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TV dinners: The hidden value of the processed meals revolution

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It’s a typical November Tuesday for Mary, who lives within the north-east of the USA.

She is 44, has a level, and her household is affluent – within the prime quarter of American households by earnings. So what has she carried out immediately? Is she a lawyer or a trainer?

No. Mary spent an hour knitting and stitching, two hours setting the desk and doing the dishes and properly over two hours getting ready and cooking meals.

She just isn’t uncommon, as a result of it’s 1965 and at the moment, many married American ladies – even these with a superb schooling – spent massive chunks of their day catering for his or her households.


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50 Issues That Made the Fashionable Financial system highlights the innovations, concepts and improvements which have helped create the financial world wherein we stay.

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We learn about Mary’s day – and people of many others – due to time-use surveys carried out world wide. These diaries reveal exactly how completely different folks use their time.

For educated ladies, the best way time is spent within the US and different wealthy international locations has modified radically over the previous half a century.

Ladies in America now spend round 45 minutes per day in complete cooking and cleansing up. That is nonetheless far more than males, who spend solely 15 minutes a day doing such duties. However it’s a huge discount from Mary’s 4 hours.

Behind this shift is a radical change to the best way the meals we eat is ready, as seen by the introduction of the TV dinner in 1954.

Offered in a space-age aluminium tray, and ready in order that every little thing would require the identical cooking time, the “frozen turkey tray TV dinner” was developed by a bacteriologist referred to as Betty Cronin.

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She labored for the Swanson meals processing firm, eager to seek out methods to maintain busy after the enterprise of supplying rations to US troops had dried up.

However after all the TV dinner was solely a part of a panoply of modifications, wrought by the provision of freezers, microwaves, preservatives and manufacturing traces.

Meals had been maybe the final cottage business: one thing that might overwhelmingly be produced within the house.

Profound shift

However meals preparation has been industrialised – outsourced to eating places and takeaways and to factories that put together ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook meals.

And the invention of the commercial meal – in all its varieties – has led to a profound shift within the fashionable economic system.

How we spend on meals is altering.

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In 2015, US shoppers spent extra money on foods and drinks exterior their house than on groceries for the primary time

American households spend more and more extra exterior the house – on quick meals, restaurant meals, sandwiches and snacks. Solely 1 / 4 of meals spending was exterior the house within the 1960s.

That has steadily risen over time and in 2015 a landmark was reached: for the primary time, Individuals spent extra on foods and drinks exterior the house than at grocery shops. The British handed that exact milestone greater than a decade earlier.

Even inside the house, meals is more and more processed to save lots of the chef effort and time: bagged chopped salad, pre-grated cheese, jars of pasta sauce, particular person permeable tea luggage, meatballs doused in sauce and hen that comes plucked and gutted.

Every new innovation would appear weird to the older era.

I’ve by no means plucked a hen and maybe my youngsters won’t ever chop salad. All this protects time – severe quantities of time.

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Such innovation is a contemporary phenomenon.

When the economist Valerie Ramey in contrast time-use diaries within the US between the 1920s and the 1960s, she discovered that surprisingly little had modified.

Whether or not ladies had been uneducated and married to farmers, or extremely educated and married to city professionals, they nonetheless spent related quantities of time on home tasks throughout these 50 years.

Lemon contemporary

It was solely within the 1960s that this sample started to shift.

However certainly the innovation liable for emancipating ladies was not the TV dinner, however the washer?

The thought is broadly believed and is interesting. A frozen TV dinner does not likely really feel like progress, in comparison with home-cooked meals.

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The washer was modern, however didn’t save a lot time

However a washer is clear and environment friendly and replaces work that was all the time drudgery. How may it not have been revolutionary?

Effectively it was, after all.

Nonetheless, the revolution wasn’t within the lives of ladies, it was in how lemon contemporary all of us began to odor.

As Alison Wolf argues in her guide The XX Issue, the proof is evident that the washer didn’t save loads of time, as a result of earlier than washing machines, we didn’t wash garments fairly often. When it took all day to scrub and dry a couple of shirts, folks used replaceable collars and cuffs or darkish outer layers to cover the grime.

In distinction, when it took two or three hours to organize a meal, somebody needed to take that point. There was not another. The washer didn’t save a lot time, and the prepared meal did, as a result of we weren’t prepared to starve, however we had been prepared to stink.


Extra from Tim Harford

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The supply of prepared meals has had some regrettable side-effects.

Weight problems charges rose sharply in developed international locations between the 1970s and the early 21st Century, at a lot the identical time as these culinary improvements had been being developed. That is no coincidence, say well being economists. The price of energy has fallen dramatically, not simply in monetary phrases but in addition by way of time.

Contemplate the standard potato. It has lengthy been a staple of the American food plan, however earlier than World Conflict Two potatoes had been often baked, mashed or boiled. There is a motive for that: roast potatoes should be peeled, chopped, par-boiled after which roasted. French fries or chips have to be finely chopped after which deep fried.

Over time, nevertheless, the manufacturing of fried sliced potato chips – each French fries and crisps – was centralised. French fries might be peeled, chopped, fried and frozen in a manufacturing facility after which refried in a fast-food restaurant or microwaved at house.

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Weight problems charges have risen sharply because the massive scale industrialisation of meals manufacturing

Between 1977 and 1995, American potato consumption elevated by a 3rd, nearly fully due to the rise of fried potatoes.

Even easier, crisps might be fried, salted, flavoured and packaged to final for a lot of weeks on the shelf. However this comfort comes at a value.

Within the US, calorie consumption by adults rose by about 10% between the 1970s and the 1990s. Not because of extra calorific common meals however due to elevated snacking – often of processed comfort meals.

Psychology – and customary sense – recommend this shouldn’t be a shock.

Experiments by behavioural scientists present that we make very completely different choices about what to eat relying on how distant the meal is. An extended-planned meal is prone to be nutritious, however once we make extra impulsive choices, our snacks usually tend to be junk meals than one thing nourishing.

The industrialisation of meals – symbolised by the TV dinner – modified our economic system in two vital methods. It freed ladies from hours of home chores, eradicating a big impediment to them adopting severe skilled careers.

However by making empty energy ever extra handy to accumulate, it additionally freed our waistlines to develop.

The problem now – as with so many innovations – is to benefit from the profit with out additionally struggling the price.

Tim Harford writes the Monetary Instances’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Issues That Made the Fashionable Financial system is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You could find extra details about the programme’s sources and hear on-line or subscribe to the programme podcast.

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