Here's Why The 80s Was The Era Of The Ready-Made Meal

by Jane Duncan, freelance writer

May 31 2021

Getting access to your favorite food has never been easier, especially during the past year. Nowadays, all you have to do is download a food delivery app like DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates or UberEats to get fresh, hot food at any time of the day. In 2020, these apps earned over $5 billion in combined revenue, proving that more Americans are choosing to have their food delivered rather than cooking their own meals.
But back in the 80s, things were different if Mom or Dad didn't have the time or the energy to cook. Sometimes, this would mean a trip to the nearest fast food joint. If no one felt like going out, it would mean calling for a pizza delivery. But more often than not, parents would resort to serving ready-made meals, and freezers all over the US would be stocked with these pre-packaged foods. While these meals weren't exactly high in nutrients, they certainly served their purpose in quelling hunger pangs all over America. Here's why the 80s was the era of the ready-made meal.
Swanson Le Menu Sliced Turkey Breast Advert from 1984

Swanson "Le Menu" slice turkey breast ad from 1984

The Rise of the TV Dinner

Nowadays, the availability of meal kit delivery services has encouraged more people to make homemade meals, since these kits contain every possible ingredient that you might need to make several healthy dishes, and many companies are making sure this is done in a more sustainable way.

In the 80s, if no one felt like cooking, people would often make a beeline to their fridge and get a couple of TV dinners, which are pre-portioned food in aluminum or plastic trays. The food would usually consist of a protein, such as chicken, a carb, such as mashed potatoes or pasta, veggies, and a sauce or a dessert. All you had to do was to put the tray in the microwave or the oven, heat it up for a few minutes, and it was ready to consume. 

These ready-made meals were called TV dinners, since most people's lives revolved around the television during dinnertime, and back then, it wasn't unusual for the whole family to gather in front of the TV with their respective TV dinners in front of them. Some of the most popular TV dinners came from brands such as Swanson and Stouffer's. Meanwhile, for those who didn't want to undo their efforts at aerobics class, there was Lean Cuisine, which was marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional TV dinners. 

Public domain image of a frozen TV dinner

Lunchables to the Rescue

If your parents didn't have much time to make a home-cooked lunch for you to take to school, you probably remember bringing Lunchables several times a week while attending elementary school back in the 80s. The original Lunchables, which was manufactured by Kraft Foods and marketed under the Oscar Meyer brand, were packaged to look like TV dinners, and the trays had individual compartments that contained crackers, cheese, and turkey meat. Having Lunchables for lunch was considered to be the height of cool, and kids would have no qualms eating their ready-made meal in school cafeterias with their friends. 

Later on, newer versions of the Lunchables contained pizza and burgers. In the past few years, the brand has also begun offering organic food, as well as more diverse food choices such as Asian chicken barbeque and Mexican chicken tacos.   

Some of the best ready-made foods of the 80s may not be as diverse, nutritious, or fresh as the food we have today. But they sure bring back memories to a simpler time when making meals meant popping a tray in the microwave or oven, and enjoying them with friends and loved ones.