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Why This Hungry Woman Still Yearns for TV Dinners

The one that was my absolute favorite.

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Juan Moyano/Stocksy
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How did latchkey kids survive back in the day? A lot of cereal. Ring Dings. And the magic of the TV dinner.

I could make it all by myself. I’d tear open the box, carefully fold back part of the foil, place it in the convection oven and wait. I’d just stare through that glass screen until the apple pie bubbled and the metallic tin foil rim was too hot to touch with my young bare hands. It was the late '70s. I was 8 or 9 and, besides a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, this was one of the only things I could make for myself, and I loved it so.

Is there anything greater as a child than doing something all by yourself? When you are the youngest of three you rarely get that chance. But this little ritual made me feel like a "Top Chef" champion.

When my mom came home from the grocery store, yelling for me to unload that station wagon, I came running. I’d put the cold cuts away. The milk. The no-frills cola. And then I’d keep looking until I saw it. A brown box with a picture of the meal right on the cover, like a magazine. The Swanson chicken with mashed potatoes was my absolute favorite. I loved the way the butter melted onto the whipped potatoes, like a sun setting. Sometimes she’d get other brands, like Banquet or Morton, but that chicken was tops for me.

These easy "TV dinners" first hit grocery store shelves in September 1953, and were an instant success. Swanson sold over 10 million of those boxes that first year — later to go on to billions. Then in the 1960s, it added the dessert, though that portion I never touched, having filled up on the entrée and sides.

Campbell Soup Co. took over Swanson and in 1973 added the Hungry-Man frozen dinners. With those larger offerings the TV was flooded with commercials featuring NFL star "Mean" Joe Greene! Some Hungry-Man meals had about 4,000 calories. I am glad I never liked that dessert.

While they were designed to be eaten in front of the TV, I can’t recall a time that I did. Not because I was above eating in front of the boob tube, or because I came from a strict eat-together-at-6-p.m. household. It was because to me, this silver tray was made of gold and needed to be savored quietly, without the blare of outside noise.

I’d squirm my little body onto an orange wooden chair at the kitchen table, put my napkin on my lap and slowly dig in. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, preparing them or eating them, but those Swanson TV dinners were my favorite meals. And, if I were allowed, I would have had one every night.

As women entered the workforce and had less time to cook, TV dinners ensured that kids got a warm meal. But let’s not fool ourselves; these weren’t healthy offerings like those from Daily Harvest and HelloFresh now available online. They were more delicious than nutritious, like the fast-food hamburgers and greasy fries we kids, and kids today, grew to love.

Tuesday was our father’s night to cook, which meant we often went to the local deli. Friday we’d have family dinners. The rest of the week we fended for ourselves, and this silver tray was the easiest and absolute best choice I could imagine. The irony was my mother was a gourmet cook and could prepare just about anything. Yet I always wanted these dinners. It was my security blanket, my womb of comfort and my best meal ever.

As I got older and more weight conscious, I, like many, took to 300-calorie frozen entrées from Lean Cuisine, Smart Ones and Healthy Choice, though it was never with the same joy as devouring those not-so-lean meals in my youth.

We now live in a society where anything can be delivered within an hour to our door. But I dare you, in fact, I double-dog dare you hungry women to eat a Hungry-Man dinner right out of the tray — no longer of aluminum but microwaveable material — and tell me that those buttery mashed potatoes aren’t among the best you've ever had.

All good things from our youth eventually change, though I will never forget preparing my own TV dinners. That ritual made me feel like I could do anything.

Did you eat TV dinners as a kid? What was YOUR favorite TV dinner? Let us know in the comments below.

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