Microwave ovens have come of age in the 21st century. The microwave’s unique ability to cook food quickly fills an important and overwhelming need in a modern world where most people run out of time each day.
However, while a microwave oven solves several modern cooking dilemmas, this cooking method is not always the preferred method for certain foods. For example, recipes that benefit from precise temperature control will likely do better with more traditional cooking options.
Microwaves are generally safe and can be a convenient cooking tool if you follow the manufacturer’s safety guidelines. But, regarding health and nutrition, are microwave meals bad choices?
Understanding Microwave Meals
Microwave meals commonly refer to a ready-made or pre-packaged food product developed to be cooked quickly in a modern cooking convenience. A microwave meal seeks to offer time-saving qualities while providing almost-ready convenience and simplicity. Meals designed for microwave cooking are targeted at those with limited cooking skills, time, or the lack of a desire to go through what can be a lengthy task of making a meal from scratch.
Microwave meals, fortunately, are available in a wide range of options – offering main entrees, snacks, side dishes, and even some delectable desserts. Additionally, microwave meals are available to meet various dietary needs that cut across cultural cuisines.
Nutritional Profile of Microwave Meals
Microwave meals nutrition profiles can vary widely depending on the specific meal, brand, and ingredients used to create the option. The table below shows the nutritional content of a convenient microwave meal that is available in most stores – Real Good’s Meat Lovers Egg & Cheese Breakfast Bowl– which sounds like a healthy microwave eating option for early morning –
The first dietary concern involves the serving size, which, at 198 grams, offers little help to those who don’t know the metric system. The serving size is nearly 7 ounces or just under 1/2 pound, which may be a bit too much food for most, especially those who are watching their weight or nutritional intake.
Next, the cholesterol of 355 mg provides 118% of the recommended allowance. While the serving provides a whopping 36 grams of fat, half of it is saturated, providing 75% of the USDA Daily Recommended Allowance during your first meal. Another macronutrient that should cause concern is sodium, which provides about 40% of your daily needs.
To make this meal at home, you could easily reduce the salt and choose less-fatty meats, which would help reduce the excessive and unhealthy amounts of fat and sodium used in the microwave meal serving. Additionally, many of the listed ingredients could be left out as there is no need to preserve food that is being made fresh to eat right away. (i.e., Tapioca Starch, Lupin (which is related to the peanut) Bean Flour, etc.)
Potential Health Concerns Associated With Microwavable Meals
Despite the convenience and simplicity offered by microwavable meals, there are potential health concerns associated with eating a diet that includes an overwhelming number of pre-packaged, processed foods. So, keeping current and informed about the following potential health concerns is essential to make healthy microwave eating choices.
Nutritional Content – Certain microwave meals use additives/preservatives to enhance the meal’s flavor or texture or extend the product’s shelf life. In addition, the profile of microwave meals nutrition may also include –
- Foods that are heavily processed have high sodium levels. Consuming excess sodium can cause high blood pressure and various health issues. New research suggests that highly processed food actually makes you hungrier and negatively impacts neural resilience. (Psychology Today This is Your Brain on Junk Food)
- Artificial preservatives and additives, which, for some people, may cause an allergy or food sensitivity.
- Excessive added sugars or unhealthy fats as flavor enhancers will likely contribute to a less nutritious diet,
Loss of Nutrients – Although microwaving is generally considered a gentler cooking method that tends to preserve the meal’s nutrients, the processing and storing of specific microwavable meals can still lead to nutrient loss.
Quality of Ingredients – Certain microwavable meals might include lower-quality ingredients, such as heavily processed meats or refined carbohydrates.
Portion Control – Microwavable meals are often packaged for single-serving use; however, what the manufacturer considers a single-serve portion may not match your dietary requirements. Relying too heavily on microwave (or any pre-packaged) meals can make maintaining an appropriate caloric intake and weight control challenging.
Environmental Concerns – Single-use plastic containers and packaging materials may have ecological implications as they add to environmental waste.
How Can I Cook Healthy If I Only Have a Microwave?
Cooking healthy meals using only a microwave is entirely possible.
While this modern cooking method may have some limitations compared to more traditional methods of oven and stovetop cooking, you can still prepare plenty of nutritious options. In general, a microwave oven can be used to create healthy microwave eating options by following these simple guidelines –
- Select Nutrient-Rich Ingredients – Choose ingredients that offer vital nutrients that provide a well-balanced meal. These may include fresh vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, etc.
- Layer Ingredients Smartly – Place the denser items on the bottom of the dish and the lighter ones atop, to cook evenly.
- Explore Seasonings – Try spices/herbs to enhance flavor without adding unnecessary calories.
- Steam Vegetables – Steaming veggies helps retain nutrients, especially when compared to boiling them. Just make sure to use a microwave-safe bowl with a lid.
- Avoid Overcooking – Microwaves cook quickly; however, the power levels of microwaves vary. So, it’s essential to monitor cooking times closely to prevent overcooking. Overcooking can lead to nutrient loss.
- Always Use Microwave-Safe Containers – This prevents harmful chemicals from seeping into the food cooking.
Simple, Healthy Microwave Recipes
To get started, consider the following healthy recipes that offer simple microwave alternatives –
- Make an omelet by beating eggs, adding your favorite veggies, and microwaving the mixture until it sets.
- Mix rolled oats with milk or water. Then, add your favorite fruit and microwave for several minutes. Stir occasionally.
For Lunch and Dinner
- Use microwave-safe bowls to cook brown rice/quinoa. Add water, cover, and microwave the ingredients until cooked.
- Place vegetables in a microwave-safe dish with a bit of water and cook until tender.
- Prepare a vegetable soup by combining ingredients and cooking until heated.
- Pierce a potato with a fork before microwaving it until tender.
- Season a chicken breast or fish fillet. Microwave on a microwave-safe plate until the fish or chicken reaches its desired doneness.
Buy plain popcorn kernels and use a microwave-safe bowl. Drizzle the cooked popcorn with some olive oil and sprinkle with herbs or nutritional yeast for flavor and a healthy dose of Vitamin B.
Microwave meals are available in both frozen and shelf-stable forms. While the various microwave meal options offer convenience, microwave meals’ nutrition and quality may vary widely. Some emphasize taste and convenience, while other microwave eating options focus on offering healthier options that provide balanced nutrition.
As with any food that offers convenience, all consumers must read labels and ingredient lists. This is because when you understand the microwave meal’s nutritional content, you have the ability to make the right food choices so you can stay true to your dietary goals and preferences.