karl’s is well known for its patty melt, but Williams decided to forgo that particular TV dinner because she knew the bread would absorb steam and turn to mush. “Sandwiches are pretty hard to do,” she says. “And anything that’s breaded and fried. Fried foods don’t travel well.”
Chefs making their own TV dinners have to know how long to cook certain components of a given meal so that when people reheat them all at once, nothing is undercooked or overdone. “It’s a whole art and science and delicate ballet of balance to bring a meal together,” says Arrington. “There are so many moving pieces, from boiling water for the pasta to grilling the Salisbury steak.” For pasta, Arrington recommends an al dente texture: “I might cook it 60 percent and I might add more sauce that looks uncomfortably [like too much]. It might look like a macaroni soup in the container, but the reality is when we hit zap on the microwave the pasta’s going to cook, the starch is going to come out, and thicken that sauce. By the time you enjoy it, it will be creamy.” And while some chefs opt to use a fish-based protein in their TV dinners, specifically as fillets in fish sticks, Arrington recommends grinding it or serving it as a stew, like a chowder. “The type of protein you use is extremely important. Fish would not lend itself well because it can rubber-y after you freeze it. The water retention completely changes the protein structure.”
As vaccines continue to roll out across the country, experts predict a return to some kind of normal by the summer. While the pandemic has decimated countless businesses and livelihoods, the industry is rebuilding. Restaurant owners have learned new lessons over the last 12 months and are applying them to new practices. For these three restaurants, TV and laptop dinners are here to stay. Williams says she’s looking forward to the day when people return to the Siren Hotel because she believes her TV dinners will be a room service hit; Geier hopes to sell his dinners to office workers on the way home who need a quick meal for the night, or, when the weather is nice, to folks on their way to the park or a drive-in movie.
Canora is installing glass-door freezers in his side dining room, which he hopes will act as a small supermarket for customers who want to take the laptop dinners home along with other items from his frozen food line. “I think there’s a real future in it,” he says.