If I could only have one small appliance in my kitchen it would be……my coffee maker obviously…..but after that it would be my slow cooker, hands down. When I meal plan each week, I always include at least one crock pot dinner and it usually ends up being my favorite day of the week. There is just something pleasant about knowing you don’t have to prepare a meal after a long day.

For those of us trying to not consume processed foods, meal time can be a marathon. Most convenience meals that are perfect to throw in the oven or into a skillet are laden with hard to pronounce ingredients. It’s unfortunate really as so many of us are just trying to get something on the table in between work, soccer practice, homework, crying babies, bath time, a quick hello to the spouse, and bedtime. I’d love to say that my freezer is stocked with carefully planned ahead frozen homemade lasagnas and casseroles, but my procrastinating evil twin seems to keep getting in the way of such smart plans.

My solution for anyone who is trying to eat healthy and looking for convenience is to make besties with their slow cooker. Once the two of you are properly introduced, you’re next step is probably to start a Pinterest board dedicated entirely to your newfound relationship. While this is a smart plan, there are some sneaky pitfalls in the online world of “prep and forget” meals.

My first recommendation is to avoid anything that involves “cream of _____” soup. These glunky soups seem to be staples when creating the majority of yummy looking casseroles and crock pot dinners, but these guys are an abyss of the unknown ingredient. Consider making the needed soup from scratch the weekend before to avoid the can of mystery.

Secondly, look out for the tidal wave of cheese that may be coming your direction. Let’s be honest, I love cheese. I’m far from telling anyone to avoid it. However, if the recipe calls for five different varieties ranging from cream, to Velveeta, to aerosol, run in the other direction.

Lastly, I advise you healthy-minded folks out there to steer clear of the seasoning packets. I know it makes life easier, but if at all possible create your own seasonings at home. You’re much less likely to add things like “maltodextrin”, “caramel color” and “hydrogenated soybean oil” if you whip them up yourself.

Even after abiding by these guidelines, you should be able to fill up your new Pinterest board in no time! Here are my regulars to get you started.

Whole Chicken. I have mentioned this recipe several times and it’s totally warranted. It is beyond easy. The hardest part for me was getting used to buying a whole chicken and then “getting familiar” with it ala removing the giblet packet. Once I overcame that, it was smooth sailing! We usually have this for dinner with green beans and roasted potatoes or quinoa and then I use the leftover meat to make homemade chicken salad or chicken pot pie.

Overnight Chicken Stock. I haven’t bought chicken stock in well over a year and we use it all of the time. Thanks to the whole chicken recipe, I use the discarded bones and meat to make broth. I buy organic chicken and then get free broth out of the deal. I love saving money and I love that I know everything that’s in this stock! I don’t always have the celery or herbs on hand, and it turns out just as good. I divvy out portions into mason jars and freeze for later use.

Chili. I only make chili in my crock pot. I love the simplicity and I love how it makes the house smell good all day. I have combined a few recipes over the years and basically do the following:

  • Chop and saute one onion in olive oil over medium heat until slightly soft. Add two-three cloves of minced garlic and saute for one minute. Dump into the crock pot.
  • In the same pan, brown 1 lb of ground beef or turkey. I always use turkey.
  • Add the meat into the slow cooker (on low) along with 30 oz of organic tomato sauce, 14.5 oz of organic canned diced tomatoes, and 2- 15.5 oz cans of kidney or chili beans (rinsed).
  • Stir in 3 tsp chili powder, 2 tsp of cumin, 1 tsp of garlic powder, 1 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp of pepper.
  • Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours.

Melt in Your Mouth Pot Roast. A girlfriend of mine brought this to us right after we had Lyla and I had never had anything like it. It was amazing and the perfect comfort meal after the nervousness and sleeplessness that comes with being a first time mom. Little did I know how wonderfully simple it was as well!

  • Loosely chop an onion and put it in the bottom of the crock pot.
  • Liberally salt and pepper whatever cut of boneless roast that you prefer and brown it on all sides over med-high heat.
  • Put the roast in the crock pot and cook on low for 6(ish) hours.
  • Once the meat is falling apart, remove it from the pot and then pour the juices (onion can remain) into a skillet.
  • Over med-low heat, whisk in one tablespoon of flour.
  • Bring to a light boil and stir until it thickens.
  • Shred the roast, put it back in the crock pot, and pour the gravy over the top.

Veggie Beef Stew. I believe this was the first thing I ever cooked in a slow cooker as an adult and I felt quite proud. There was something amazingly satisfying about coming home after a day at work to my own (shared) apartment and having the smell of dinner greet me at the door. I have tweaked it since then.

  • I usually will add about 4 oz of quartered white mushrooms.
  • Instead of the seasoning packet: Use 1 tbsp of flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp of pepper, 1/4 tsp paprika, and 1/4 tsp garlic powder to coat the meat. I usually add about a tbsp of Worcestershire and a bay leaf to the crockpot as well. *Make sure to fish the bay leaf out before serving.

Roasted (err…slow cooked) Turkey Breast. I don’t buy deli meats (ie sandwich cuts) very often at all. I prefer to save my processed meats allowance for bacon and the occasional hot dog. Alas, Lyla and I eat lunch at home everyday and we still need to have sandwiches or wraps at times. My solution is to buy a frozen turkey breast, let it thaw, and then slow cook it. We usually will have it for dinner one night and then all leftovers are sliced up and used for lunches. I don’t do any type of rub or seasoning except salt and pepper. Then, I put 1/4 cup of water into the slow cooker, place the turkey on top and let it do its thing on low for about 8 hours.

Lastly, I have a few tips for slow cooker newbies:

  • Buy new. I know there are some super cute retro crock pots out there that you can likely find on ebay or at yard sales. However, thanks to a popular tearjerker television show in which the slow cooker allowed the demise of a main character, we all know the dangers now. If you don’t have one, buy new. If you haven’t used yours in a decade, inspect it to make sure the cord doesn’t have any damage and use it on the weekends for the first couple of sessions so that you will be at home during the cooking. Mine is a very basic & inexpensive model, similar to this one, and has served me quite well!
  • Watch the time. Not all slow cookers cook the same. Mine tends to cook a bit slower than my mom’s for example. For your first few meals, keep on eye on things and don’t just assume the given cook time will be accurate.
  • Keep a Lid on It. Each time you open the lid to sneak a peek or take a whiff, your cook time goes up by 10-15 minutes. Most dishes don’t require much stirring, so try to resist. I’ve noticed that I can usually tell when a meal is done because I can smell it throughout the room. Obviously, this isn’t scientific so you’ll still want to keep a meat thermometer handy, but avoid over-checking.
  • Don’t Add Plastic. Those disposable cooker liners are convenient for cleanup, but they add an unwanted ingredient into your meal. I’d much rather take a few minutes to scrub the pot after dinner vs incorporating some heated plastic.

What are your go-to slow cooker meals??

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