Ready meals: Military beginnings

The first commonly available convenience foods were canned goods, which were developed in the 19th century for military purposes. The little tins made it easy to store, transport and prepare food on the battlefield.

The use of canned food escalated during second world war, when soldiers’ rations contained tins of meat and stew to keep them going

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The rise of ready meals

wiltshirefarmfoods.com

  • The first home ready meals were actually created to use up surplus meat. US food company Swanson had a disappointing Thanksgiving period in 1953 and found themselves with huge stocks of leftover turkey.
  • Bosses challenged their staff to find a creative solution, and salesman Gerald Thomas designed his own version as a ready meal tray. It had three compartments to hold meat, potatoes and vegetables.
  • Swanson named their new idea a TV dinner, marketing it as a convenience food you could eat while watching television. And their popularity was staggering: Americans bought 10 million TV dinners in the first year alone!

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  • Ready meals didn’t take off until the 1970s, when more homes had domestic freezers. Brands launched products specifically for these new kitchen gadgets.
  • Birdseye Fish Fingers and Findus Crispy Pancakes became mealtime staples, finished off with frozen desserts like Viennetta, Arctic Roll and Black Forest Gateau.
  • The biggest attraction of frozen food was timesaving – everything was pre-prepared and quick to cook. By the 1980s family life was changing, with an ever-rising number of working women. More and more families turned to frozen ready meals for a hot, tasty dinner you could cook in just three minutes.

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By the 1990s, diets were getting more adventurous and ready meals makers strived to match this. 

Cuisines like Thai and Mexican were introduced and producers often recreated food that diners enjoyed in restaurants, but didn’t know how to prepare at home.

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