We report the structural, morphological, optical, and magnetic properties of pure and co doped ZnO nanostructures by inexpensive microwave combustion technique. The samples were characterized by X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy EDS, diffuse reflectance spectroscopy (DRS), vibrating sample magnetometer (VSM) and photoluminescence (PL) spectra. X-ray diffraction (XRD) results show a single phase nature with hexagonal wurtzite structure, and reveal the incorporation of Ce and Ni ions into the lattice positions of ZnO lattice. Diffuse reflectance spectroscopy (DRS) showed a decrease in the band gap on increasing the dopant concentration. The photoluminescence (PL) of the samples showed the violet, blue and green peak for the samples. SEM images shows that they are spherical in shape and the size of the particles decrease on increasing the co dopant concentration. The magnetization measurements show the presence of ferromagnetic behavior for all the co-doped samples. © 2014 Elsevier Ltd.