Now that the weather is decidedly chilly, there’s nothing more comforting than arriving home to a warm, wholesome dinner after a busy day. More often than not, however, a hectic week means less than healthy evening meals. But with a slow cooker and a little prep work the night before, you can throw all the ingredients into one pot before leaving in the morning, and leave it to simmer while you do your 9-to-5 duty.
Whether you own the latest smartphone-controlled crock or you’re still going old school, you can’t go wrong with this simple plan for creating winter meals sure to impress even the fussiest of family members. If you stick to the formula and vary the ingredients, you can virtually rely on slow cooking every night of the week.
Simple Slow Cooker Plan
Pick Your Protein
Aim for 3 to 4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) per person, or use 1 cup canned beans
Slow cookers are great for those who are cost-conscious (who isn’t on a budget these days?), because they are capable of turning tough, cheaper cuts of meat into tender, melt-in-your-mouth bites. Just be sure to trim the fat to prevent an oily stew, and if you’re using ground chicken, turkey, or beef, brown it first to prevent clumps from forming while cooking. For even more savings, consider stretching out your meat purchase by using less and adding in some beans.
Vegetarian proteins, like beans, lentils, and chickpeas are just as tasty, and, in some instances, can also be healthier. Dried beans are inexpensive, but require additional effort on your part to soften them up before tossing them in your pot. If you’re short on time, canned beans are best.
Heap in the Veggies
Aim for 1 to 2 cups per person
When it comes to vegetables, be sure to include a mix. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and corn, lend a hearty chunkiness to the meal, but they also come with lots of carbs and more calories than lighter veggies. Lower-carb options, like mushrooms, green beans, zucchini, eggplant, celery, peppers, and carrots, add a burst of color and offer a lot more phytonutrient-bang for their calorie-buck.
Cut vegetables into bite-sized chunks ahead of time, and store them in an air-tight container overnight in the fridge. This will make it easy for you to throw everything into the pot the next morning.
Add a Fistful of Flavor
When it comes to adding flavor, feel free to be adventurous! Onion and garlic are good basics, but fresh and dried spice can also be sprinkled into your slow cooker. Turn up the heat with paprika, diced jalapenos, or red pepper flakes. Or stir in a squeeze of lemon or lime juice for some citrusy zest. Need more inspiration? Here are some great combos to try:
- For Indian flair: curry powder, ginger and coconut milk
- For a Mediterranean feel: onion, lemon juice, and garlic
- For a Mexican-inspired meal: cumin and jalapeño
- For Caribbean style: cinnamon, black peppercorns, thyme, all spice, and cayenne pepper
Just remember to go easy on the seasonings—long, slow cooking times intensify the flavors of herbs and spices.
Cover with Liquid
Aim for 1/2 to 2/3 full—just enough to cover the ingredients in your pot
Not only does the added liquid help cook the meat and vegetables, it also punches up the flavor of your meal. Chicken, beef, and vegetable stock make for solid stews. And canned diced tomatoes, red or white wine, coconut milk, even beer can be added to top off your pot. Keep in mind, the slow cooker lid prevents steam from escaping, so if you’re adapting a stove-top recipe you’ll want to reduce the liquids used by about a 1/3 to 1/2.
Set it and Forget it
Although foods cook at different rates, most combinations can safely be set to low-heat for all-day cooking. So go ahead, plug in your slow cooker, put the lid on, and pat yourself on the back for your soon-to-be culinary masterpiece!
Got a go-to slow cooker recipe? Join the conversation and share it below!
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.