The ability to flash-freeze and package food was developed in the 1920s. But about 20 years later, after Thanksgiving, C.A. Swanson and Sons found itself with a large volume of leftover turkey trimmings.
So the company hit upon the idea of packaging turkey pieces and vegetables in aluminum trays, freezing them and selling them as complete meals.
The masterstroke was calling them TV dinners, just as viewership was exploding.
This was the beginning of frozen food’s dominance in the North American diet. By the 21st century, frozen foods were being consumed by 99 per cent of U.S. households and had accounted for almost $9 billion in sales.
But something unusual began to happen in 2008. Frozen food sales levelled and then began to fall.
Suddenly, "fresh" became the new marketing buzzword and consumers started turning away from frozen food.
The relentless messaging by "fresh food" competitors helped reinforce the perception that frozen food is lacking in taste, is expensive and low in nutritional value, is high in sodium, calories and preservatives, and is portioned in sizes that encourage obesity.
But the frozen food industry isn’t about to give up. In May, the American Frozen Food Institute launched a $90-million campaign to tell its side of the story.
On top of that, individual frozen food marketers are also working to change perceptions. For instance, Healthy Choice removed some unfriendly-sounding chemical ingredients from its frozen entrees.
Meanwhile, this marketer is attempting to rebrand what most people refer to as the freezer section of their supermarket
Another Lean Cuisine sub-brand is even trying to combine fresh with frozen, to create a new niche.
Unfortunately, turning frozen food around is going to be a challenge. Having been exposed to an unending stream of ads claiming that fresh is tastier and healthier, Millennials are moving away from frozen food much faster than their parents.
It means, for the foreseeable future, consumers are likely to give frozen food a chilly reception.