Small Appliances – Microwaves, Toasters & Toaster Ovens

Some of the smaller appliances in the house can be a major risk factor, mainly because they look safe and are easy to overlook. However, that is exactly why it vital that you think about these potential hazards before they occur.

It’s important to understand that that no solutions are fail proof for someone with dementia. What may work for one person may only work briefly – or not at all – for another person. So make sure to assess the safety of each intervention on an on-going basis. You also may need to try several before you find the one that works best for your care receiver.


Some people in early or middle stages of dementia are still able to use a microwave safely. However, although microwaves may appear to be safer than regular stoves or ovens, they can cause serious burns and fires if used incorrectly. Keep in mind that:

  • Using unsafe cooking materials like tinfoil or metal pans can cause sparking and fires. Margarine tubs can warp and spill scalding food and liquids.
  • Cooking inappropriate food items like eggs in the shell or canned soup can end up exploding and catching on fire.
  • Entering the incorrect cooking time – like pushing the button for 40 minutes instead of 40 seconds for a melted cheese sandwich – can cause a fire.
  • Some people with impaired judgment may use the microwave for unsafe activities, like drying underwear or wet paper, or storing newspapers.

You can do many things that might help a person use the microwave safely. Each individual with dementia has different remaining skills and abilities that are constantly changing, so it’s important to continually monitor usage. At some point in the disease, you will need to deny complete access.


People in early or middle stages of dementia may still be able to use a toaster safely – yet again, memory loss and declining judgment may lead to unsafe behaviors.

  • Toasting unsafe items, such as buttered bread, frozen pastry with glazes, or a non-food item like a paper plate, can cause a serious fire.
  • Some people insert inappropriate materials that can cause electric shocks, such as metal objects (e.g., knife or screwdriver) or food wrapped in tin foil.
  • Placing flammable materials or wet rags on or near the toaster can cause serious fires, especially when the toaster is located under a roll of paper toweling.
  • Touching the outside or inside surface of a hot toaster can result in severe burns.

Toaster Ovens

Toaster ovens allow individuals to heat up pre-prepared foods with little work. Those in early or middle stages of dementia may still be able to use a toaster oven safely – or it could be an unsafe activity, and cause serious burns or a fire. Common problems include:

  • Putting food in the toaster oven and leaving it unattended for extended periods of time.
  • Cooking with inappropriate items – for example, mixing up paper plates that are safe for a microwave but dangerous in a toaster oven.
  • Using the toaster oven as a dryer and attempting to dry wet items.
  • Due to memory loss or low vision, a person may incorrectly put the oven on broil – and if the food is cooking too long, a serious fire could occur.

Toaster ovens are often described as having an automatic turnoff feature. Depending on the manufacturer, this feature usually only means that the toaster oven will turn off automatically when the door is left open, or the timer is manually set each time it is used (consier putting up a reminder sign “Set the timer”).  This feature doesn’t turn off the toaster oven automatically if the person forgets food cooking and the door is closed (unless the timer is set).  You should avoid purchasing a toaster oven with electronic controls if the person has never used this type before, unless you don’t want the person to use it independently.

How to Make Small Appliances Safer

There are many different ways you can safeguard your home from accidents that are caused by small appliances.  Here are few tips on how to do this-

  • Use Reminder Signs. For example: Turn off toaster oven”, “Danger – Do Not Use Metal Pans”, “Warning – No Eggs in Microwave” or”No buttered bread in toaster”
  • Give Step-by-Step Cooking Instructions. You could leave large, easy-to-read notes. For example: “Push 1, Push 0, push 0, Push START”, “Put Lunch in Toaster Oven for 5 minutes on 350” and if necessary call before mealtime to guide the person through the various steps.
  • Highlight a Frequently Used Control. For example, apply paint or a raised red dot: On the “reheat” button, if the person primarily uses the microwave to warm up leftovers.
  • Make Food Easy-to-Find. If the care receiver forgets to look in the refrigerator or freezer, place a sign where the person will see it. For example: “Charles, your lunch is in the fridge in a red container.” Label the container and place it at the very front of the first shelf.
  • Place Appliances on Countertop. Reaching up to remove hot food or beverages increases burn risk so in general, the counter is the safest location for the toaster oven or microwave.
  • Remove Nearby Flammables. For example, plastic and paper bags or paper towels can fall against the appliance or block vents (microwave) and cause a fire. You should remove all flammables directly above the toaster, including paper towel holders. or a serious fire can occur.
  • Have the Appliance Cleaned Regularly. People with dementia often lose the ability to engage in housekeeping. Splattered grease, food spills, and crumbs can start a fire. If the person is living alone, you may need to hire a housekeeper or pitch in during a weekly visit.
  • Replace Old Appliances that Can Cause a Fire. This includes frayed cords, faulty wiring, non-working mechanisms (faulty toaster pop-up, etc.) You should buy an appliance similar to the one the care recipient has been using, otherwise they may not be able to operate it.
  • Replace Unsafe Non-Microwaveable Materials with Safe Microwaveable Materials. For example, throw out all take-out food containers and margarine tubs and replace with microwavable containers. Anything with metal can spark and cause a fire, including handles on take-out food containers, twist-ties on bread bags, aluminum foil and gold trim on china.  Regular plastic tubs can warp after microwaving, spilling scalding contents onto a person’s hands or lap. For example, do not use the following in a microwave-yogurt containers, cottage cheese tubs, margarine, whipped topping or whipped cream bowls or take-out food containers. Also keep in mind that regular brown paper bags can catch on fire and that tyrofoam from cups, plates, etc. can leach chemicals into food! Cookware and cooking materials specially manufactured and labeled for use in the microwave oven.
  • Put Meals in Safe Microwaveable Containers & Place in Easy-to-Find Locations. Consider containers with automatic steam vent lids (especially if the person is forgetting to remove lids during cooking) and place containers in the very front of freezer or top shelf of the fridge so it’s easier to find.
  • Partially Uncover Containers. During cooking use containers with automatic steam vent lids and open lids pointing away from the face.
  • Avoid Food From Bursting. Pierce microwaveable pouches and plastic bags, following package instructions and all foods with non-porous, unbroken skins, including tomatoes, hot dogs, squash, apples, sausage, and potatoes, to keep the food from bursting.
  • Be Aware of High Temperatures. Test food beforehand, as microwaved food can reach scalding temperatures. Be aware that high temperatures may be present, even if the container or a portion of the food is only warm. Microwaves do not always heat foods evenly, so make sure the temperature is safe at both the center and the edge. For example, soup at the center of the bowl may be warm, but a spoonful from the bowl’s edge can seriously burn a person’s mouth.
  • Avoid Superheating Liquids. Many people safely heat water for coffee or tea in the microwave. But if the wrong time is punched in or safety guidelines are not followed, superheating can occur and a person can be seriously burned. Superheating happens when microwaved liquids pass their boiling point. Unlike water heated on a stove, NO warning is given, for superheated liquids do not bubble at all at boiling temperatures. Superheated water can violently erupt from the cup when taken out of the microwave or if something is put into the liquid AFTER it’s superheated (e.g., spoon, instant coffee, tea bag). In general, experts advise avoiding superheating by following these recommendations, which may be difficult or impossible for someone with dementia to implement:
    • Never heat liquid longer than the manufacturer’s recommended time (many instruction manuals state 2 minutes per cup). If the microwave has a “beverages only” button, highlight it with a colorful raised dot.
    • Never reheat boiled water in the microwave because it increases the chances of superheating.
    • Add material(s) to the liquid BEFORE heating: for example, instant coffee, sugar, or a non-metal utensil (e.g., wooden stirrer or ice cream stick).
    • Leave the cup in the microwave for 30 seconds after heating, without moving it or adding anything to it.

How to Make the Microwave, Toaster, and Toaster Oven Off-Limits

It’s important to understand that that no solutions are fail proof for someone with dementia. What may work for one person may only work briefly – or not at all – for another person. So make sure to assess the safety of each intervention on an on-going basis. You also may need to try several before you find the one that works best for your care receiver.

1. Ease the Transition

Individuals with dementia will respond differently when access to cooking is denied. Someone accustomed to cooking on a regular basis could become upset when he/she is denied access to an appliance. To ease the transition, make sure to have other activities that the person can enjoys. You could also keep healthy snacks out on the counter in a brightly colored, easy-to-find basket to help them and keep alternative meal sources in place if the person lives alone or spends extended time by themselves.

2. Unplug and Cover the Outlet

Unplug the appliance during the hours you don’t want the person using the appliance. For some people, this will be enough to deter them. For others, you’ll need to cover the outlet to deter them from putting the plug back in. Some caregivers hang a picture or other item over the outlet. For some people, if they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. You can install an outlet cover that makes the outlet difficult for a person with dementia to use.

3. Use the Lockout Feature (microwaves and electronic toaster ovens)

Check the microwave manual to see if it has a child safety lockout feature that allows you to deactivate the keypad. Some of the newer electronic toaster ovens also include this safety feature. You should be aware that some care recipients may learn how to unlock the keypad and that some may not be able to use the new microwave or toaster oven if it works differently than the one they have been using previously. Depending on the situation, this may work in your favor.

4. Install a Lock

There are two basic types of appliance “locks” are on the market and child safety lock and a metal lock. “Child safety lock” is a plastic latch with double-sided tape that open/closes when the prongs, tabs, or catches are squeezed or pressed. However, because it isn’t a real lock, the person may be able to release the device and use the appliance. A metal lock that attaches to the end of the plug and requires a key to open/lock.

5. Install a GFI Outlet to Turn Off Power at the Outlet

A ground fault interrupter (GFI) outlet immediately cuts off power if an appliance comes in contact with water, protecting the person from shock. These special outlets have “test” and “reset” buttons, which you can use to turn off the outlet’s power. To turn outlet off: Press the black “test” button; in this mode, the outlet’s power is turned off and the appliance will not work. To turn outlet on: Press the red “reset” button.

This intervention may not work if the care receiver is familiar with GFI outlets or if the care receiver fiddles with buttons and objects. Several appliances are controlled by one GFI outlet and you need one appliance on and the other off. (See an electrician for more information.)

6. Install a Plug-In Appliance Timer

If you’re only worried about unsupervised appliance usage at certain times of the day, an appliance timer may be an effective intervention, depending upon the individual. For example, if the person wanders at night, set the timer to turn the appliance off at bedtime (e.g., 10:00 pm) and on again in the morning (e.g., 7:00 am).

To use, plug the timer into a 3 prong outlet, and then plug the appliance into the timer.  Make sure to get a timer that is rated for the appliance you’re using. For example, you don’t need a “heavy duty” appliance timer for a microwave, but you must use one for a toaster oven. Some individuals may be bothered by the presence of the timer, tamper with the controls, or even unplug the timer.

7. Remove the Plug or the Unit Itself

At times, the only safe intervention may be to deny complete usage by making the appliance inoperable or by completely removing it. Some caregivers disable the appliance (e.g., remove the plug) if they think the care receiver would get upset if the appliance was removed. When this method is successful, caregivers report that the person forgets about the appliance as time goes by. Some persons become upset when they see the appliance but can’t use it. In that situation, it’s best to remove it.