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Most of us need more hours in the day to get everything accomplished, but, alas, food preparation often becomes an afterthought. If you can relate, then you likely have prepared your share of meals in a microwave oven. Here’s the good news: Healthy microwave meals can be a snap.
For starters, consider that at least 40 percent of our daily diet should be vegetables, according to ChooseMyPlate.gov, a U.S. Department of Agriculture guide to eating heathy. So for healthy microwave meals, start with vegetables. Among all cooking methods, microwaving veggies retains the highest levels of antioxidants.
“Microwave cooking does not reduce the nutritional value of foods any more than conventional cooking,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “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.”
Dana Hunnes, adjunct assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, notes that the benefits of microwaved vegetables “has to do with the fact that microwaves heat foods so quickly. Vitamin C, a nutrient that is frequently lost in cooking, has been found to be well-preserved when microwaving. In general, cooking methods that best retain nutrients are those that cook quickly, heating the food in the shortest amount of time and using as little liquid as possible.”
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Frozen Healthy Microwave Meals
Not all that long ago, a frozen meal (remember the classic TV dinner?) was considered a bit of a joke, with its unrecognizable entrée, rubbery potatoes, and dried-out veggies—plus the little section of not-so-yummy dessert. Not anymore.
Frozen dinners are leading the way in healthy microwave meals, and they’re just as easy to prepare as ever. They’re also gaining popularity; Reuters predicts that the frozen foods market will surpass $309 billion in sales by 2021.
“The quality and variety are so much better than they were just a few years ago,” according to Libby Mills, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “More people are demanding food that is both healthy and environmentally sound, and companies are responding.”
What Makes a Healthy Microwave Meal?
Healthy microwave meals may appear easy to choose based on names that include words like “healthy” and “low calories.” But beware those marketing claims.
Read labels to decide whether different brands qualify as healthy microwave meals. For example, look at sodium. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Americans consume more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium every day, or 1,000 mg more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s daily recommended value for healthy adults and nearly 2,000 mg more than the American Heart Association recommends. Some microwave meals contain close to 1,000 mg of sodium in one box.
So what constitutes a healthy microwave meal? Consider these factors as you’re reading ingredient labels:
HEALTHY MICROWAVE MEAL TIPS
Most of the healthy microwave meals options in the freezer give you a filling meal with less than 500 calories. The drawback is that they may be high in sodium, so you do want to read that nutrition label, especially if you’re battling an illness like high blood pressure.
Another potential drawback: fiber content. Largely, frozen dinners include minimal fiber. That said, fiber-friendly fresh fruits and vegetables should be on everyone’s list of daily foods.
- Calories. Opt for choices that are lower than 600 calories. You’ll find some selections with as low as 200 calories.
- Protein. Lean toward choices with 10 to 15 grams of protein; some products offer even more.
- Fiber. The more, the better; try for products with at least 5 g of fiber.
- Fats. You’ll often see 10 to 20 g of fat; the ones to avoid are high in saturated fat—more than 2 or 3 g.
- Sugar. You’ll want meals with little to no added sugar
- Sodium. And, as noted above, watch that sodium. A good guide: less than 800 mg of sodium in a meal.
More Than a Timesaver
Healthy microwave meals in the freezer section of your grocery store are a timesaver for sure (less time in the grocery store, fewer minutes in preparation, and minimal cleanup). But they’re also a simple way for singles to ensure a balanced meal without having copious amounts of leftovers. They’re also a lifesaver when you’re trying to lose weight, because they’re automatic portion control (unless you eat more than one of them, of course!).
“I often recommend a healthy frozen meal a few times per week for my weight-loss patients,” says Jessica Bartfield, MD, an internist who specializes in nutrition and weight management at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, part of the Loyola University Health System in Chicago, on everydayhealth.com. “Instead of trying to figure out how many calories you’re going to get in a home-cooked meal or at a restaurant, you just flip the package over and you get everything you need to know.”
SOURCES & RESOURCES
Still Want to Cook?
Good, because nothing beats the added benefits of home cooking, which include bringing the family together, fresh ingredients, and saving money. (No matter how you twist it, eating a meal made at home is the least-expensive option.)
You can make some great healthy microwave meals right at home, and the internet is full of recipes.
Here are three examples of recipes for healthy microwave meals:
- Microwave oatmeal bars and 15-minute meat loaf, as posted at Taste of Home.
- Chicken pot pie in a mug and loaded potato soup, courtesy of Self.
- One-dish microwave spaghetti and toasted grilled cheese, from Genius Kitchen.
HISTORY OF MICROWAVE OVENS
The first microwave ovens reached stores in 1955 and, understandably, people were cautious. They wanted to know what they were, how they worked, and whether they were safe.
Now, 60 years later, we take microwaves for granted—though we do enjoy their speed in cooking food and their energy efficiency. Some basic ins and outs about microwave ovens:
- The FDA explains that the microwaves that cook food are produced by an electron tube called a magnetron. The waves from the magnetron reflect within the metal interior of the oven and are absorbed by the food. The waves cause the water molecules in the food to vibrate, which causes heat and cooks the food.
- As we all know, you need glass, paper, ceramic, and microwave-safe plastic containers to cook food in a microwave because the waves can pass through them. The container becomes warm not because of the microwaves but because it becomes warm from the food.
- The old tale about food cooking from the inside out in a microwave is simply not true. It cooks like any other device.