Food Network Magazine's Frozen Food Hall of Fame
Let’s hear it for the coolest freezer-aisle innovations of all time!
If you’ve been shopping in the freezer section more than usual, you’re not alone. Americans spent more than $65 billion on frozen food in 2020 (up more than 20% from 2019), and sales have risen again this year, suggesting that what started as a pandemic trend could be turning into a long-term habit. A wave of exciting new products is part of the draw, but nostalgia is a factor, too: We’ve been rediscovering old-school favorites like Eggo waffles, Stouffer’s entrées and Hot Pockets. Here are some of the most notable freezer products of the past century — and a few that didn’t turn out to be so cool after all.
1930: Birds Eye Frozen Peas
Clarence Birdseye launched an entirely new industry when, after learning food preservation techniques from Inuit fishermen, he patented a flash-freezing machine that could preserve vegetables at their peak. He promised peas that were "as gloriously green as any you will see next summer."
1946: Orange Juice Concentrate
Starting the day with OJ wasn’t possible for many Americans until government researchers developed a concentrate that could be easily stored and shipped. It was named Minute Maid because of how quickly you could prepare it.
1952: Mrs. T’s Pierogies
Ted Twardzik set out to bring his mom’s potato-and-cheese Polish dumplings to the masses in the 1950s, and today the company sells more than half a billion frozen pierogi a year!
1953: Gorton’s Fish Sticks
World War II meat rationing gave Americans a newfound appetite for seafood, and Gorton’s satisfied it with sticks of breaded whitefish. The company later marketed them to school lunch programs, and a cafeteria staple was born.
1953: Eggo Waffles
Making waffles required batter and a waffle iron until these hit the market. Inventors Frank, Anthony and Samuel Dorsa briefly called them Froffles but then went with Eggos, a nod to their earlier business making mayonnaise.
1954: Swanson Turkey Dinner
Faced with a surplus of frozen turkey one Thanksgiving and inspired by ready-to-heat airline meals, Swanson created what was probably the first "TV Dinner." It was 98 cents and came with cornbread dressing, buttered peas and mashed potatoes.
1981: Lean Cuisine
In the diet-obsessed ’80s, sales of Stouffer’s low-cal Lean Cuisine dinners soared and stores struggled to keep up with demand. The meals had fewer than 300 calories, compared with 850 for an average Stouffer’s entrée.
1983: Hot Pockets
Before they became fodder for comedians, the microwavable stuffed sandwiches were a breakthrough concept: hearty handheld frozen meals with high-tech packaging. Each came with a paperboard sleeve that helped crisp the bread.
1993: Mochi Ice Cream
Frances Hashimoto of Mikawaya, a Japanese bakery in Los Angeles, came up with the genius idea to fill sweet rice dough with ice cream — and a mochi ice cream craze began. Her original brand is still sold, along with its popular sister brand My/Mochi.
1995: DiGiorno Rising Crust Pizza
DiGiorno didn’t invent frozen pizza but the company has long been the country’s top-selling brand — and it won raves in the ’90s with this restaurant-inspired pie. The crust puffs up as it bakes.
2010: Saffron Road Frozen Meals
These meals, which include lamb saag and chicken tikka masala, were a big step toward a more inclusive freezer aisle: They were the first nationally available certified-Halal meals in the category.
Libbyland Adventure Dinners
Marketed as the first frozen dinners for kids in the 1970s, these themed meals included Sea Diver’s Dinner and Pirate Picnic. The characters were a hit; the food, not so much.
Morton Twinkie Suppers
For a brief time in the ’70s, Morton tried to capitalize on our love of Twinkies by packaging them with entrées like a burger or spaghetti.
The toothpaste brand briefly experimented with a line of frozen entrées, including beef lasagna, in the ’80s.
Swanson Le Menu Dinners
This line of fancy microwavable meals, which included dishes such as beef sirloin tips in mushroom-wine gravy, was meant to compete with restaurants. The restaurants won.
Peas: Getty Images.
Minute Maid and Swanson Dinner: Jason Liebig.
Lean Cuisine and Le Menu: Gaslight Advertising.
Libbyland Dinners: Jamie Bradburn.
Colgate Lasagna: Museum of Failure.
All text written by Francesca Cocchi for Food Network Magazine.