Frozen food is ubiquitous; according to statistics released by the American Frozen Food Institute, the frozen food industry is worth $22 billion, with the average American consuming seventy-two frozen meals each year at an average cost of $1.26 a meal. However, things were not always this way. In the early 1900s, commercial freezing technologies had only just been invented. At that point, refrigeration and freezing were used to overcome the seasonality of many food products, but freezers had not yet found their way into supermarkets or homes. In subsequent years, developments in freezing technology and societal changes (particularly in the domestic sphere) paved the way for the emergence of an extensive frozen food landscape that offered convenience and variety to American consumers. Given the widespread popularity of frozen foods, it is useful to investigate the evolution of these products and their significance in American industrial and consumer culture—in particular, their role in changing the way we view both food and the act of eating as a social activity.
Frozen foods have in many ways changed the meanings associated with the meal as a social gathering. Consumers are now busier than ever, and their schedules are continuing to redefine the concept of a meal. Even in my own family where meals were more often than not cooked from scratch, there were days when the cooked entrees would be left in the kitchen for each family member to individually serve themselves as time and their schedules allowed. Prior to the advent of freezing technology and the subsequent rise of convenience foods in general, this highly informal mode of eating meals was largely unheard of.
In today’s society where a meal can be removed from the freezer and heated in a microwave in a matter of minutes, a sit-down meal is almost becoming a luxury and the kitchen or dining room has become a transition area where one may grab a quick bite after work or school before heading off to the evening’s activities.
Despite the fact that frozen foods were not particularly popular following their introduction into American consumer culture, Swanson’s development and successful marketing of their TV dinner in the post-war era ushered in a new age of convenience foods. Following their widespread adoption, TV dinners began to permanently change how American families viewed mealtimes, allowing women to reallocate time previously spent in the kitchen to other forms of personal development. TV dinners also played a large role in bringing television to the dinner table and removing the formality previously associated with meals. Modernization has seen continued success for TV dinners and the diversification of frozen dinners to include diet meals, ethnic foods, and gourmet or organic options. However, despite the fact that frozen foods are now treated with a certain air of ubiquity, it is important to acknowledge and understand the often taken for granted and familiar cultural meanings that surround these foods, particularly in the case of the modern iterations of these dinners.
Although the convenience of frozen dinners greatly reduces the labor that we put into a meal, this labor is not lost so much as reallocated. Given these facts, our appreciation of convenience foods should not progress to the point where we fail to recognize the labor and resources required to make these products. While frozen foods will likely never completely replace the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal, their popularity will continue to increase, so it is critical that we acknowledge the issues surrounding the consumption of frozen foods in order to best continue to take advantage of the freedom they afford us in our pursuit of activities outside the kitchen.
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