Jan. 24, 2009 -- Author and healthy eating expert Hank Cardello has some advice for eating nutritiously, regardless of your economic standing.
The secret, he said, lies in understanding the way the average consumer thinks and buys.
Check out an excerpt of his book "Stuffed" below, and then ask him your own questions in a live chat by clicking here and going to the comments section.
It all started with a turkey. Well, actually, not one turkeybut many turkeys. The year was 1953. Thanksgiving had passed,the economy was booming, and Christmas shoppers around thecountry were getting ready to throw down some of their hardearnedcash for a little bit of Christmas cheer.
But the mood wasn't so great at C. A. Swanson & Sons, an Omaha-based frozen food company. Somehow, Swanson had overestimatedAmerica's hunger for turkey that Thanksgiving, and theyfound themselves with more than half a million pounds of unsoldturkeys. This would have been a lot of food in any era, but backthen it was astronomical. Not to mention that Swanson didn't haveenough refrigerated warehouse space to keep the turkeys from spoiling.Facing the prospect of having to write off all these birds as ahuge loss, Swanson piled the turkeys into refrigerated boxcars whilethey searched for a buyer. As the boxcars traveled back and forthfrom Nebraska to the East Coast, the company's owners looked fora solution that would save them millions of dollars.As the legend goes, one of their salesmen, Gerry Thomas, hadbeen in Pittsburgh, checking out the catering kitchens of PanAmerican World Airways when he heard about the company'sproblem. On the flight home, he began doodling, thinking aboutthe hot tray the airline used to keep food warm. Why not use it tokeep food cold, he wondered. In his sketches, Thomas ended updesigning a three-compartment tray—a sort of takeoff on the oldarmy mess kits, but also something that drew upon the airline'sreliance on serving different foods steaming hot. The food in thesetrays would be kept in the freezer until it was ready to be eaten, atwhich point it would be heated up and served. In a matter of minutesdinner could be served with little to no preparation.Initially, nobody at Swanson's headquarters was bowled over bythe idea, and they produced only 5,000 of the meals. But eventuallythey warmed to the concept. They initiated Operation Smash, anational marketing campaign consisting of a blitz of television andprint ads. Two headlines read: "Swanson's fixed it for you! Completeturkey dinner on a tray." "My boys are crazy about SwansonTV Dinners."Soon enough consumers responded with a demand that far outpacedthe supply. The company was blindsided by the fact thatAmericans seemed fascinated by the prospect of eating this new,convenient meal in front of their televisions. And just like that, theTV dinner was born.Though Swanson did not invent the frozen food concept, itsmultiple compartments and use of leftover food changed the waythe food industry made money and the way America ate its meals.Almost overnight, it seemed that millions of kids were plopped infront of the black-and-white televisions with the aluminum pan infront of them. A few slices of bland turkey in gravy with some cornbreadstuffing, sweet potatoes, and perhaps the sorriest-tasting—certainly the sorriest-looking—peas on the planet. It wasn't veryappealing, but it was convenient, and the postwar generationquickly and steadily bought into this new concept of conveniencefoods. Mom and Dad had the evening out, and the babysitter stoodin as cook and waitress. In its first full year, more than 25 milliontins were served in living rooms and kitchens across the nation. Aphenomenon was born, and in one single moment, the face of foodin this country began to shift.There are many people who trace the beginning of our nationalobesity epidemic to the start of the fast-food chain, to a mannamed Kroc and the Golden Arches that he started in Des Plaines,Ill., in 1955. While I'm the first to admit that fast food and allof its offshoots played a big role in our current situation, for mymoney, the story of the Swanson TV dinner holds the real key tounderstanding why we're so fat. The TV dinner marked a lot offirsts: the first time that we embraced en masse convenience overcuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to tastegood; the first time that a preprepared (frozen) meal was servedready to heat and eat at home.But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one thathas affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is thatthe Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food industrymarketing gimmick seduced what might have been our betterjudgment. After all, the TV dinner was just a way to boost acompany's struggling bottom line and cut its losses. On the surface,from a food perspective, there appeared to be little benefitto the consumer. The taste was awful, the food unappealing, andthe choices limited. I mean, seriously, who wants to eat frozenThanksgiving turkey in February?
And yet it turned out that was exactly what a lot of peoplewanted, and they wanted to do it because of how it had been soldto them. They had been sold on the idea that the convenience ofthis product was their ticket to a happier life. It had nothing to dowith the actual food, and everything to do with the image of thefood that had been projected. It had to do with the convenience,the slick packaging, and the easy cleanup. Anytime, anywhere, youcould have a meal that you knew. It might not have been a goodmeal, but at least it was familiar.The Swanson TV dinner appeared at a moment when our culturewas changing how it thought about food. Televisions weremaking their way into people's homes, and food companies hadbegun to use this new medium to advertise their products, feedingconsumers hungry for new ideas with spoonfuls of new ways tospend money on food. The idea that convenience trumped tasteplayed right into the mind-set of that moment and it was all too infectious—from the boardrooms of the nation's food consortiumsto the glass doors of Madison Avenue. Food shopping, which upuntil then had been more of a local endeavor, started to become anational enterprise, and when people went to the store, there werecertain brands they expected to see—the brands from the televisioncommercials.Swanson TV dinner was a turning point, not so much becauseof what it was, but because of what it represented: Our expectationsfor food were lowered. It proved that convenience was king.McDonald's, Burger King, Stouffer's, Wendy's, the prepared foodin your supermarket, takeout pizza, cheap Chinese food—noneof these ideas could have taken off as they did if Swanson hadn'tpaved the way with a simple equation that millions of Americansembraced: TV dinners = more free time. Who cared if it tastedbad? Who cared what was in it? It was easy to buy and even easierto make. It wasn't gourmet, but hey, few things were.The one upside to that first batch of Swanson TV dinners wasthat they were humble in their portion sizes. Although high in sodium,the classic roasted, carved turkey dinner weighed in at amodest 250 calories. There was no way that a nation gorging itselfon TV dinners would become overweight. The servings of turkeyand peas were not only foul tasting, they were anemic by any oftoday's standards. That was soon to end.For over thirty years I held various executive posts at some of thecountry's largest food and beverage corporations, and while Iwasn't there for Swanson's revolution, I was certainly there for itswake. During the second half of the twentieth century, America atelike there was no tomorrow, consuming all manner of restaurantfare, prepared food, and packaged goods, and in the process makinga handful of well-heeled, well-funded companies like Swansonincredibly profitable.Every day during those thirty years, the ideas and methods weemployed came straight from the example that Swanson had set,even if Swanson itself was not explicitly mentioned. The names ofthe game in the food business became convenience and marketing.With these two concepts employed in just the right way, you couldsell almost anything. Swanson was never used as a case study andnever spoken of as the definitive moment in food history that itwas. In truth, it was a story that I'd heard passed around for years,but it was rare that people referred to it as a paradigm shift. Nevertheless,the lessons it represented and the implications it offeredwere clear to the entire industry. Cut losses and maximize profitthrough creative marketing and attractive packaging. If you canaccomplish this, all else is secondary.Today these ideas of packaging and marketing don't seemrevolutionary, but at the time they were precisely that. Before Swanson,most meals were prepared in the home, not purchased in a readyto-heat-and-eat form. That's the way it was. Swanson set the stagefor convenient meals at an acceptable price and passable taste. Nolonger would poor-tasting products be rejected out of hand.Swanson inverted that tried-and-true thinking. They droppedproduct quality—and by extension, health—from the equationand found large-scale results. It paved the way for a whole newmeans of gauging consumer satisfaction when it came to eatinghabits. If the consumer demands bigger portions, you don't raisethe price; you use lower-grade ingredients and adjust the taste toa manageable level. If the consumer demands a lower price, youdon't sacrifice the product's gimmick; you rejigger the recipe tocompensate for shifts in palate. If you manage to make it tastegood in the process, great. If not, leave it to the marketing department.It's their job to come up with a way to make it sell.