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Food + Cooking

Tray Chic: Recipes for a 21st-Century TV Dinner

Published in Gourmet Live 10.19.11
The crinkly-foil classic is way better in reruns. Dig in to Kemp Minifie’s new menu of grass-fed beef meatloaf with bacon, killer brownies, and more

When I was a kid, frozen TV dinners were so Jetsons-modern, so evocative of the sitcom life I thought I wanted, that they surpassed Whitman’s Sampler Assorted Chocolates and Hostess CupCakes in the hierarchy of favorite food treats. Frozen dinners became so desirable for the same reason most such things do: They were practically forbidden. They appeared only when my parents went out for the evening, and since that rarely came to pass, my three brothers and I were lucky if we got to have our very own foil trays of highly processed food twice a year.

Of course, the fact that watching television was itself strictly rationed added to the tremendous appeal of TV dinners. With the parents gone, there was no one to stop us from plopping ourselves in front of the small screen. The set itself had been relegated to the basement, where it stayed off far more than on. Family dinner was eaten upstairs in the dining room around a big oval table, accompanied by plenty of conversation. Eating in front of the boob tube or even within earshot of it was just not done.

Once the parents actually left the house, my brothers and I couldn’t get the foil trays into the oven fast enough. Ensconced in front of the TV, we’d compare: While I’d usually opted for the oven-fried chicken, my middle brother’s Salisbury steak looked gross to me. But I loved how the mashed potatoes filled their section, as if they’d been mechanically squirted in (they were). To us, the dinners were the embodiment of machine-made perfection. And although we ate with gusto, I don’t remember thinking it was the best chicken I’d ever had. Novelty superseded taste. We feasted because we knew we wouldn’t get an opportunity like this again for a long time.

Once I had kids of my own, suddenly I was cooking meals every night and rationing the TV, just like my parents. Unlike my parents, though, my husband and I instituted a weekly movie night with our kids. OK, so we’re technically still in front of the TV, but it’s a movie we’re watching, not a sitcom, and we can hit Pause for conversation. And instead of frozen dinners on foil trays, we’ve got real food on real plates. All cuddled together on the couch, we eat meatloaf made from grass-fed beef, scalloped potatoes, lemony green veggies, and brownies-from-scratch for dessert. Because I want your family to enjoy this dinner, I’m sharing my own personal recipes.

Kemp Minifie was wrapped up in all aspects of food at Gourmet magazine for 32 years, and is now part of the Gourmet Live team. For more tried and tested tips and tricks, check out her weekly Kemp’s Kitchen column on the Gourmet Live blog.