Why Americans Just Can’t Quit Their Microwaves

The quest for a quick dinner fix is eternal.

A microwave-dinner plate of pasta with chicken and vegetables
Thinkstock Images / Getty

For millions of American college students, the first taste of adult freedom comes in a bite of Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza or a salty slurp from a Cup Noodles. Hemmed in by fire-safety rules and tight budgets, dorm dwellers have long embraced such microwaved delicacies, honing cook times in shared lounges with low-powered appliances balanced atop mini fridges. When I was in school, my first microwaved drug of choice was Kraft Easy Mac, a mid-2000s classic, which gave way to Lean Cuisines and Smart Ones dinners once fluorescent cheese powder started weirding me out.

Microwaves, of course, are not just the province of broke young adults. The device has put forth a broadly tempting bargain for decades: fast, inexpensive, hot food, if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit in taste and texture. In the past decade, Americans haven’t always responded to that bargain with enthusiasm. As many young people in the early 2010s—myself included—learned to cook, moved to cities with dozens of delivery options, and began doubting the nutritional potential of processed foods, there was a bloodbath in the frozen-food market and microwave sales. From 2009 to 2014, the diet-meal giant Lean Cuisine lost a quarter of its sales. Some people predicted the microwave’s eventual death.

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.

The decidedly nonculinary origin of microwave ovens and frozen dinners has left plenty of room for microwaved meals to get better. And now that Millennials with a taste for sushi and quinoa bowls don’t want to nuke a chicken-alfredo frozen dinner or reheat leftovers when they could pick up fresher food from Chipotle or Sweetgreen, some companies see a golden opportunity to adapt to changing tastes. “Things that used to be made by food scientists now have culinary innovators who are creating the prototypes,” Mattel says. Food-processing technology has also made strides in the past decade, raising the potential quality of frozen foods.

Companies such as Nestlé, which owns the frozen-food brands Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, and DiGiorno, freely admit that they intend to compete with fast-casual restaurants by following their lead. “Our culinary teams across our brands look to popular quick-service restaurant menus for inspiration,” a Nestlé spokesperson told me via email. The company has introduced things like vegan Lean Cuisines and the Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen line, which offers bowl-style meals that promise lots of protein. Wildscape, the company’s newest brand, looks like something a fashionable art director wouldn’t be embarrassed to pull out of the communal fridge at her Brooklyn co-working space.

These frozen-food brands might be catching up at just the right time. People’s trust in food technology has always been cyclical, Albala says: “Americans have this weird relationship with science and food. In some eras, they really trust what scientists are telling them and believe in the latest gadgets and nutritional science.” In others, they value older, more traditional techniques and beliefs about nutrition. “People get bored of science,” Albala explains. “What’s been a hit for the last decade is house-made pickles and salumi and things that are really old techniques. The whole fermentation craze, house-made cocktails—all that stuff is entirely of a single aesthetic.”

As in fashion or entertainment, people want novelty, and sometimes novelty means whatever was being done 20 or 30 years ago. Now, Albala says, “we’re beginning to edge back toward our trust in technology.” The Instant Pot, a countertop pressure cooker, has been a meteoric success, Albala points out. It might have been the spark necessary to swing Americans, as harried and budget-conscious and time-strapped as ever, back toward a curiosity in food technology.

The manufacturers of Millennial-friendly microwavable meals are waiting for these newly curious consumers with open arms. But in promising better taste, fresher ingredients, and more modern ideas, brands might be playing into yet another historical food trend: perpetual overoptimism about the microwave’s potential. Even when it comes to leftovers, Americans might have been oversold on the appliance’s convenience. Companies have long attempted to convince people, either explicitly or implicitly, that microwaves are the “greatest cooking discovery since fire,” as one 1970s ad for the Amana Radarange put it.

There’s an obvious appeal to food that’s cheap, fast, and just as good as more expensive, time-consuming plates. But microwaves will never replicate much of what makes conventionally prepared food so delicious, even if the frozen meals Americans reheat get a lot better. A simple pan with a lid on a stovetop will easily reheat almost anything in a couple of minutes, and that method preserves all the crispy, chewy deliciousness that was cooked into the food in the first place.

Mattel remains an avowed microwave-hater, but he does acknowledge that the appliance serves a purpose for many Americans—just not an all-encompassing one. “There’s a place for everything, and I’d much rather be seeing people eat [modern frozen dinners] than McDonald’s every day,” because frozen meals more frequently contain vegetables, he says.

If nothing else, microwaves are hard to beat when it comes to one particular use, even for a chef, Mattel notes: “They make great popcorn.”