First introduced in 1967, microwave ovens – which operated by circulating energy waves similar to radio waves around food – had become the fastest selling home appliance in the United States by 1984, totalling $2 billion in retail sales. Reoma McGinnis of the 'Democrat and Chronicle' informed readers that as of 1988, microwave oven had become a mass-market item. According to the International Microwave Power Institute, over 75% of Americans had a microwave oven (or 60 million in the U.S. homes).
Mona Doyle of 'The Consumer Network' told the 'New York Times' in 1989, "We are moving from preparing foods to prepared foods, just the way, at the beginning of the (20th) century, people were in a revolution going from making clothes to ready-to-wear clothes. We are moving to ready-to-eat food. Cooking is more likely to mean 'putting some things together'.
"Opening a package of pasta and heating a jar of spaghetti sauce is 'cooking'. Old-fashioned cooking, such as making a beef stew, is 'cooking from scratch' or 'serious cooking'. For working people, cooking from scratch is a weekend thing." At the start of the 1980s, one commentator made the observation, "It's easy to understand why more than 25% of American households are expected to own microwave ovens by the end of 1981.
"Besides the obvious advantages of speedy defrosting and cooking, the combination of frozens and microwave ovens offers other benefits. Microwave ovens help save energy. If a family of 4 were to use a microwave oven exclusively for a year, there could be annual electricity saving of 25%. That's because energy is consumed only during cooking time, which is short, and only by the food heated."
To clarify, "Microwaves have about one-millionth the energy of X-rays or gamma rays. Microwave energy is more similar to sunlight. Microwaves cause the water molecules in the food to vibrate rapidly enough to generate heat. Thus, the more moisture in the food, the better it will heat during microwave cooking. Working couples who didn’t have the energy to spend hours in the kitchen after a long day at work, discovered the convenience of quick microwave meals."
That symbol of quick, easy meals for busy people, the microwave oven was said could do more than heat leftovers. Cooking teacher Julia Child told the 'Chicago Tribune' in 1986, "Microwave oven – there's a lot to say for it. Now, you have to pay too much attention to it. But the combination (conventional and microwave) will be very useful. If you partly roast chicken or lamb, you can zap it with microwave and it will be done."
As noted, "Microwave cooking can quickly reheat leftovers without destroying many more nutrients and can reduce the leftover taste. It provides quick and easy alternatives for the person on the go." The 'Asbury Park Press' reported in 1981, "With over half the female population holding jobs and 58% of mothers with school-age children working, homemakers have little time to spend cooking and preparing meals. The answer for many busy families is frozens – vegetables, entrees, side dishes, desserts, and even snacks."
Assistant professor Leila Saldanha of Food and Nutrition Southern Illinois University told the press, "In the last few decades (up until 1987) our eating habits have been influenced by changes in lifestyles. With more women joining the work force and leaving the role of homemaker, the number and variety of convenience or ready-to-eat foods has shown a large increase. Convenience foods often become a substitute for home-cooked meals."
Emeritus professor of food microbiology and toxicology E.M. Foster at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Associated Press, "Many of today's (in 1987) consumers want everything to be just as if it came from a high-quality restaurant. By using supplementary preservation systems, or by accepting a short shelf life, we've seen little in the way of safety problems in the distribution of traditional refrigerated foods.
"(Now) we are seeing an unprecedented interest from industry in nationwide distribution for cooked meat, poultry and seafoods with or without preservatives – that leaves us refrigeration as the only way to prevent spoilage. If we use only refrigeration to control possible pathogens in foods, we must have a rigid dating code with adequate safety margins and rigorous policing of retail store shelves."
Mark Erickson of the Culinary Institute of America believed, "There will be a great surge in pre-packaged foods. Good food that you heat in boiling water. We've only scratched the surface with microwave ovens. We will see them progress so that different sections of a meal are heated at different speeds. There’s a microwave like that already available commercially. There will be diets for each person. Computers will be used to tell you at any time whether you are in line with your diet.
"Not that I’m advocating it, but there will be more irradiated foods. There will be two trends going at the same time. The quality of machines and food will be so high that we won’t need to cook from scratch. At the same time, there will be an interest in recreational cooking, cooking from scratch for special reasons." Back in 1983, 'Gannett News Service' reported, "The growth of the fast food industry has been astonishing – from 30,000 outlets in 1971 to 150,000 now. Sales have increased more than 300% in the past decade and now stand at $23 billion a year.
"Americans spend one dollar out of every 3 of their food dollars on food eaten away from home, and fast food gobbles up 30% of that dollar. Fast food restaurants account for nearly half of the total number of places to eat out." Christina Stark of Cornell University claimed, "Fast foods are a part of the American way of life, whether we want them to be or not. An occasional fast food meal will do no nutritional harm. But you will need to supplement at other meals."
Christina argued fast food – such as the burgers, French fries, pizza, fried chicken, tacos – was not junk food loaded with empty calories, pointing out fast food could provide important nutrients everyone required such as plenty of protein, iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, vitamins B-6 and B-12. It was mentioned the shakes served at fast food restaurants contained milk products and offered calcium and phosphorus at much the same levels as milk.
Even French fries supplied some vitamin C, although less than the same quantity of plain potatoes. However fast food meals had a few serious nutritional drawbacks such as low in fiber, vitamins A and C, and minerals. As well, fast foods were high in saturated fat, high in calories, and high in sodium. It was understood a desirable daily calorie level for most adults was about 2,000 calories.