Think back to the last time you used a microwave oven. Maybe you were reheating some cold coffee or popping a bag of popcorn. Or maybe you were using it to “make dinner” by heating up something in a little plastic tray. These uses of the microwave are good for saving time, but not much good for saving money.
The microwave is good for a lot more than pricey convenience foods. You can also use it to cook healthy meals and snacks at home, from scratch. Microwaves can cook many foods a lot faster than the oven or stove-top, making it easier to prepare a home-cooked meal on a tight schedule. If your microwave helps you eat in just one extra night a week instead of dining out, it could save you hundreds of dollars a year.
How to Save Money Using Your Microwave
To get the most out of your microwave, you have to look beyond the “popcorn” button. The microwave is actually an incredibly versatile appliance that can do lots of different jobs in your kitchen. As you learn about this tool and its many features, you’ll discover more and more time-saving, money-saving uses for it. Here are a few of the best ways you can use your microwave to save money.
1. Reheat Leftovers
According to a 2015 survey by the American Chemistry Council, the average U.S. household wastes over $600 worth of food every year. That’s money coming out of your wallet and going straight down the drain. One of the best ways to cut that number down is to make better use of leftovers – and a microwave makes it easier to do just that.
With a microwave, you can easily reheat leftovers from last night’s dinner and turn them into another meal. If you have access to a microwave at work, you can use those leftovers as part of a brown bag lunch. According to the Visa 2015 Lunch Survey, Americans each lunch out twice a week on average, paying about $11 each time. If you can replace just one of those restaurant meals with reheated leftovers you were going to throw out, you’ll save over $500 a year.
Another option is to stash those leftovers in the freezer and have a ready-made freezer meal that’s probably a lot better than a frozen “TV dinner” – and a lot cheaper, too. A typical frozen dinner costs about $5, so if you replace one of those every week with leftovers, you’ll save about $260 a year.
2. Thaw Meat
Picture this: It’s a weekday, and your meal plan for the night’s dinner calls for spaghetti with meat sauce. However, in the morning you’re in such a hurry that you forget to take the ground beef out of the freezer to thaw. When you get home from work, you’re hungry, your family is hungry, and the main ingredient for the night’s dinner is still a solid, frozen block.
At this point, you could just ditch your meal plan and spend $30 on Chinese takeout – but with a microwave, you don’t have to. A good microwave can thaw a one-pound block of ground beef in under 10 minutes, which means you can still have your spaghetti dinner ready in less time than it would take for a delivery person to arrive.
Most newer microwaves have a pre-programmed “defrost” cycle that automatically sets the correct power level and time for whatever you’re thawing. If yours doesn’t, LEAFtv recommends setting it to 20% or 30% power and running it for 8 to 10 minutes per pound of meat. To help it defrost evenly, take it out of the packaging, put it on a microwave-safe plate, and cover it loosely with microwave-safe plastic wrap. Check it regularly as it thaws, and as soon as it’s ready, take it out and cook it immediately.
3. Cook Veggies
Nutrition experts disagree on a lot of things, but there’s one thing they’re unanimous on: Everyone should eat more fruits and vegetables. The most comprehensive study on the subject, published in The Lancet in 2017, found that people who eat at least four servings of fruits and veggies per day cut their risk of death by over 20% compared to those who eat less than one serving.
Having a microwave makes it a lot easier to get your daily dose of vegetables because it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to cook them. According to the cooking site ChefSteps, your microwave can give you a perfectly cooked serving of veggies every time if you follow these simple steps:
- Clean your vegetables and cut them into one-inch chunks.
- Put them in a glass bowl and cover it with plastic wrap.
- Cook them for 30 to 45 seconds on high. This time will vary depending on your microwave and how much food you are cooking.
- Puncture the plastic wrap with a knife to let steam escape before unwrapping the bowl.
Many people don’t like to cook veggies in a microwave because of a health myth that this destroys the nutrients. However, according to Harvard Health Publishing, microwave cooking is one of the best ways to preserve nutrients in food. Because microwave cooking is fast, your food spends less time exposed to heat, which can break down certain nutrients, such as vitamin C. And because it requires so little liquid, it doesn’t allow nutrients to leach out into the cooking water the way boiling does.
Other people argue that microwave cooking is unsafe because it produces carcinogens in food – especially meat. However, the National Cancer Institute points out that high-heat cooking methods, such as grilling, are much more likely to produce these harmful compounds, and that precooking meat in a microwave before grilling it is actually healthier. As for vegetables, there’s no evidence at all that microwaving them is harmful.
4. Dry Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs are incredibly expensive to buy in a store. My local supermarket charges $2 for a little plastic box containing less than an ounce of fresh rosemary or cilantro. Worse still, even that small amount is often more than you need for the recipe you’re making. You use the one tablespoon you need, and the rest of that expensive ingredient goes to waste.
However, you can still put those leftover herbs to good use by drying them – and the microwave offers one of the quickest and easiest ways to do it. You can also use the same method to preserve home-grown herbs from your vegetable garden or window box.
Here’s how to do it:
- Rinse the herbs and dry them thoroughly.
- Remove the leaves from the stems. This allows them to dry more quickly and evenly.
- Cover a microwave-safe plate with a paper towel to absorb moisture, or use a paper plate. Lay the leaves out in a single layer on top.
- Microwave the plate at full power for 30 seconds at a time. Check the herbs after each zap to see how dry they are. Thin leaves can dry fully in as little as a minute or two, while thicker ones may need three to four minutes.
- When the leaves are crisp and their stems break easily, remove them from the microwave and store them in an air-tight container. They’ll keep for up to a year.
5. Froth Milk for Lattes
Fancy coffee-shop drinks like cappuccinos and lattes are a delicious treat – but also a pricey one. A tall latte at Starbucks costs about $3, so a latte-a-day habit adds up to nearly $1,100 each year. That’s why financial writer David Bach uses the term “the latte factor” to refer to small expenses that add up over time.
One way to cut this cost is to learn to make gourmet coffee at home. You don’t need any fancy gadgets, such as a milk frother, to do this; all you need is a glass jar with a lid and your trusty microwave oven. Here’s how to froth milk in the microwave:
- Pour some milk into a jar. For this purpose, nonfat or low-fat milk works best. Don’t fill the jar more than halfway; you need to leave some room for the foam.
- Put the lid on the jar and shake it vigorously for 30 to 60 seconds to create froth.
- Take off the lid and put the jar in the microwave. Heat it on high for about 30 seconds. The froth will rise to the top, leaving steamed milk underneath.
You can now use the steamed milk and foam in the coffee drink of your choice. Use half steamed milk and half foam for a cappuccino, and more milk and less foam for a latte. Just make sure to use the foam right away, because it will start to deflate within a few minutes.
6. Make Your Own Potato Chips
Like gourmet coffees, potato chips can be a guilty – and costly – pleasure. When you buy a bag of potato chips from a vending machine, you’re paying around $0.75 for one ounce of chips – complete with 10 grams of fat and 136 milligrams of sodium. By contrast, a whole, small potato costs around $0.15 and has no fat, 10 milligrams of sodium, and 3.7 grams of fiber.
Now, here’s the good news: With a microwave and a little patience, you can turn that raw potato into a serving of homemade chips that are much cheaper and healthier than the ones in the bag. Here’s how to do it:
- Wash the potato and slice it as thinly as you can.
- Rinse the potato slices in cold water until the water runs clear. Blot them dry on a clean dishcloth or put them through a salad spinner.
- Cover a microwave-safe plate with a paper towel, and arrange the potato slices in a single layer on top. Don’t let them touch each other, or they may stick together. You can also use a microwaveable steam basket, which will cook the potatoes a little faster.
- Microwave the plate for about three minutes at full power.
- Flip the potato slices and cook them for another three minutes at 50% power. Remove any chips that have turned brown and crisp.
- Continue to cook the rest of the chips at 50% power for one minute at a time until they’re all crisp and golden.
Admittedly, this takes a lot more time than just opening a bag of potato chips. But the results are worth waiting for: crunchy chips bursting with earthy, whole-potato flavor. They’re delicious as is, but you can also season them to your taste by spritzing them with cooking spray and sprinkling them with salt, chili powder, herbs, parmesan, or anything that strikes your fancy.
7. Make Healthy Homemade Popcorn
Of course, everyone knows you can use the microwave to make popcorn. But the only way most people know how to do this is to buy microwaveable bags, which are pricey, wasteful, and not very healthy. One bag of butter-flavored microwave popcorn costs about $0.75 and has about 400 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 650 milligrams of sodium. Plus, as Berkeley Wellness reports, some types of microwave popcorn contain an artificial flavoring that can be harmful when inhaled.
However, it’s also possible to make popcorn in the microwave without those pricey bags. In fact, there are three ways to do it:
- The Paper Bag Method. Get a plain paper bag – the kind that’s sold for school lunches. Put in a few tablespoons of popcorn kernels and fold the top of the bag over twice. Microwave it for two to three minutes, or until the sound of popping slows down to a few seconds between pops. You can add a teaspoon of olive oil or vegetable oil along with the popcorn kernels if you like, but you don’t have to. If you don’t use oil, you can save the bag to use again later.
- A Microwave Popper. For around $15, you can buy a microwave popcorn popper that can be used over and over. Just load in 1/4 to 1/3 cup of popcorn, with or without oil, and let it pop. Microwave poppers can be made of microwave-safe plastic or silicone, with a lid to keep the popcorn contained as it pops. You may have to engage in a little trial and error to figure out just the right amount of time to pop corn in one of these so you don’t end up with a lot of unpopped or burned kernels.
- The Glass Bowl Method. If you don’t have a microwave popper, you can pop corn the same way in a two-quart glass mixing bowl. To catch the kernels and let steam escape, invert a plastic colander over the top of the bowl. Two things to watch out for: First, keep an eye on the popcorn as it pops, because occasionally a popping kernel will knock the colander off the edge of the bowl. Then you have to stop the microwave and put it back or else risk ending up with kernels scattered all over the place. And second, the bowl will be hot when it’s done, so make sure you use pot holders to take it out of the microwave.
Popcorn prepared by any of these methods is a lot cheaper than the bagged kind. You can buy a 28-ounce bag of popcorn for around $2, which is enough to make about 11 batches of popcorn – around $0.18 per batch. Served plain, a whole bowlful has no fat, no salt, about 180 calories, and around six grams of fiber. Or, if you prefer, you can mist it with oil and add salt or other flavorings, such as chili powder or cinnamon.
8. Fix a Quickie Breakfast Sandwich
In February 2016, the news media exploded in jeers over a story in the New York Times that suggested millennials were “too lazy” to eat cereal for breakfast. This story was based on a 2015 Mintel report (no longer available online) that found 40% of millennials agreed with the statement, “Cereal is inconvenient because I have to clean dishes after preparing it.”
But millennials protested against this charge, saying they’re not lazy – they’re just rushed in the mornings. They usually have to eat and run, so they prefer something like a muffin or a breakfast sandwich that they can eat on the go. Unfortunately, this usually means picking up breakfast from a cafeteria or a convenience store for $3 or $4 a pop. Do that every weekday, and it adds up to about $875 a year.
Fortunately, the microwave makes it easy to whip up a breakfast sandwich at home. All you have to do is beat a couple of eggs with a little milk in a mug, then microwave them on high for about two minutes. Pop an English muffin in the toaster at the same time, and by the time it pops up, your eggs will be ready to go. Just slide them onto the muffin, top it with cheese and herbs if you like, and head out the door.
9. Make Dessert for One
Sometimes, you’re at home all alone and you suddenly get a craving for chocolate cake. Whipping up a whole cake from scratch would take close to an hour, which is way too long to wait. Besides, you don’t want a whole cake – you just want one piece. You could run out to the nearest coffee shop for a slice, but you’d probably have to pay around $5 for it.
But thanks to the microwave, there’s a third option. You can fix yourself a single serving of chocolate cake in just five minutes – using only ingredients you’re likely to have around the house. It’s called a “mug cake,” and it’s incredibly easy to make.
Here’s a basic recipe for chocolate mug cake in the microwave:
- Combine 4 tbsp flour, 4 tbsp sugar, and 2 tbsp cocoa in a large, microwave-safe mug.
- Add 1 egg to the mug and mix well.
- Add 3 tbsp milk, 3 tbsp.vegetable oil, and a dash of vanilla extract, and mix again. If you want to make it extra decadent, stir in 3 tbsp chocolate chips.
- Pop the mug in the microwave for three minutes at 1,000 watts. The cake will rise up over the top of the mug, but don’t panic – just let it keep baking.
- When it’s done, let it cool a bit. Tip it out onto a plate to serve it, or just gobble it up straight from the mug. This makes a generous serving for one person, or a more modest portion for two people to share.
This is just one of the many delicious mug desserts you can make in your microwave. There are recipes online for mug carrot cake, mug cinnamon rolls, and mug apple pie, to name just a few. So, no matter what you get a craving for, your microwave can help you satisfy it.
This list of tips only scratches the surface of what is possible to do with your microwave. As you get in the habit of using this handy appliance more, you’ll keep discovering new ways to use it. You can use the microwave to cook nearly anything – rice, pasta, bacon, corn on the cob – quickly and easily.
The microwave’s usefulness isn’t limited to cooking, either. You can use it to freshen up stale bread or sterilize your kitchen sponge so you don’t need to replace it as often. You can heat up a sock full of rice to create dry heat for aching muscles or melt down broken crayons to make a “scribble cookie.” Do a search on “microwave life hacks,” and you’ll find all kinds of other interesting uses for the kitchen’s most versatile tool.
How do you use your microwave?