The decline of microwaves and frozen food happened at a time when plenty of cultural factors should have been in the products’ favor. Erratic work hours and stagnant wage growth would theoretically make nuking dinner, whether it’s a frozen meal or leftovers, more enticing than ever. Now, as those problems persist for many Americans, it looks like microwaves might avoid their once-grim fate. In 2019, the number of microwaves shipped to U.S. retailers is expected to increase for the fourth straight year, nearing the market’s pre-nosedive numbers of the mid-2000s. Even the much-maligned TV dinner is on the upswing, with a couple of years of rising sales in a row.
This newfound success is thanks in part to food brands’ catching on to the aesthetic cues and “superfood” ingredients young Americans respond to. But the return of the microwave goes beyond any improvement in Lean Cuisine’s branding. Instead, the pendulum swing between skepticism of and enthusiasm for tech-produced instafoods is part of a historical trend: the eternal optimism that, this time, food technology might come through with the easy answers people have long been promised to the perennial question of what’s for dinner.
Anyone who’s eaten microwaved food, whether it’s manufactured meals or leftover home-cooking, can probably imagine one reason it fell out of favor for most of a decade: It’s often not very good. “In a microwave, what you’re not getting is either caramelization, which is the browning of sugars, or the Maillard reaction, which is the browning of protein and starches,” says Bruce Mattel, a chef and dean at the Culinary Institute of America. A microwave can’t create the crust on the exterior of a well-seared steak or the crunchy, chewy cheese bits on the edges of baked macaroni and cheese, Mattel explains, because microwaving relies on water, and moisture is the enemy of both reactions. Not only is the appliance unable to produce those chemical reactions, but it also tends to damage their effects when they already exist on previously cooked food being reheated.
Nevertheless, microwave dinners persevered because of convenience—and marketing. Much of modern American convenience food has roots in technology developed for the U.S. military. “A TV dinner is basically C rations for civilian use, and things like plastics that went into Tupperware and dehydration technology and all that was developed in wartime,” says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific. During peacetime, those innovations were adapted and rebranded to continue making money for their developers—not necessarily with much attention paid to the quality of the dining experience they were creating.
“Years ago, I made a claim that the microwave is the tool of the devil,” Albala says. “I thought it was a plot on the part of the food industry to get people to buy their frozen garbage and throw it in the microwave.” In making frozen meals irresistibly convenient and cheap, his thinking went, food conglomerates used the promise of the microwave to encourage people to eat in ways advantageous to corporations, instead of the more seasonal, regional ways people have eaten for millennia.