Think Again About Microwave Ovens

This is the next post in my series on how to save significant money by cooking at home.  In this post, I will tell you that you should spend some money so you can save some money.  A counter-intuitive idea to be sure.

Let me backtrack a bit first.  You can cook almost anything with elementary and inexpensive cooking gear.  In 2012 I had several recently divorced men in my psychiatric practice. When they moved from their homes into apartments, they knew to buy a couch, big screen TV, and other creature comforts.  However, they purchased little to no kitchen equipment and spent what discretionary cash that they had on restaurants and fast food. I made a Saving Savvy video for guys in similar situations, and in it, I looked at the minimum equipment that they would need to go beyond reheating and to start cooking.  I’ll link that video at the end of this post for those who are interested.

However, today my goal is to get you cooking, and the easier the process is, the more likely that you will not only try cooking but also sustain cooking.  It is only when you do the latter that you will see the many benefits of cooking for yourself.

I am a gadget fanatic, and one of the activities that give me pleasure is exploring the pros and cons of electric and mechanical creations.  Many years ago I bought a sewing machine. I can’t sew so such a purchase would seem odd on the surface. However, my buy was with intent, it was just that my purpose was different than the obvious.  I wanted to understand how such a complex machine worked. It is with a similar zeal that I have explored the potential of small electric cooking appliances. How do they work? Are they worthwhile time savers or simply shelf warmers.  What else can they do beyond their commonly used utility?

The microwave oven is one of the appliances in my holy trinity of necessary kitchen gadgets.  If I were suddenly forced to leave my house with only the clothes on my back one of the first appliances that I would buy for my new dwelling would be a microwave oven.

The microwave oven is an amazing, versatile, and inexpensive appliance.  Everyone knows that you can reheat leftovers and make bag popcorn in a microwave, but many believe this is where the device’s utility ends.  This is not the case.

Teaching my daughter how to bake a cake in her new dorm microwave. Part I.
Teaching my daughter how to bake cakes in her new dorm microwave. Part II.

When I was a single resident, I discovered that a microwave oven could be used to make all sorts of food.  Meats like fresh fish and chicken can be cooked to deliciousness. Vegetables can be done correctly. Baked items like muffins or cakes can be successfully created. Rice and pasta take about the same amount of time as on the stove, but you don’t have to watch the pot continually.

I made many meals from this cookbook when I was a single medical resident.

The process of microwaving is most similar to steaming, and so you can’t expect your foods to be brown, but there are many workarounds to make your dish look appealing. However, since a microwave is super quick, it is not the right choice for foods that require long/slow cooking to tenderize (like stews).

Smaller amounts of food cook quicker than larger amounts making the microwave perfect if you are preparing for one or two. A microwave can be a kitchen in a box if you live without a formal kitchen.

Quick oats, dried blueberries = instant breakfast!
Breakfast is served!

When microwaves were new and expensive, they came with thick cookbooks that not only were chocked full of recipes but also had a lot of useful general information on cooking methods. Unfortunately, newer microwaves usually just come with minimal information. It is definitely worth your while to learn basic microwave cooking techniques. Buying a microwave cookbook or researching on the internet can be the right places to start.

As amazing as microwave ovens are the device has detractors. Some dislike them because they expect a microwave to do things (like brown foods) that it is incapable of. Others have a fear that microwaves are bad for you. This latter group often sites information whose only authority is a rumor. The next section of this post tries to address some of the concerns that people voice when it comes to microwave cooking.

Search the internet for the dangers of microwave ovens, and you will come across countless “authoritative” sites that say the wildest things. Here is just one quote from a website called “Health-Science.”

Continually eating food processed from a microwave oven causes long term, permanent, brain damage by “shorting out” electrical impulses in the brain [de-polarizing or de-magnetizing brain tissue]

Now, someone is going to read this and believe it. I’m telling you that as a physician the above claim is not only ridiculous, it also makes no medical sense.

Let’s spend a little time talking about the science behind the microwave oven and some of the common concerns about cooking with this device.

Microwaves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Various parts of this spectrum include radio waves, visible light, and ultraviolet light. When living tissue is directly exposed to concentrated electromagnetic energy, it can be damaged. An example of this would be getting sunburned from spending too much time in the sun. However, we are continually exposed to a lower level of this energy daily, besides, many of the devices that we use create this type of energy. Your cell phone, your computer, your radio, and your TV are just a few examples of devices that generate low levels of electromagnetic radiation. No one would advise you to directly expose yourself to highly concentrated microwave energy. Microwave ovens contain this energy in the cooking chamber, which is a metal box. Your smartphone exposes you to significantly more microwave energy than any microwave oven.

Microwaves heat food mostly by energizing the water molecules in the food. The active water molecules start to vibrate and rub against each other. This movement creates heat by friction, just like rubbing your hands together creates heat by friction. It is this friction heat that actually cooks your food. Most other cooking sources (like your stovetop) provide energy indirectly to the food which makes these devices less efficient and slower. Since the power is applied directly to the food the only residual heat in the oven is a byproduct of the hot food, as opposed to a heated cooking element (like the burner on a stove).

Let’s explore some common microwave oven concerns:

Microwave ovens cause cancer
FALSE
I have heard many variations on this theme, but the basic idea is that foods that are microwaved cause cancer. I think that this idea is because folks are confused by the term “ microwave radiation.” Radiation just refers to how energy (or particles) are emitted. The sun radiates heat, a radio tower radiates radio waves, and so forth. Nuclear radiation is very different from microwave radiation, and it is dangerous because it contains so much energy that it is ionizing, and can damage cell components like DNA. Microwave energy is non-ionizing, and its effects on food are just to cook it like any other source of heat.

Microwave ovens denature the protein in foods
TRUE
I read a blog where a woman refused to use a microwave because she understood that cooking food in a microwave denatures the food’s proteins. This is absolutely true, and on the surface, it sounds scary, but it isn’t at all. Proteins are twisted chains of amino acids. Heat in any form can untwist these chains to some degree which changes their properties. When you fry an egg on the stove the albumin protein in the egg white is denatured and goes from transparent and liquid to white and solid. Denaturing is what cooking is all about and is in not exclusive to microwave ovens.

Microwave ovens destroy the minerals and vitamins in foods.
MOSTLY FALSE
When we talk about the minerals that we need to survive, we are mainly referring to salts of elements like calcium or magnesium. These type of elements are fundamental, and they do not change.

Vitamins are organic compounds needed for healthy cell metabolism. Prolonged heat can destroy vitamins, and any cooking method has this potential. However, since microwaves tend to cook faster than other cooking methods they actually can have a less adverse impact on vitamins than other cooking methods.

Making vegetables in the microwave is not only easy, it is more nutritious.

Microwaves don’t brown food
TRUE
Microwave ovens produce heat by energizing water molecules which then vibrate and create heat by friction. This process is similar to steaming food and does not provide the dry heat that is needed to brown. There are many tricks that a cook can use to make a microwave cooked food look more appetizing. Coating chicken with BBQ sauce, topping a meatloaf with catsup, using a naturally dark cake batter (like chocolate), or running the cooked food under a broiler for a few minutes are just some of the techniques.

Microwave ovens don’t cook evenly
TRUE
The pattern of microwaves in a conventional home oven is uneven which is why most microwaves have rotating platters. However, you still may need to stir food or rearrange items during the cooking process to have them cook more evenly.

Microwave ovens cause EMF (electromagnetic field?) sickness
FALSE
I read a post on a website that said that microwave ovens caused EMF sickness and listed a bunch of generic malaise symptoms (like fatigue). Remember, that microwave ovens are designed to be a Faraday cage (a device that does not let electromagnetic waves out). Cooking a frozen burrito is considerably different than working on a microwave transmission tower!

It is dangerous to cook chicken in the microwave
FALSE
Just like in any other cooking method you need to make sure that chicken cook to the proper temperature and then is allowed to rest for a bit before eating. I could find no credible reports that could confirm that properly cooking chicken in a microwave was dangerous.

Microwaved baby formula is bad for the baby
TRUE…but
It is not recommended that you warm up a baby’s bottle in the microwave. This is because microwaves heat unevenly and portions of the milk could be overly hot.

Microwave ovens can cause heart attacks
FALSE
Decades ago you would see signs around public microwaves warning pacemaker wearers about the danger of being too close to a microwave. Since 1971 all microwaves have to meet stringent guidelines as far as microwave emission, and the FDA now advises against such warnings.

We are surrounded by sources of electromagnetic radiation from devices that range from your cell phone to your computer. Modern pacemakers are very shielded from external sources of radio waves, so don’t worry.

What about microwaves causing heart attacks? I think that non-experts made the wild leap between the old pacemaker warnings and myocardial infarctions. There is no link.

Microwave ovens are dangerous for pregnant women and can cause infertility in men.
FALSE
This rumor exists because strong EMFs may have a negative effect on developing babies and may cause a reduction in viable sperm counts. Remember, microwave ovens are basically Faraday Cages, they don’t release EMF. Typing with your laptop on your lap is potentially a much higher source of EMF for those regions, but before you get too concerned about this, there isn’t good evidence to support even these claims. Don’t worry, be happy.

Microwaved water kills plants.
FALSE
True urban legend. By the way, why would anyone microwave water for plants anyway?

Whether you choose to use a microwave or not is up to you. However, make your decision based on fact, not fiction. In our house, the microwave oven is a constant and convenient appliance that makes our daily cooking chores easier and faster.

The cheapest way to start cooking is by using just the basics.

Start Cooking And Start Saving Big

In the year 1900 less than two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010 more than fifty percent were. Less than one-third of all families will sit down together for a meal more than 2 times a week. Forty-six percent of Americans eat their meals alone.

Research has shown that people who cook/eat at home are happier, eat fewer calories, and consume less sugar than those who eat out. Eating as a family improves family communication and cooperation. Children feel more emotionally stable when their family eats together at home.

Preparing your food at home can save significant money. If you use a restaurant delivery service, you may be paying up to five times the cost of making the food yourself. The simple act of bringing your lunch, as opposed to buying your lunch can save the average person up to $2000/year. Even fast food dining is significantly more expensive than making your meals from scratch. Food prepared at home can be customized to your particular needs, and cooking simple meals is not only delicious; it is easy.

With so many reasons to cook why is it that so many people choose to eat out? Lack of time seems to be a significant factor. If you work more than 35 hours per week, you are less likely to cook: if you have a long work commute you are also less likely to cook. In addition, the less you cook, the less likely you are to cook. This latter fact may be due to lack of skill, confidence, available staple ingredients (an empty pantry), or cooking equipment.

Julie was our main chef when the kids were younger. She eventually returned to the paid workforce, and our dinners were transformed from homemade to frozen pizza, fast food, and delivery. Our kids were in an uproar, as they sorely missed home cooking. After some thought I took on the cooking challenge with one caveat, I would not do it alone, I would also teach my kids how to cook, and this is how “Cooking with Dad, Thursday,” started.

Teaching my kids to cook has been a real joy.

I have to admit that I had some initial fear about returning to the kitchen, and it did seem overwhelming in the beginning, but I eventually got my sea legs. What seemed difficult soon became second nature, and it has been fantastic fun to cook with my children. We plan our meals, shop, prepare, and clean up together. Over the last 4 years my kids have become both confident and competent in the kitchen.

It is important to remember that cooking becomes more comfortable over time. With experience, you understand what to look for when you prepare a dish. Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts don’t go as you had planned.

Here are some suggestion to help you transition from being a meal buyer to a meal creator. The ideas below can benefit you if you are cooking for one, or an entire family.

Buy a basic cookbook
Why buy a cookbook in a world of internet recipes? General cookbooks are full of information for a new or returning cook. They define cooking terms (do you know the difference between mince and dice?). They educate you about the different cuts of meat. They show you what to look for when a dish is done, and much more. Also, their recipes are pretty foolproof, and they generally use readily available ingredients. I like the general cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker.

A general cookbook is worth the price.

Follow the recipe
When you are just getting back into cooking, try to follow the recipe for the best results. Once you get comfortable with cooking, feel free to substitute, add, or omit as you see fit.

Have the right equipment
You only need basic equipment to cook just about any dish. In my next post, I’ll explore that equipment, and I’ll also look at small appliances that could ease your workload and speed up your prep-time.

Small electrics can make your job easier.

Gain cooking skills.
Practice is the most critical factor here. For additional understanding read your cookbook, watch YouTube videos, or ask your mom (or dad).

Have the ingredients
When you start to cook, you may become discouraged with the lack of ingredients that you have on hand. Purchasing your initial stockpile of staple items like spices, flour, oil, and sugar all at once can make it seem like cooking at home is more expensive than going out to eat. However, it is important to remember that you are stocking up. Staple items go a long way and make many meals. Buy only the basics at first, and build your larder a little at a time to reduce sticker shock.

Make sure that you have the ingredients before you start cooking.

Start simply
Instead of immediately committing to making three meals a day, seven days a week, start slowly. Commit to cooking one or two days a week. Or consider only making breakfast at home, or packing a lunch every day. As you gain confidence and efficiency expand your cooking commitment to other days or meals.

Have a plan
To arrive at a destination, it is always best to know where you are going. Devise a workable meal plan. One option could be to eat a particular category of food based on the day of the week. Taco Tuesdays, Pasta Thursdays, Soup Saturday, etc. Having a little structure makes weekly planning much more manageable.

Taco Tuesday!

Understand yourself
Can you eat the same thing for lunch and dinner? Can you eat the same meal 4 days in a row? Know your personal preference, so you don’t waste food. If you hate eating the same thing several days in a row freeze your leftovers for a future meal. If you can eat the same food every day, make a big batch one day and reheat and relax on the other three.

Divide and conquer
You can save money by baking an entire chicken, but only if you don’t eat the whole bird in one sitting. When I was a resident physician, I had almost no money. I had to make every penny stretch, and I had a minimal food budget. I didn’t have the money to prepare food in quantity, but in those days there weren’t any cookbooks out there for single people. However, there were some books for cooking for two. I would make a double meal portion and immediately split the second half of it into a Tupperware container that would go in the fridge. The next morning I took that half to work for my lunch. I had a great meal that not only saved me money, but it took almost no time to prepare.

Don’t leave leftovers in the fridge with the idea that you will eventually eat them, plan ahead. Consider dividing up your leftovers in microwaveable containers. Some can be refrigerated for successive days, other portions can be frozen. Consider other uses for your leftovers. That leftover roasted chicken can be portioned off for a casserole meal, and its carcass could serve as a base for a soup to be served at another time.

Save money with combinations
Just about every culture has delicious ways to stretch meat. Soups, casseroles, stews, and stir-fries are just some examples. You should try to employ these foods in your meal plan. They are easy to make, ingredient flexible, and soul-satisfying. Some of my absolute favorite meals growing up were combination foods.

Soup is a perfect combination food. Our Thanksgiving turkey carcass made enough soup to feed an army.

Learn the art of the sandwich
A cheese sandwich is OK, a grilled cheese sandwich is yummy, a grilled cheese, ham, and tomato sandwich is a dinner.

Consider breakfast for dinner
Breakfast food cooking is easy and straightforward. There is no reason that you can’t have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner, or homemade waffles, or French Toast. My kid’s absolute favorite meal that Julie makes is Swedish pancakes (crepes). Making them is labor intensive, but dirt cheap.

Cheap, time intensive, delicious!
Delicious crepes!

Consider alternative breakfasts
Sugary cereal in a bowl is… well, it is crap. You can eat anything for breakfast, including yesterday’s leftovers. Some simple, cheap, and quick options include: quick oatmeal (not instant) made by the bowl in the microwave in under two minutes, or apples with peanut butter, or toast with peanut butter and banana, or scrambled eggs (which can be done in a cup in the microwave if you are making a single portion), or homemade muffins or quick bread… and the list goes on.

A piece of fruit with peanut butter is a lot more nutritious than a bowl of sugary cereal.

Make meat a condiment
Meat is costly, and we all probably overeat the stuff. You can reduce the amount of meat that you use in a combination dish and still have a great dinner. Hamburger is the perfect meat stretcher as it can be combined with other ingredients to create meatloaf, meatballs, and a hundred different dishes.

Consider meatless meals
I grew up Catholic, and in the day we weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. This never posed a problem as my mom had dozens of delicious meatless recipes that ranged from mac and cheese to homemade mushroom soup. Consider making one or two days a week meatless. You will have a more varied diet, and save some money.

A delicious meatless meal.

It is OK to substitute once you have a little cooking experience
Don’t have noodles? Toss in rice, or broken up spaghetti into your homemade soup. Out of fresh vegetable for your casserole? Consider using a bag of frozen. No one is the boss of you!

Ponder having a prep day
A lot of people who regularly cook will prep on Sunday. They may prepare a big pot of something or a large casserole that they can serve for several meals the following week. Conversely, they may freeze some of it, so they have a stockpile of food at the ready. Others will prep up ingredients that can be combined into many different dishes. They may brown hamburger, or cook up chopped vegetables to use during the week as a base for other recipes.

Use it up
Before you go shopping, shop your fridge and pantry first. Plan your meals on what you have. If something is still good, but nearing the end of its prime make sure that you cook it and not waste it. Items like somewhat stale bread can be converted into breadcrumbs, croutons, or French Toast. Overripe bananas can be quickly turned into banana bread. Softening veggies can be tossed into a soup or stew.

Avoid portion distortion
Know what a regular portion/meal is and try to stick to that amount. You will not only save money, but you will be healthier.

Just the right amount.

Learn how to bake
Baking is simple and rewarding. Don’t pay $3 for a muffin or cupcake, make them for pennies. When I stopped eating concentrated forms of sugar a few years back, I stopped eating muffins. However, I missed them, and so I found a variety of excellent muffin recipes that were no sugar added. I would make a dozen and freeze them. In the morning I would take out one or two and give them a quick zap in the microwave. They tasted like they were just baked and I had my muffin fix.

It’s easy to bake muffins that will cost a fraction of what they would at a bakery.

You can make cookies and freeze them in portion sized ziplock bags. You can also freeze the raw cooking dough in cookie-sized balls on a cookie sheet. Once frozen place the balls in ziplock bags. Take out what you want and bake… instant goodness.

I read a post from a mother who would make triple batches of cookie dough which she would freeze into cookie balls. Every day, when her son came home from school, she would take out a few and bake them in a toaster oven. Her son had freshly baked cookies every single day. I’m sure that she was mother of the year in his mind.

Consider cooking entirely from scratch at times
Sometimes it is clearly cheaper and/or more flexible to make a dish entirely from scratch. Sometimes it is just more convenient to use some prepared foods in your recipe (like condensed soup), and the cost difference isn’t that great.

Cooking from scratch is not as hard as you think.

Find your comfort level. However, the advantage of thoroughly cooking from scratch lies in basic ingredients. If you have flour, you can make cakes, cookies, gravy, bread, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, muffins, and dozens of other things. If you have a cake mix you can just make a cake (yes, I know that you can mod cake mixes… but, hopefully, you get my point).

Singles, be kind to yourself
If you are a solo eater, it has been shown that singles who eat out tend to lack core nutrient foods like vegetables and fruits. Do yourself a favor, and start cooking!

As I mentioned above, I cooked most of my meals when I was a single medical resident. I found ways to streamline the cooking process, and I think that I ate better than most of my more affluent cohorts. I learned a lot of tricks to accomplish my cooking goal. If I needed a little hamburger for something, I would defrost and crumble a frozen hamburger patty. I became a competent crockpot cook. I found that I could cook surprisingly good food in a microwave (no kidding). I would make extra of inexpensive accompaniments, like rice, and use them in future dinners so I could save prep time. Solo cooking doesn’t have to be a drag.

No kitchen, no problem!
I’m trying to reduce my grocery bills because I’m retired, and would prefer to spend my money on other things. However, for many spending less on food isn’t an interest, it is a necessity. If you are on a limited budget, you may also have a compromised housing situation. You may be renting a room, or live in a makeshift basement apartment. Perhaps you reside in a tiny studio flat that only has a mini-fridge and a microwave. You can still make your own food using the cooking equipment that you have or by purchasing some inexpensive small electric appliances.

Cooking in a hotel room without a kitchen.

A while back I read a blog about a woman who lived in a very tiny NYC studio. She didn’t have a kitchen, but she did have a few very inexpensive appliances. She had a hot plate, a small rice cooker, a coffee pot, a toaster oven, a dorm style fridge, and a small microwave. Her building’s wiring was so old that she could only run one appliance at a time or she would blow a fuse. She would typically make enough food for 5 days in one sitting.

On the particular week of her post, she had tofu scramble with sautéed onions and peppers for breakfast. She pre-cooked the vegetable and portioned out the tofu so she could quickly fry up a daily hot breakfast. For lunches, she premade a mock tuna sandwich filling, which she then loaded onto her bread on the morning of use. Her dinners that week consisted of a homemade stir fry accompanied by rice. Five portions of her stir fry were divided into Tupperware, as were 5 portions of cooked Jasmine rice. Lastly, she made a pot of coffee and stored it in her fridge for a daily morning cup. She had a very tiny sink in her bathroom (and no kitchen sink), so she washed her dishes in the shower. Her example may be extreme, but it does illustrate that if you have a will, there is a way. She was able to eat vegetarian, shop at Whole Foods, and stay on budget.

Small electric appliances make it possible to cook for one, or a crowd. Every year I cook our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco Roaster, and we have anywhere from 15-20 people for dinner. Using the roaster frees up our oven for all of those yummy side dishes.

We make our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco roaster.

Mindset matters
If you think of cooking as drudgery, it will become drudgery. Find the cooking style that works best for you. Listen to music or a book on tape while you are preparing food to make the time fly. Prep with someone and turn cooking into social time. Celebrate the fact that you are eating fewer preservatives. Think of cooking as a job where you get paid (by saving money) instead of paying out more cash for cold carryout. You won’t need to work that second job because you will be spending less.

Reassess
You may come up with a great plan, but a theory is different than practice. If something doesn’t work, feel free to change it.

Progress not perfection
As I have said in previous posts, we are not perfect, and we don’t live in an ideal world. Any changes that you make are good. If you go from always eating out to making dinner two nights a week (even if one of those nights is leftovers), you will save money. If you go from always buying lunch to packing a lunch, you will save money. Just do something!

Dear readers, let’s get cooking!