ONCE, the microwave oven was awesome. Then it became awful, outlawed even in Russia in the mid-1970s because of alleged dangers presented by electromagnetic radiation.

These days, if yours is anything like mine, the microwave oven is an unobtrusive, mildly convenient kitchen appliance that is called upon to perform un-awesome tasks like heat milk for coffee, warm leftovers and dinner plates, and defrost stuff. Last week, in an effort to stretch the leather, I nuked a pair of shoes. (This is a work in progress; I’ll let you know when they stop pinching.)

It’s possible, however, that the microwave oven will make a major comeback in households and restaurants in the next few years; not only as a cooker this time, but also as a counter.

A team from General Electric (GE) and Baylor University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Department is fine-tuning a device they invented, which uses low-power microwaves to calculate the calories of a meal at the push of a button.

The idea came about a few years ago when Matt Webster, who is a cell biologist at GE, contemplated buying his wife an activity tracker for her birthday. Like all good men, he first asked her opinion. Yes, she responded, the idea of knowing how many calories she burned every day was attractive.

But, like all conscientious women, she demanded more; she wanted the instrument also to track the number of calories she ate.

Webster couldn’t give her exactly what she hoped for but, imploring her to settle for a FitBit activity and sleep monitor for a bit, he set to work on designing her dream gift: "An idea was born as I began to challenge whether this really was crazy and impossible."

Having worked out that calories can be accurately estimated with just three measurements: weight, fat content and water content, Webster and his colleagues began experimenting with various devices that automatically calculate the dietary calories of different mixtures of oil, water and sugar.

For it to be user-friendly and accurate, they knew it would be necessary to create a device that measures actual meals, like the plate of chicken salad or vegetarian lasagne before you, rather than relying on an archived database of values.

"There are plenty of apps that help you track what you eat," says Webster. "But how well does that burger you ate match with the burger you selected using an app? Are the serving sizes the same? Do any of the app database entries accurately reflect what you cook at home?

"It takes motivation and time to track calories and that can be a deterrent for people. Many of those who do track calories tend to underreport their actual food consumption."

He and his team finally settled on a mechanism — now a prototype — that emits low microwave signals through meals placed in it to assess calorie content in an instant.

Because the signals are not powerful, the food is not processed or cooked in any way. The plan, however, is that the calorie-counting technology be incorporated into standard microwave ovens, turning them into cookers-cum-calorie counters without having to separate the components of meals. In other words, you could dish up, place your plate in the oven/counter, push the button to count calories and, if need be, reduce the portion before consuming it. And if you’re someone who avoids cooking in a microwave oven for health reasons, you’ll be able to use it only for counting — assuming you’re not also put off by low-power microwaving.

The idea, then, is that you’ll sync the counter to your activity monitor — a FitBit, for example — so that you (and finally, Mrs Webster) can compare calories eaten with calories burned.

Believing it will encourage healthier lifestyles from use in homes and restaurants, GE counts on completing work on the technology within the next few years.