TV Dinners No Longer Hip

Frozen meals are a nine-billion dollar business in the U.S., one that has reportedly made it into 99% of homes (who are you 1% of people who have never eaten a Lean Cuisine?!) but according to Roberto Ferdman and the Atlantic, sales are down and things aren’t looking so good for the old TV dinner.

A number of factors appear to be working against the frozen food aisle—including the rise of dieting, consciousness of better portioning, and Americans’ growing boredom with ready-made frozen meals. But there are four reasons in particular which seem to stand out, according to the research firm Mintel: Americans say they are strapped for cash; they feel frozen food is no longer cost-effective; they prefer to cook for themselves; and they are increasingly skeptical of the health claims of frozen meals—40 percent of U.S. adults think frozen dinners offer no nutritional value.

Also, and rather importantly, the industry is hemorrhaging younger consumers.While Americans over 45 are actually chomping on more freezer-chilled foods, those under 45 say they are more interested in “freshness.”

I love that “freshness” is in quotes. I mean, I know what they meant but still it’s like, Who are these young people with their newfangled demands for “freshness”???

I have strangely fond memories of hanging out in the frozen food aisle with my mom and sister spending way too long picking out my which Kid Cuisine (tell me you know what I’m talking about — blue box, penguin on the front?), but it’s true I haven’t bought a frozen meal in some time. I guess I do love “freshness.”

Photo: adrigu

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17 Comments / Post A Comment

E$ (#1,636)

I remember seeing ads for Kid Cuisine! Chicken nuggets, a separate brownie container! It was the type of thing my mom would never buy us so it was irresistible.

I occasionally buy the Trader Joe’s frozen meals for when I come home out of energy, while still hungry. I relied heavily on Lean Cuisines during my first no-shit adult job because I was not very good at cooking and wasn’t organized enough to pack a lunch every day. I definitely fit the millennial stereotype of being skeptical of the health claims (I wouldn’t say the Lean Cuisines really helped me lose weight) and wanting fresher food. It wasn’t a big deal when I was 22 but now that I’m older I wonder why they didn’t squeeze at least 2 servings of vegetables into that entree.

ThatJenn (#916)

I eat TJ’s and Publix frozen foods sometimes and they can be a lifesaver when I feel twin desperate needs to (1) eat something hot and (2) not cook.

I used to eat a lot more frozen food, both growing up and right after college, until I was denied my birth control by my doctor once the summer I was 21 due to my blood pressure being too high and had to confront the sodium levels in them. Eeek!

Off topic, but Lean Cuisines reminded me: I had this terrible roommate during my first stint in grad school who would stay awake for 3 days at a time and sleep for a whole day, most weeks, and one day she came home with grocery bags bulging with boxes. “I hope we’ve got room in the freezer,” she yelled to me, “because I just bought TWELVE Lean Cuisines on a great sale!” The next morning I woke up to her miserable on the couch and asked what was up. “Oh,” she said, “I got really hungry and ate ALL of my Lean Cuisines around 3 AM.”

andnowlights (#2,902)

@ThatJenn …and then she died, right? Of sodium overdose?

ThatJenn (#916)

@andnowlights She did sleep for two days that time instead of just one, so perhaps she died and was regenerated.

jillcool (#2,123)

I used to eat a lot of Lean Cuisines and the like for lunch. I even kept several in the freezer at my office for when I forgot lunch. I have pretty much stopped buying them for two reasons. The first is they are gross. They are never as good as they look on the box and I’m always hungry before the day is over. The second is my doctor told me to quit eating them because of the sodium content. Aside from the lack of nutritional value, I was eating almost an entire day’s worth of sodium in one lousy meal.

Now I try to be a little more organized and bring my lunch to work. I have a self-imposed rule that I can purchase lunch one day a week. The other four days I have to either bring my lunch from home or scavenge for food. It works most of the time.

guenna77 (#856)

i definitely eat less frozen pre-made food than i used to, but my freezer is usually just as full as it used to be because now i buy plain frozen veggies, super easy to heat up or put in a dish.

one thing i wonder about though, as far as the millennial part of the trend downward: how much of it is really about freshness, and how much of it is about simple logistics? i.e., they are less likely to be living in housing with a large freezer. growing up, we had a large deep-freeze in the garage or basement, so my mom could stock up on frozen stuff when it was cheap, so that’s what we ate. but then i went to college and shared a dorm refrigerator, and ever since, space has been a premium. i literally can’t buy the same amount of frozen food my mom did because i have less than half the space to store it.

bgprincipessa (#699)

I definitely remember eating Kid Cuisines! And like, man they were pretty gross, huh?

I’m pretty against frozen meals now. I’ll still occasionally buy frozen foods, but not like that. More like… frozen potstickers or Amy’s burritos or something. But 9 times out of 10 I am disappointed with them.

This is not to say that I always cook “fresh” though – still have a huge weakness for boxed mac & cheese.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

@bgprincipessa KID CUISINE 4EVA

Looking back, how gross!

cryptolect (#1,135)

I like Celentano eggplant parm! I can pronounce all the ingredients, and it is literally something I would never make myself. It’s a nice thing to have in the freezer for lazy lunches.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

Oh man, my parents and I are a perfect example of the trend. My parents never liked cooking. Growing up, we mostly subsisted off of frozen meals (I ate a lot of Kid Cuisine, and also Hungry Man and Lean Cuisine), Lunchables, Hamburger Helper, and takeout. It was fine – I was an active kid and was never overweight or to my knowledge suffered from any other dietary issues.

Then I went off to college, and was 1)poor and 2)lived with roommates who came from families where people cooked. My roommates taught me how to make all sorts of different foods with cheap ingredients so they were tasty. Pasta sauce was a huge revelation for me; I didn’t know before college that it didn’t always come from a glass jar, that you could actually make it yourself for less than 1/2 the price with fresh vegetables.

Now I continue to cook for myself, and over the years I have gotten even more thrifty/homemade oriented. As my parents have gotten older, they have fully stopped pretending to care about having a diverse and balanced diet. They mostly eat ramen/powder soup packets and frozen lean cuisines.

I think it’s interesting, and probably related to generational views on cooking. For my parents, cooking was an obnoxious and necessary life task that was difficult to balance in a family where both adults worked full-time in demanding professional jobs. To me, I don’t buy frozen food because I am a terrible snob (the frozen stuff doesn’t taste as good to me) and having to cook to feed myself is my excuse to not do other kinds of work. I like that cooking is a thing I have to make time for, because it is a “break”. And I genuinely look forward to lunch at work, even if I’m eating my lunch while on the computer answering emails or something.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I have never had a Lean Cuisine.

honey cowl (#1,510)

Of course my mom used to make this awesome Eggplant Parm that I later found out was from Costco.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

Kid Cuisine – I remember being a total I NEED THIS MOM when I saw the commercials for them. My parents were immigrants so frozen convenience foods and things like Lunchables were weird to them, because either they or one of my grandmas (who lived with us) could just whip up an easy meal – Filipino food or like their take on American food like pasta, roasted chicken, etc. My mom let me buy one one day at Pathmark, and we prepared it together. I was super weirded out by the brownie baking in the middle section and the vegetables terrified me. I didn’t finish it. Though, in later years my mom bought more and more frozen foods/meals at Costco (their vegetable lasagna was my favorite, after hers of course) just cos with another kid in the house, and my grandma passing away, and the other one moving back to the Philippines, it was just easier for her and my dad who both worked.

I will pick up 1-2 frozen meals from Trader Joe’s – that I have for when I am super lazy, but I do really like a lot of their freezer foods/ingredients like their brown rice and eggplant cutlets just cos they are good shortcuts – and allow me to cook quicker. At my first job out of college I did the whole Lean Cuisine meal, which I had to keep in the same freezer we kept our giant sized bags of chamomile (I worked at a tea company), and I remember just being so ravenous, that I would end up eating whatever leftover pizza the IT guy would order and leave in the kitchen. So much sodium and Sugar! the sugar! and it’s so easy nowadays (with enough planning) to make your own frozen meals – I just freeze usually half of what I make since it usually yields enough for four and there’s just two of us.

Susan Tidebeck (#5,691)

When I was a kid my parents would get me a TV dinner when they went out to evening parties. It was so sweet because they were going out for a good time and they wanted me to have some fun too (yeah, it didn’t take much). I got to pick out which TV dinner I wanted and I looked forward to it for weeks.

Today I can’t stand any of the frozen crap from the supermarket. It all tastes like freezer burn. I make a big tray of my own mac and cheese or lasagna and freeze portions in those Glad storage containers. It still feels like a treat when I nuke a quick meal of my own home made cuisine.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Meaghan, I found that link for the cost of birth-1 year that I had mentioned… way back when on the “I’m pregnant” post, but couldn’t find your email address on the site! He actually posted a link this morning to the whole series: http://www.budgetsaresexy.com/2014/03/how-much-babies-cost/ Anyway, thought you would find it interesting!

Meaghano (#529)

@andnowlights Yesss, thank you! And yeah we need to put my email somewhere. It’s just meaghan@thebillfold!

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

I REMEMBER THOSE MEAGHAN! Those were a special treat when I was a kid, usually when my parents went out to dinner without us. To think that those were a bigger deal than home cookin’

I’m a little glad these are declining. TV dinners use a lot of packaging and sodium. That said, every now and then I do indulge in a Lean Cuisine French Bread Pepperoni Pizza.

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