Restaurants like to sell memories.
Barbie-influenced pink ice cream popped up when the Barbie movie premiered. McDonald's offered adult Happy Meals with McD's character toys for a month in 2022. The menu at casual restaurant chain Lazy Dog has listed TV dinners for three years.
When I heard that Sept. 10 was National TV Dinner Day, I recalled the Lazy Dog connection. We dined at the Dublin Lazy Dog with friends and sampled diverse dishes such as the Korean Ribeye Bibimbap bowl with beef and assorted sides. I liked the new spaghetti squash and vegetarian “beetballs” dish which was good for two meals.
The real draw, though, were the six Lazy Dog TV dinners for only $50—plus during September, in honor of TV dinners’ national status, a free cooler to carry them home. Given my lack of time for cooking as I prepared for European travel this month, I looked forward to dining on nostalgia.
Curious about the state of TV dinners in the frozen aisle of the supermarket, I found a huge array of options. The familiar Swanson name from childhood was front and center. Though the price was $2.49 for the Banquet Salisbury steak, that meal had no appeal. The unpleasant aroma from childhood Salisbury steak TV dinners has lingered.
Our working mother served us TV dinners on her extra busy days. We ate our fried chicken despite its over-crusted state. While reminiscing recently, my sister and I blanked on the side dish. Later I recalled overcooked carrots with sad, dimpled peas. The bland turkey dinners matched our bland palates at the time. The bonus on TV dinner nights was no dishes to wash.
Several culinary innovations facilitated the convenience of these easy and inexpensive dinners. I am grateful for Clarence Birdseye’s invention of a machine to freeze packaged fish which revolutionized the frozen food industry. In the mid-1940s a company began preparing frozen meals for airlines called “Strato-plates.”
Swanson observed the wild growth of TVs in American households and wisely followed this phenomenon during their 1954 launch of frozen meals. In 1950, only nine percent of U.S. homes had TVs; by 1955, over 64% had a TV. The TV dinner ads showed smiling, well-dressed working women as they pulled lovely meals from the oven. Convenience also applies to men. During our recent Lazy Dog dinner, our friend Wolf fondly remembered eating his quick and filling Hungry Man pot roast dinners as a bachelor.
My sister recalls finding TV dinners on sale at three for a dollar when she began teaching and her husband attended graduate school. The low cost of TV dinners was a major factor in their resurgence during the pandemic. With the closure of in-person dining and disruptions in the food supply chain, many restaurants sold takeout, frozen entrées during the early pandemic.
Lazy Dog is unique in continuing to menu TV dinners. The idea of launching branded takeout options was on CEO Chris Simms’ radar before the pandemic. In 2020 the R&D team accelerated development of TV dinners at the Lazy Dog test kitchen in Brea, Calif.
Every day the culinary staff at each of the 25 Lazy Dog restaurants in Calif. and 22 others in the U.S prepares the menu items from scratch including the sauces, marinades and dressings. The frozen meals are also prepared at each unit. In response to food trends, the R&D team periodically presents new options. Dublin Lazy Dog manager Candace Bagon noted that grilled lemon chicken TV dinners are popular.
The chain was named for the Simms’ family dog who loved to laze around. I smiled at the motto above the open kitchen at the Dublin venue: Sit – Stay – Eat – Play. After a recent busy week, I felt exceptionally lazy as my Lazy Dog roasted turkey dinner warmed in the oven.
The two, thick slices of turkey measured an inch high with a generous helping of gravy and red skin mashed potatoes. I tasted clues in the stuffing that Dublin’s trained cooks prepared the dinner. The sautéed onions and celery were well-seasoned, and the bread was properly soaked before blending with other ingredients. A shortcut, commercial stuffing mix was not evident here.
Over the next two weeks, I sampled the buttermilk fried chicken, crispy outside and moist inside with a delicious side of sautéed baby spinach and bacon. For a taste test, I bought a Hungry Man fried chicken dinner for $5.79. The portions were fifty percent smaller than Lazy Dog’s; the soft breading fell off in clumps, and the mashed potatoes tasted like they came from a box.
TV dinners have always offered portion control with no second helpings. But each Lazy Dog restaurant-caliber meal at $10 provided two dinners for us.
For sweet endings, my favorite was the chocolate peanut butter brownie on the BBQ meatloaf tray. Next up, a large Lazy Boy chicken pot pie when I return home with jet lag. Long live TV dinners.
Editor's note: "Tri-Valley Foodist" is a blog for Embarcadero Media by Pleasanton-based culinary writer Deborah Grossman.