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Q. I like to cook big meals for my family, but everyone ends up eating at different times. Should I install a warming drawer to keep the foods warm and moist or is it more efficient to use the oven? -- Winona S.

Dear Winona: Your hungry family will be much happier with you if you install a warming drawer instead of using the oven to keep their dinners warm. Your financial adviser will also be happier because your utility bills will be lower. Using a warming drawer consumes much less electricity than an oven.

The most common sizes of warming drawers are 27 and 30 inches wide and they fit perfectly into most kitchen cabinets. Some literally look like another drawer after they are installed. The height is typically about one foot. A 30-inch-wide drawer can hold up to 10 full-size dinner plates full of food.

Warming drawers are specifically designed to keep plates of food warm and moist once the food has been prepared. They are not designed to reheat food or to cook the food initially. Use your standard oven or a microwave oven for cooking the meal or for reheating previously cooked foods.

What makes a warming drawer more effective than an oven for keeping plates of food warm is its precise temperature control and its ability to retain moisture in the food. If you tried to place plates of food in an oven for many hours until your husband gets home, it would not be very appetizing.

Whereas your oven heating element can be more than 2,000 watts, warming drawers use only about 500 watts of electricity. They are powered by standard 110-volt house power making do-it-yourself installation simple.

The temperature usually ranges from about 140 to 230 degrees. Some models have an additional low (90 degree) setting for proofing bread dough. There are usually preprogrammed low/medium/high settings, but you can set any temperature.

Warming drawers have a moist/crisp setting. The sealed design keeps in the food's own moisture. Although most foods stay tasty when moist, certain foods, such as baked potatoes, fried foods, etc., are best when warmed at the crisp setting.

Many of the models have an optional timer feature. This allows you to place the plates of food in the warming drawer and have them stay warm for up to four hours. If you know your family will eat dinner within two hours, the timer will automatically shut it off after two hours and save electricity.

Some designs have a handle across the front similar to a drawer to slide it open. Other, more contemporary designs, have a curved front with a recessed hand grip. The controls for the temperature and the timer are usually hidden behind the door. The crisp/moisture control is in the drawer edge.

Information: for Update Bulletin No. 828 -- buyer's guide of 11 warming drawer manufacturers listing sizes, wattages, temperatures, timers, colors, features, prices, installation instructions, and kitchen efficiency tips. Write to James Dulley, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244. Include $3 and a self-addressed stamped business-size envelope.