If you're old like me, you probably remember the round, brown slow cookers that graced the counter whenever mom had to get a meal on the table on PTA meeting night or wanted to make chili that simmered all day. And also like me, you probably found them hilariously retro until right about the time you started cooking for people other than just yourself.
Our generation of moms loves, loves, loves our slow cookers. Everyone I know owns one. If you're working, it's the best thing ever to be able to toss some ingredients in the slow cooker and know it's making dinner for you; if you're not, you can get a meal together at naptime and it's ready when you are, no last minute rush of fitting in your children's needs around cooking. I like to have a meal going for my husband to feed the kids on nights I have class. If you use one of those nifty liners, cleanup is super fast as well.
Of course, the stereotype is that all the recipes are "dump and cook" chock full of processed icky things. But no, you can make delicious, healthy meals in your slow cooker without ever opening a can or going near a packet of onion soup mix. It's a dream at cooking lentils -- mix them with Indian seasonings for a quick healthy dal or add some sauteed aromatic vegetables and broth for delicious and quick lentil soup.
Mine doesn't get hot enough to cook beans, but if yours does it's a great way to make some ahead and freeze them for taco fillings and chili starters. And it coaxes every bit of flavor out of skinned, bone-in chicken parts and renders them so tender you won't believe you're eating something healthy.
Most recipes do well without any added fat, because with the slow, moist cooking method it's not needed as a flavor enhancer or to keep things from sticking. And refined grains tend to fall apart, but the whole grains we all should be eating more of stand up well to slow cooker preparation.
A few notes:
Most recipes do better with some liquid; wine, orange juice, chicken broth, or even water helps keep meats juicy.
Brown meat before putting it in; it's an extra step, but it adds little fat if you use cooking spray and makes a huge difference in flavor.
Cook any "softer," more watery vegetables like zucchini, green beans, etc. separately; tougher greens like kale and hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes do fine, though. Delicate greens such as spinach can be tossed in right before serving and the heat will wilt them for you.
How does your slow cooker help you maintain a healthy diet?
Image via IStockPhoto/© Robyn Mackenzie