Lunchables were test-marketed in the late '80s, went national around '89 or '90, and have only gained in popularity since. There were only a few varieties at first, but I checked my supermarket yesterday and they have an entire end-of-aisle display offering dozens of options -- not just lunchmeat, cheese, and crackers, but now also pizza, mini-hot dogs, and so on. 1990 also saw the introduction of the still popular Kid Cuisine, a more explicitly TV dinner tray for the microwave.
I remember those very clearly when they came out, the idea that you were making a meal all by yourself. One of the businessmen quoted in the article mentions that this was the main appeal to kids -- you were putting together the pieces however you wanted, not opening up a sandwich already made by your mom. And of course the appeal to the mothers buying them was saving time and effort -- no prep, no clean-up, just throw the trays away. They were part of the re-emergence of the cult of convenience and efficiency in American culture, last seen during the mid-century.
Here is an extensive gallery of the first wave of TV dinners, mostly from the late '50s and early '60s, though continuing with altered marketing through the '60s and early '70s. Swanson's came out with the first line in 1957. The early ads make the pitch based on convenience (no prepping before, no dishes after) and the interchangability of the TV dinners for mom's home cooking. See this example. Already by the mid-'60s (see this gallery), they dropped the emphasis on convenience -- it was now about giving the kids something special -- and made little or no suggestion that they were a substitute for home cooking.
After their retreat from mid-century triumphalism about convenience, TV dinners seem to have more or less disappeared from the mid-'70s through the '80s. Lunchables and Kid Cuisine really were a novelty for us. I don't remember ever eating TV dinners in the '80s, either us kids or our parents. I searched Google Images for tv dinner(s) 1980s, and tv tray(s) 1980s, and came up with nothing. So it wasn't just my house. In fact, I don't remember any of my friends eating TV dinners, either themselves or their parents, and we used to eat at our friends houses fairly often back then.
Sure, we cooked a lot of food in the microwave, but it wasn't an all-in-one tray pitched for its convenience for frazzled mothers, and made to substitute for real food. The TV dinner bonanza of the late '50s and early '60s seems like one of the mid-century social charades that was undone starting in the '60s.
Housewives of the '50s and early '60s increasingly felt like their domestic work was not appreciated, but you can hardly blame their families. How grateful are your children and husband supposed to react when your meal-making consists of throwing some pre-fab grub into the oven, and only cleaning silverware and glasses afterward? For any woman who truly wanted to get joy from housewifery, she must have realized how unrewarding it was to go the TV dinner route, and that they were just an excuse for her own domestic laziness.
By the mid-'60s, the jig was up. Even youth culture icons like the Rolling Stones took note. Their 1966 song "Mother's Little Helper" mentions the mid-century mom's rationalizations about not cooking real meals and running off to pop some happy pills:
"Things are different today," I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband's just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she buys a frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of her mother's little helper
And to help her on her way, get her through her busy day.
Sound familiar? Only today it's Lunchables and Prozac. What's the opposite of convenience and efficiency? Committedness, thoughtfulness? Well, whatever you want to call it, once the pendulum swings away from convenience and back toward thoughtfulness, we'll see more real family meals. And none of these science fair experiments and arts-and-crafts dioramas made out of food that super-moms toil over these days either. That's more of a show-off thing for herself as against the other mothers, not made out of caring thoughtfulness for the family. And it's patronizing to the children -- "Look kids, your gingerbread raccoons even have little milk moustaches made out of vanilla icing!" Jeez, get a life, mom...
Returning finally to the idea that Lunchables give kids autonomy, that's just an illusion too, which all sides are willing to believe in these days. Real autonomy means teaching the kid how to make food by himself. Before Lunchables, etc., I remember my parents, mostly my mom, teaching me and my brothers how to do simple things, but that still gave us the ability to make a quick meal for ourselves. And all while we were still in elementary school.
Anyone else ever learn how to make an Egg McMuffin in the microwave? Throw some English muffins in the toaster, and while they're going, spray Pam inside a coffee mug, crack an egg into it, cover with wax paper and nuke on high for a minute, and you've got the egg part. Take out a slice of cheese, and presto, an Egg McMuffin in under 5 minutes. You could also nuke some bacon (wrapped between two layers of paper towels) to make a bacon, egg, and cheese McMuffin. Nuked bacon also goes great with fresh tomato, lettuce, mayo, and toast for a quick BLT.
That was on the fast food-y side, but we also learned how to scramble eggs and make omelettes in the skillet, how to make pancakes from mixing milk and eggs with the flour up through pouring the batter and flipping at the right time, how to fry hash browns, how to boil water to make mac & cheese (not very hard, but still felt more dangerous and grown-up than zapping a pre-made TV dinner), etc. I remember my friends being able to do simple independent stuff like this too, at least the friends close enough where I might see them fixing their own food at home.
Are small children allowed to boil water or cook with stove burners anymore? Probably not. Or roasting marshmallows over the stovetop flame to make s'mores after you get back from a long day of sledding and snow forts? Yeah, probably not. That was real childhood autonomy, not cooking at an adult level, but giving us our first big shove toward the edge of the nest, letting us take risks and allowing us to learn from our mistakes. What's the alternative? -- clinging to your mommy's skirt or microwaving Ramen noodles for the rest of your life.