Eating while staring into a screen became a constant in my life long before I started spending lunch scrolling Instagram.
In the 1960s, having dinner in front of the TV was an eagerly anticipated special occasion. It usually happened when my parents went out to a party and I was put in charge of two younger siblings. I would take out three frozen chicken potpies, stab each with a serrated steak knife (for steam) and bake them. Then I’d click together three spindly black-and-gold metal TV tray tables, and we’d eat our pies while watching “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Addams Family.”
Fast-forward to today. TV dining is a frequent routine I look forward to. My husband and I, empty nesters, set two wooden trays with dishes, flatware and cloth napkins. We serve the food and head to the den to escape into an episode (or two) of “Outlander” or “The Americans.” We even have a small acrylic-and-brass folding table that one of us might pull up to the sofa.
Family therapists might tell you that having a meal together around the dining table is a sacred ritual that must be preserved. But sometimes, you just want to shut up and watch “Billions.”
The dirty little secret is that across America, increasing numbers of time-crunched people seeking relaxation are spending the dinner hour in front of a TV. According to Nielsen’s first quarter 2016 Total Audience Report, the average U.S. adult spends more than five hours daily tuning into television. Imagine the number of ramen bowls being balanced on ottomans and resting on sofa arms. Is that a chorizo stain on your Mitchell Gold club chair?
If TV dining is bringing out the slob in you and your loved ones, it might be time to up your TV dining game. According to Steven Stolman, author of “The Serial Entertainer’s Passion for Parties,” you can class up your meal, and minimize upholstery damage, by laying a cloth napkin on a tray, using a large plate and serving a one-dish meal that doesn’t require a knife. Shrimp and grits is one of his favorites. Stolman and his husband, Rich Wilkie, who live in Palm Beach and Milwaukee, are watching Hulu’s “Difficult People,” but soon they’ll be watching hours of Michigan football.
With serious binge-watching sprees prompting consumption of breakfast, lunch and dinner in front of the tube, it’s natural that the TV tray table, that iconic 1950s home accessory, would still hold a place in our lives.
Nobody knows for sure who invented the original flimsy metal tables, usually sold as a set of four with a stand. But they emerged around 1952, not long after the TV set debuted and just before advent of Swanson’s first TV dinner in 1953, a complete frozen meal with a TV set on the package. The television ushered in a new modern way of eating.
A set of 1960s TV tables (black with a party streamer and confetti design) are now part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. By 1960, nearly 90 percent of American homes had a television. “Inexpensive folding-tray tables were made for eating in front of the TV and became an alternative to the family dinner table,” according to the museum’s description. “Trays were made of metal, fiberglass, wood and heavy duty plastics so they could withstand the heat from the food. . . . The TV tray became an essential furniture item in many American homes.”
Paula Johnson, a curator at the museum, says the tables were often set up for big games or TV specials. “Those of us who remember it recall how much fun it was to put up one of these tables and not have to sit around the dinner table. It was a treat,” Johnson says. As snacking became an American pastime, the design was also marketed as a “snack table” because it enabled easy consumption of chips and dips.
TV tray tables, vintage and new, are available from many sources, high and low. Apparently, the habit of dining while watching “The Walking Dead” is popular in trailer parks, on Park Avenue and everywhere in between. You can buy a set of four wooden tables from Target for $44.99. Scully & Scully, an upscale Manhattan home furnishings emporium, has sold high-end wooden tray tables since the 1950s, and they continue to be popular, especially on bridal registries. The tables come in burlwood or mahogany (liquid- and stain-resistant), selling for $345 for a set of two or $685 for a set of four. “The snack tables give people more flexibility when it comes to eating dinner,” wrote the company president, Michael Scully, in an email, “especially if you desire something less formal than the dining table or you are eating by yourself while you watch your favorite show.”
The designers of my CB2 Novo TV table ($149), Robert and Cortney Novogratz, created it with small spaces and major TV events in mind. “Our family usually only eats in front of the TV if there is an important show to watch, like a game, the political debates and/or any of the awards shows,” Cortney Novogratz said in an email. “Having your own tabletop helps prevent spills, arguments, etc., and the tables fold nicely to be stored easily. We played off old school and thought of the touch of gold to dress them up to a more glamorous TV dinner tray.”
Vintage models can be found at yard sales and flea markets, with midcentury motifs such as leaves, centurions or Yogi Bear. On a recent day this month, there were about 4,100 listings for TV trays on eBay, with about 1,000 classified as collectible or retro.
Retro TV tables are a popular item at Miss Pixie’s Furnishings & Whatnot on 14th Street NW. According to owner Pixie Windsor, more people are looking for them. She sells them individually from about $12 to $30. “I have a friend who invites me for dinner and we eat on TV tray tables while listening to music,” Windsor says. “I love it, it feels so cozy.”
Pam Kueber, publisher of midcentury website retrorenovation.com, is a fan. “My husband and I pretty much eat our dinner on TV tray tables on our vintage sectional in our cherry-paneled basement rec room with a large-screen, hi-def TV set,” she says. A recent passion is “Mozart in the Jungle,” which they just watched for several nights while dining on chili mac and chicken parm.
Kueber says Netflix-binging millennials, who may have been exposed to tray tables only at Grandma’s house, should not be afraid of being seen with them.
“Heck, you can put your iPhone on them, too,” she says. “Or you can use them as a mobile office, as they are just the right height. And if you find a really old set, you could just pretend you bought it for its vintage appeal, not for dining.”