By Omar Shamout

If someone told you they were going to buy a nuclear radiation-emitting machine, put it in the most-used room in their house, and then prepare food with it, you'd look at them like they were crazy. Conversely, if that same person told you they were going to buy a new microwave for their kitchen, you'd probably think it was no big deal—because it really isn't. Technology has granted us the ability to harness a potentially dangerous process and use it to save time, effort, and money when preparing meals. However, with ease of use comes laziness, and that's where problems can arise. Just like with any type of cooking, making microwave fare nutritious and delicious requires a little thought. So let's take a look at how to plan the perfect microwave meal!

What does a microwave do, exactly?

The FDA explains it this way: "Microwaves are produced inside the oven by an electron tube called a magnetron. The microwaves are reflected within the metal interior of the oven, where they are absorbed by food. Microwaves cause water molecules in food to vibrate, producing heat that cooks the food." Sounds pretty simple, but it seems like taking this nuclear shortcut might be harmful to the food itself. Is it? The FDA also advises us, "The microwave energy is changed to heat as it is absorbed by food, and does not make food 'radioactive' or 'contaminated.'" Phew!

What about the nutrients?

Critics claim that food prepared in a microwave loses nutrients, leaving you with only the unhealthy ingredients. While this may be somewhat true, the same thing can be said of all types of cooking. The truth is, only a strict raw diet will preserve all the natural vitamins and minerals present in the foods that are part of a heart-healthy diet. Boiling, grilling, and baking all have some effect, but take longer, and can actually kill more of the nutrients in your dinner than microwaving does.

According to the FDA, "Microwave cooking does not reduce the nutritional value of foods any more than conventional cooking. In fact, foods cooked in a microwave oven may keep more of their vitamins and minerals, because microwave ovens can cook more quickly and without adding water." This is because microwaves primarily heat up the molecules contained in food rather than cooking from the outside in like traditional methods. This means microwave heating takes significantly less time. Vitamins B and C, especially, are not resistant to heat, which means they're preserved better in food cooked in microwaves.

Cooking in water (steaming and boiling) generally results in less nutrient retention than microwave cooking does. For instance, rice and beans have vitamin-rich coatings that are completely burned off when they're boiled, meaning all the healthy parts are lost when the water is drained off. Microwaves also preserve the texture of vegetables far better than other methods, so you'll avoid the chewy-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside problem.

Vitamin B-12

The exception to this rule is vitamin B12. In 1998, Japanese researchers concluded that microwaved meat lost 30 to 40 percent of its vitamin B12 content when microwaved for more than 6 minutes. This particular vitamin, which protects against anemia, can be easily found in many pill supplements, but if you do decide to microwave your animal proteins, try sticking to those with low cooking times, like meatballs, hamburger, or Salisbury steak. Fish also generally takes less time to cook, so the microwave is a good option for cooking many types of seafood. Cheddar and goat cheeses are also a good source of vitamin B12, and there's no zapping required!

Safety first!

Just because a microwave won't turn your food into green radioactive ooze doesn't mean there aren't certain precautions you should take when heating up your lunch at work before you scurry back to your desk to finish that spreadsheet. Most people like to cover their food with a lid or a plastic wrap to allow the food to cook more evenly. If you're going to use plastic, then it's absolutely necessary to use products that have been verified as "microwave safe" by the FDA. Look for a symbol on the packaging of any plastic you buy that you intend to use with your food in the microwave. This will prevent potentially cancer-causing chemicals present in non-microwave-safe plastics from leaching into your food.

Mix and match!

Instead of giving you just one recipe, we thought it would be fun and useful to provide a sampling of great-tasting microwaveable options in a variety of food groups. You'll get a nutritious and well-balanced meal no matter how you combine them.


Turkey Meatballs. Turkey is one of the leanest proteins available, and is always a great alternative to beef and even chicken. Two servings, or about 12 medium-sized frozen turkey meatballs, take approximately 5 minutes to heat in the microwave. They taste great plain, or with a pinch of pepper or your favorite seasoning. If you have a little extra time and feel like spicing things up a little, try buying some ground turkey, then adding chopped onions and chili powder before making the meatballs yourself, and cooking for 5 minutes. Sometimes we all need a little kick!

Salmon Fillet. Salmon tastes great in the microwave and is ready in just 2 or 3 minutes, depending on your microwave's wattage. Try squeezing half a lemon over your fillets, then grating the rind over the top. Finish the seasoning by adding pepper, thyme, or basil. Or all three. Yum!

*Tip* Waxed paper is the best covering to use in the microwave, because it doesn't heat up or stick to the food. The wax coating also preserves moisture rather than absorbing it the way a paper towel does. The waxed paper should be wrapped around the food or dish lightly but securely, and doesn't need to have vent holes poked in it. If you do use paper towels, make sure they're not the recycled kind, because these can be a fire hazard when exposed to microwaves.

Grains and other Complex Carbs

Brown Rice. Brown rice contains more fiber than white rice does, is made from nutrient-rich whole grains, and has only 100 calories per half-cup. Microwave preparation will take about 25 or 30 minutes, though, so since you can cook this just as fast on the stove or in a rice steamer, you might want to do that instead. If you decide microwaving your brown rice is more convenient for you, combine 2 to 3 cups of water with 1 cup of brown rice, depending on your moist/dry preference, in a 2-1/2 quart microwave-safe dish. Cook uncovered on HIGH for 5 to 10 minutes or until the water boils, then reduce power to MEDIUM before cooking for another 20 minutes or so. Let sit for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork before serving. Instant brown rice cooks more quickly, but it contains much less fiber and nutrients, so we don't recommend it.

Baked Potato. Baked potatoes are very healthy, and they're loaded with potassium. After scrubbing a medium potato, pierce the skin multiple times on all sides with a fork for proper venting, and wrap the potato in a moist paper towel. Most microwave ovens take about 4 or 5 minutes to bake a medium potato completely. Once it's baked, think outside the box when it comes to toppings—try some fresh salsa, fat-free sour cream, and fat-free grated cheddar cheese for a spicy, south-of-the-border-style spud!


When it comes to veggies, everyone has their favorites, so here's a handy list of how long each kind should be steamed in the microwave. You could of course shell out 10 bucks for a steamer, but you can achieve very similar results with a microwave. To prepare any of the following, simply place the vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl with a small amount of water and cover with lid or microwave-safe plastic wrap.
  • Asparagus: 4 to 6 minutes
  • Broccoli: 3 to 5 minutes
  • Brussels sprouts: About 7 minutes
  • Carrots: 5 minutes
  • Cauliflower: 3 to 4 minutes
  • Green beans: 3 to 4 minutes
  • Peas: 1 to 2 minutes
  • Zucchini: 6 to 8 minutes
Don't blame the microwave!

The bottom line is that you shouldn't blame the microwave for giving you unhealthy food. What you chose to put inside of it was probably unhealthy to start with! Don't fall into the trap that food companies want you to. They assume that because you have chosen to save time in your food preparation, you must not be too concerned about the actual food you put in your body, either, so they serve you a cheaper and unhealthier product. That's not to say there aren't some great-tasting and healthy microwave meals out there, but you're always going to get better-tasting food if you use fresher ingredients. Microwaves are a handy and quick way to steam and heat your vegetables, starches, legumes, and lean meats that won't alter the flavor and will store many of the vitamins and minerals you need as part of a balanced diet.