Healthy slow cooker meals are one of the best options for someone too busy to cook. You simply fill it up, turn it on and walk away. Hours later you will have a delicious meal waiting for you. It’s one of the easiest ways to meal prep. If this sounds like your type of meal, read on to learn how to make healthy slow cooker meals.
What is a slow cooker
A slow cooker, sometimes also called a crock-pot, is a cooking appliance that uses a moist, low heat to cook food over a long duration of time. The lower cooking temperature allows for extended periods of unattended cooking. A slow cooker is comprised of three parts: the base which contains the heating element, a ceramic insert that holds the food, and a glass lid.
What type of slow cooker to use
Slow cookers generally range in size from 4-8 quarts.
- A 4-quart slow cooker is sufficient to feed a family of 4 and is an ideal size for many soups, stews, and casseroles.
- A 6-8 quart size would work for a large family or if you plan to cook very large cuts of meat.
- 1-3 quart sizes are also available and are good to make food for one or two people or to make smaller quantities of food, such as a dip.
The ceramic inserts in slow cookers are round or oval and should be removable and dishwasher safe to make clean-up easier.
You want a slow cooker with a digital timer so that you can program exactly when the slow cooker turns on, the temperature setting, and the cooking duration. It will automatically switch to a warm setting when the cooking time is done. You can program the cooking duration to last anywhere from 30 minutes to 20 hours.
Slow cookers are not expensive. You can find a 6-quart programmable model for less than $50.
What to make in a slow cooker
Slow cookers are very versatile! Here are some ideas for slow cooker meals (and even desserts!) to get you started. Search “slow cooker recipes” on Pinterest or Google to find specific recipes that use some of your favorite ingredients.
Meat and Poultry
Inexpensive, fattier, tough cuts of meat do best in slow cookers. Leaner cuts of meat may dry out when cooked for long periods. Meat dishes that would do well include:
- Pot roast, brisket, short ribs, barbacoa
- Dark meat chicken (thighs, drumsticks)
- Pulled pork, carnitas
Soups and Stews
- Chili (bean or meat based)
- Soup (chicken, lentil, vegetable, butternut squash, really any soup!)
Casseroles and One-Pot Meals
- Mac and cheese
- Baked ziti
- Breakfast egg casserole
- Steel-cut oatmeal
- Coffee cake
- Bread pudding
- Artichoke dip
- Crab dip
- Queso dip
Steps to make a slow cooker meal
1. Prep the ingredients
- Chop ingredients that need to be chopped into uniform pieces so they cook evenly.
- If you have time, brown meat first for added flavor. If you are using ground beef, it’s a good idea to cook and drain it before adding it to the slow cooker so everything doesn’t become greasy. For chicken, remove excess fat and skin to avoid excess grease.
- If you prep everything the night before, store ingredients in separate containers in the refrigerator. Do not store the ingredients in the slow cooker insert in the fridge. If you start cooking when the ceramic insert is cold, this will affect the cooking time needed. Also, if the food takes too long to heat up, it poses a potential food safety risk if the ingredients stay between the temperature of 40°F and 140°F since this is the temperature range when bacteria is most likely to grow.
- Measure out any dry ingredients or spices and store them in an airtight container if prepping the night before.
- If you are going to cook a freezer meal, where the ingredients were prepped previously and then stored in the freezer, remember to move the ingredients from the freezer to the fridge the night before so everything has time to thaw.
2. Fill the slow cooker
- In the morning, add your ingredients to the slow cooker and set the time and temperature that your recipe calls for.
- To minimize sticking and make clean-up easier, either spray the ceramic insert with cooking oil spray or use a slow cooker liner.
- Put firm ingredients, like root vegetables, on the bottom and then layer meat on top. To avoid overfilling the ingredients, never make the slow cooker more than two-thirds full.
- Since the lid is on tight, slow cookers do not release any moisture when cooking, so be mindful about how much liquid you add.
- Once everything has been added, put the lid on and turn it on (or program the time for it to start cooking later).
3. Temperature settings and cooking time
Slow cookers have LOW and HIGH heat settings. The LOW setting cooks at about 180-200°F and the HIGH setting cooks at about 250°F. The warm setting that the slow cooker will automatically switch to at the end of cooking, will keep food at around 165°F.
It takes about twice as long to cook on LOW than on HIGH. LOW setting cooking times are generally somewhere between 6-10 hours and the HIGH setting cooking times usually range from 4-6 hours.
Don’t lift the lid during the cooking time. This will allow heat and moisture to escape and lengthen the time needed to cook. You don’t need to stir the ingredients. Once you turn the heat on leave everything alone for the recommended cooking time or until you know you need to add some ingredients towards the end of cooking. Wait until the low end of the recommended cooking time to lift the lid to check for doneness. For example, check everything after 6 hours if the recommended cooking time is 6-8 hours.
If too much liquid formed during cooking, remove the lid and cook on LOW for about 30 minutes to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. Another option is to mix a little cornstarch or arrowroot in water and add that mixture to the cooking liquid and allow it to cook for another 15-30 minutes to create a thicker sauce.
4. Ingredients to add towards the end of cooking
Some ingredients need to be added towards the end of the cooking time to prevent overcooking.
- Frozen vegetables or softer fresh vegetables should be added during the last 30-60 minutes of cooking. Thaw any frozen ingredients before adding them.
- Seafood, such as fish, shrimp, or scallops, should be added in the last 15-30 minutes of cooking.
- Add noodles in the last 15-20 minutes.
- Stir in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese or sour cream during the last 15 minutes.
- If using coconut milk, like in a curry, add it in the last 30 minutes of cooking.
- Add some fresh ingredients at the very end for a boost of flavor. This can be fresh herbs, lemon juice, olive oil, or citrus zest.
Now you have the basics for making healthy slow cooker meals! The slow cooker is fantastic for weeks that it’s difficult to do a more lengthy meal prep. Try it. Find a slow cooker dinner recipe and make it on a busy weeknight to see how easy it is to make a meal with minimal time.