Table for One

Foil-Packet Scallops Are the Perfect 'TV Dinner' for One

A ready-made meal for the '90s kid in me.

by:
February 22, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


The term TV dinner, "a quick-frozen packaged dinner (as of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable) that requires only heating before it is served," was first used in 1954. That's when C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced their branded line of ready-made turkey dinners to American households in an attempt to get rid of the overstocked frozen turkeys they weren't able to sell during Thanksgiving. It was a genius move, because they sold over 10 million aluminum trays that year. And with that, the TV dinner was born.

Swanson's marketing ploy couldn't have been better timed. "As home entertainment shifted from the piano (once a ubiquitous and nearly essential home accessory) to the big wooden box with its small flickering screen," writer Owen Edwards explains in Smithsonian Magazine, "the idea of watching—instead of listening to—programs at home seemed transformative, a tipping point into a changed world. Swanson's marketers clearly realized that this was a medium you could tie your message to; after all, the company had not tried to market Radio Dinners."

65 years later, and eating in front of the television has yet to lose its charm.

An advertisement for Swanson TV dinners in 'Life' magazine, April 1961. Photo by Classic Film/Flickr Commons

Growing up in '90s suburban Georgia to Korean immigrant parents who worked late hours (my father as a janitor and my mother as a Dunkin' Donuts barista), my brother and I came home from school and heated frozen dinners for ourselves regularly. As an adult, I've never blamed them for this—that their working and providing for us meant they didn't always make it to dinner. In fact, I look back fondly on those meals my brother and I shared, alone, in front of the television. In many ways, they were our first window into non-Korean food: meatloaf, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, beef stroganoff, and Salisbury steak (my personal favorite), among others.

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Top Comment:
“Scallops are one of my favorite "Table for One" meals and while I probably won't make this dish up in advance, since I work from home and don't have to wearily fend for food after a long commute, this will definitely go into the "make very soon" recipe queue. 99% of the time I just sear my scallops, make a ghee and lemon juice pan sauce and serve with a side of asparagus that's been pan steamed so this will be a welcome addition to the scallop repertoire!”
— Whiteantlers
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Even as I got older and learned to cook (by watching the Food Network in the living room, over a tray of Swedish meatballs and egg noodles, another favorite), I'd still pick up a box of Stouffer's here and there on my grocery store runs for those nights when I knew I wouldn't have time. Only I'd stretch it with leftover white rice and steamed broccoli to make it go further (and to help offset the sodium levels).

You could say I still have a soft spot for TV dinners. But I'm also fascinated by their lasting significance in daily American life. I'd argue that Swanson's marketing strategy to sell all of those turkey dinners back in 1954 helped set us up for one of life's simplest pleasures: eating dinner in front of the television.

Maybe you're like Jake Gyllenhaal's character in Brokeback Mountain and believe that family dinners are meant for bonding—not screens. For what it's worth, I'd agree. Today's equivalent might be staring at your phone while sharing a meal with others, which is one of my biggest pet peeves.

But that's why TV dinners are by design single servings. They are, for me, ideal for solo time after work, to be enjoyed alone in front of the television (or in my case, Netflix on my laptop). Even the foldable tray tables that grew in popularity in the 1950s, in conjunction with the rise of Swanson's frozen dinners, fit exactly one aluminum plate. I won't go so far as to admit that I have one of those tables, but I do have a little tray I take to bed with me for those nights when I just want to melt into my cozy solitude: food, television, sleep. Because the only thing greater than eating in front of the television is eating in front of the television in bed.

Over the years, my "TV dinners" have evolved and gained new meaning as I've grown more comfortable in the kitchen. Now they're simple, nutritious, premade dinners that are waiting for me in the freezer or fridge: say, a sheet-pan of spiced chicken thighs, a breaded and ready-to-fry cube steak, or a foil packet of sweet, plump scallops and rainbow chard. Premade means something different for everyone; for me, it means doing 90% of the work in advance, and leaving 10% (the cooking) to the very end.

Not that the 90% here is very hard. You're just filling a large sheet of aluminum foil with a protein and a vegetable (in this case, the scallops and chard), sealing it, and saving it in the fridge to be baked off later in the week when you need a 15-minute meal in a flash.

The true star here, however, is the caper-raisin butter that runs through the entire foil packet. I first read about this golden elixir in Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman, who got it from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "This scallop preparation helped make JGV's flagship restaurant a sensation when it opened in 1997," they write in the recipe's headnote. I thought it was the strangest combination of ingredients and had to try it for myself. Now I keep a jar of the stuff in my fridge most weeks of the year. It tastes great with pasta, roasted cauliflower, raw bitter vegetables, and of course, scallops.

Because the only thing greater than eating in front of the television is eating in front of the television in bed.

Though I've scaled back the ingredient amounts for a single serving, I've amped up the butter proportion (so it's more of a compound butter to cook with, rather than just a sauce) and replaced the sherry vinegar with malt (only because that's what I always have on hand). This strange, perfect, salty-sweet-sour butter is a great example of how I like to meal prep: I stock my fridge with ready-made dinners and powerhouse staples so I can zhuzh up all manner of dishes at a moment's notice.

All of this just helps, in the long run, to leave more time for television.

Do you eat dinner in front of the TV? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is the Senior Editor and 'Table for One' columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager of FoodNetwork.com, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson Kim. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.

20 Comments

AngCooks April 12, 2019
We had TV dinners growing up whenever we had a babysitter and always wanted the meal w the cherry pie. I love my now grown up dinner packets that yes, I eat in front of the tv.
 
Raylin S. February 25, 2019
Basic question - do you remove the chard stems first? And which way do you roll/cut them?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 25, 2019
Hi Raylin: When I'm using rainbow chard, I don't remove the stems (they're so pretty and taste great). I stack them and roll them lengthwise, so I've got a long cigar; then I cut slices down the cigar so I end up with little strips. But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter how you cut them, this is just how I do it.
 
Cindy February 24, 2019
Question: are the scallops to be seared first? Hard to imagine they get that golden brown crust being steamed in the foil packet but I don't see any mention of searing...but then I may simply have missed it
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 24, 2019
Hi Cindy, no they’re not seared, but they are smeared with the caper-raisin butter before baked.
 
Linda B. February 23, 2019
We lived the same childhood. My summers home alone all day subsisting on hot pockets, Swanson meals, bagel bites that turned rock hard cuz we microwaved them, frozen chicken pot pies that came in an aluminum tin that couldn’t be microwaved I had to pop it out with a knife and put it into a bowl to microwave.

Nowadays I revel in my alone time with my iPad 12” away from my face as I eat breakfast or lunch when everyone in the house is at work or school. But when my kids try to eat and watch iPad I yell at them. I haven’t eaten an actual frozen TV dinner in years since I know how bad they are. But my childhood favorites were the Salisbury steak, the soggy fried chicken, the turkey breast with stuffing underneath (all Swanson of course).

Now I don’t work so my kids don’t know w
 
Linda B. February 23, 2019
Oops hit post too soon. My kids don’t know what frozen TV dinners are. Which is good. But also a little sad. I really loved my frozen meals eaten in front of the tv usually watching bewitched or Gillian’s island (cuz middle of the day tv wasn’t great back then).
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 23, 2019
Linda, your comment made me so happy. And nostalgic. It's fun to be nostalgic. I, too, ate/loved Hot Pockets and Bagel Bites. I wonder if my kids will know what those are...
 
Linda B. February 24, 2019
They will be like boujie kids who reminisce about their frozen scallop packs with raisin butter. ><
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 24, 2019
Ha!
 
Whiteantlers February 23, 2019
I am one of the original Swanson's generation. My mother, a single parent, worked 6 days a week and her mother was our caretaker. Neither my mother or immigrant grandmother were good cooks nor did they even like to cook. TV dinners were a treat and a delight for me and my sister. They looked and tasted far better than the trencherman's portions of greige fatty boiled pork, over stewed sauerkraut and lumpy mashed potatoes my grandmother would dish up.

Scallops are one of my favorite "Table for One" meals and while I probably won't make this dish up in advance, since I work from home and don't have to wearily fend for food after a long commute, this will definitely go into the "make very soon" recipe queue. 99% of the time I just sear my scallops, make a ghee and lemon juice pan sauce and serve with a side of asparagus that's been pan steamed so this will be a welcome addition to the scallop repertoire!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 23, 2019
My grandmother was a terrible cook, too. Ha!

Seared scallops are truly divine. I want YOUR dinner.
 
Uzma C. February 23, 2019
Love this. Love the idea of caring for yourself in an entire encapsulation of nourishment, necessary solitude, quick work. Besides magic rub and this butter, is there anything else you keep on deck for zhuzh? Would love to read a piece on your pantry, staples, simple and exciting
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 23, 2019
A 'zhuzh' pantry piece is a great idea! I'll see what I can do. Thanks for reading, Uzma.
 
CameronM5 February 22, 2019
I have to admit, that butter sounds odd, but I’ll try anything once! I loved TV dinners growing up and I like how you’ve updated them for the more discerning palate. You may have a Shark Tank idea on your hands! 🥳
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 22, 2019
Ha! Thanks again, Cameron.
 
Lynn D. February 23, 2019
oh, I can attest, the butter is the bomb!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 24, 2019
Sometimes it tastes like yellow layer cake to me. And then it’s super savory again. Caper, raisin, caper, raisin. Sounds weird but it’s good. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
 
Erin A. February 22, 2019
I have the best memories of my grandmother heating up Swedish meatball Lean Cuisines every time she'd baby sit me, and still love a good frozen dinner every now and then. Thank you for this thoughtful, interesting piece and for giving TV dinners the love they deserve!
 
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Eric K. February 22, 2019
They're so good.