A slow cooker is one of the handiest appliances and biggest time savers to have in the kitchen. Pile in chopped vegetables, add prepped meat and seasoning, and in a few hours, a week's worth of food (or one family-size meal) is ready to eat. Commission a cheap but dependable slow cooker and try these 11 recipes to eat healthier and save money and time this winter. (Estimated ingredient prices are recent U.S. city averages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
A few tips: Browning meats and sautéing vegetables before adding them to the slow cooker can add flavor. To top off slow cooker meals, add diary and fresh herbs such as yogurt, milk, and cilantro toward the end (they can curdle and wilt, respectively, if cooked for too long). Finally, resist opening the lid and stirring, which slows the cooking process considerably (and this is already a slow cooker).
Generally dark meat and fattier cuts turn out best in a slow cooker, because they don't dry out, but lean meats take on an appetizing texture and flavor with the right recipe. A chicken and vegetable coconut curry from The Lemon Bowl is made from a pound of boneless chicken breast (a little more than $3), which combines with ingredients costing another few dollars, depending what's in the kitchen already, to yield five servings. Simply whisk together ingredients such as cocunut milk and chicken stock and add sweet potatoes, chickpeas, and onion along with the chicken breasts. Toss until coated before cooking for four hours on high or eight hours on low.
Pasta gets a bad rap for health and diet, but primarily when soaked in creamy alfredo sauce or doused in cheese and butter. A healthy pasta primavera from SparkRecipes consists of chicken breast, zucchini, squash, and onions. It yields eight servings for an estimated $20 and cooks in six hours. Add whole wheat pasta if preferred.
For a fast and easy recipe, try a turkey breast preparation from Allrecipes. Bone-in turkey breast is inexpensive (about $3 for 2 pounds), as is the onion soup mix added for flavoring. Simply rub onion soup mix all over the turkey, over and under the skin, and cook on high for an hour before turning the heat to low for seven hours. The recipe serves 12, and leftover turkey slices can be used for a healthy lunch sandwich the next day for even more savings.
Serve this curry pumpkin soup from The Big Man's World as an appetizer or side for anyone -- it's gluten-free and Paleo- and vegan-friendly. A pumpkin costs a few dollars at most, depending on the size, and a can of coconut milk can be bought for a dollar or two. Add the pumpkin and seasoning to the slow cooker and stir together before pouring in the coconut milk and enough water to cover the pumpkin fully. Cook on low for six to eight hours, or on high for almost five hours.
Chinese food from takeout places can be unhealthy as a habit. The portions are large and often dripping in oil and high in sodium. Instead, consider this healthy beef variation from Divas Can Cook made with brown sugar, ginger, garlic, and low-sodium soy sauce. Pair it with brown rice and broccoli steamed separately. A pound of steak costs about $6, but the other ingredients (broccoli, onions, and chicken broth) add only a few dollars to that to serve four.
Who said oatmeal is boring? Bowls will be cleared once this healthy but dessertlike dish from Nourishing Joy is served. The ingredients are relatively inexpensive and may already be on the grocery list: mainly apples, lemon, rolled oats, milk, and eggs. When tossing the ingredients into the slow cooker, layer on the whisked eggs and milk last. Cook on low for six hours or on high for four hours to serve six.
A version of a classic Chinese soup from FatFree Vegan requires many ingredients and vegetables, but the first flavorful sip is worth the effort. Pile on cheap vegetables for extra nutrients and fiber. Slice and dice mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and tofu, and prep garlic and ginger. Then combine the ingredients in the slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours, adding peas, more ginger, and sesame oil to taste at the end. The recipe serves four.
Chili from Paleo Newbie can be made with ground beef or turkey and contains a hefty amount of herbs and spices for extra zest. Brown the meat, onions, and garlic and toss in the slow cooker to form the base. Put in the other ingredients, giving everything a good stir, and cook on low for six to eight hours. Serve with crumbled bacon and avocado slices on top, if desired. Two pounds of ground beef or turkey (about $2 to $4 a pound) and three cans of tomatoes yield a whopping eight to 10 servings.
Never underestimate the heartiness of a good chicken and vegetable meal. Aside from herbs and spices, Southern Living includes just a few ingredients in this dish, primarily chicken thighs (about $1 to $2 a pound), potatoes, celery, carrots, and broth. Layer hard, slow-cooking vegetables on the bottom before adding broth. Add the seasoned chicken thighs on top and cook on low for six hours to serve six.
This vegetarian pasta soup requires a bit more grocery shopping and prep time on the stove but is made mostly from cheap vegetables and broth. A recipe from Kalyn's Kitchen calls for saut閑ing vegetables in olive oil with herbs and seasoning to add flavor before combining with vegetable broth, beans, and tomato sauce in the slow cooker for three to four hours on high. Add in whole wheat orzo (or any small pasta) toward the end and serve with fresh parmesan cheese and parsley. The recipe yields about six servings.
Use whole wheat or spinach tortillas to make spicy chicken fajitas. A video with a full 10-serving recipe by Tasty Food demonstrates how to cook chicken breasts for a few hours with peppers, onions, taco seasoning, and tomatoes, then shred them and toss back in the slow cooker to soak up juices. Serve with cheese, hot sauce, and guacamole (beware of high-calorie sour cream, and consider a lower-sodium taco seasoning).