Convenience for families: Experts share healthy slow-cooker tips
Slow-cooker meals are perfect for the cold winter months.
Released: Jan. 27, 2016
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Since its introduction in the early 1970s, the slow cooker has been a staple in the kitchen of the American family. It possesses the ability to cook a bevy of healthful meals such as soups, stews, meats and countless other foods over an extended period of time.
Slow cookers today come in multiple shapes and sizes to hold a variety of foods. They also require little work of the meal preparer, which makes them convenient for individuals and families.
Freezer meals for convenience
Erin Petersilie, K-State Research and Extension family and consumer science agent, said a person could easily prepare the slow-cooker ingredients ahead of time, freeze them and then cook when needed. These are commonly referred to as “freezer meals,” and they allow for a person or family to have a week, or even a month of meals prepared in advance.
“Food needs to be completely thawed before putting it in the slow cooker,” said Petersilie, who is located in the Walnut Creek Extension District.
However, when making a dish with noodles or rice, she recommends thawing the noodles and rice separately. “If the noodles and rice are combined with the other ingredients, and then they thaw together and cook together, you could end up with mush.”
Stretching your food dollar
Another advantage is a slow cooker’s capability to make a large amount of food with little interaction. Petersilie said her favorite part about using a slow cooker is the ability to stretch the family’s food dollar.
“I can take a cheap cut of meat, and I can slow cook it all day while I’m gone at work,” Petersilie said. “I can come home to a meal ready to go on the table with few other things that I need to do.”
In fact, after preparing the meal and putting it in the slow cooker, it’s recommended to not remove the lid until the food is finished cooking, according to Mary Meck Higgins, Kansas State University associate professor and extension specialist in food, nutrition, dietetics and health.
“If you keep lifting the lid on the slow cooker, then a lot of heat escapes,” said Higgins, who is also a registered dietitian. “It can take a while to cook. Once you have all the ingredients in there, put the lid on, and don’t lift the lid until it’s done.”
When cooking with a slow cooker, there is a good chance for leftovers, which can be saved for later or made into something entirely new.
“I can put a chicken in with some seasonings and vegetables,” Petersilie said. “We eat just chicken the first night, make stir fry the next night, and chicken and noodles the third night.”
When cooking for a family, it’s important to ensure that meals are healthful and balanced. Fortunately, the slow cooker offers ways to incorporate many ingredients that are packed with nutrients.
“Vegetables create a lot of great flavor that we wouldn’t get otherwise and provide several nutrients,” Petersilie said. She recommended using a variety in the slow cooker that could include carrots, celery, onions and peppers, as examples.
According to a K-State Research and Extension fresh fruits and vegetables recipe series, one serving of carrots provides large amounts of the healthful antioxidant beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A once eaten. Onions contain the antioxidant quercetin, and organosulfur compounds, which protect against chronic diseases. Most peppers are high in vitamins A and C.
“Eating vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, and may be protective against certain types of cancers, too,” Higgins said.
When eating out or eating processed foods, it can be difficult to decipher what is actually in those foods, Petersilie said. However, that is not a problem with the slow cooker; it allows the user to tailor the ingredients based on his or her health needs.
“One of my favorite dishes when we start talking about winter is soups,” she said, “but I also enjoy putting a roast in or putting pork chops in. The great thing is to make these meals healthy, you can control the ingredients.”
When cooking, safety is always a concern. Higgins said a major food safety threat is using frozen food in the slow cooker rather than thawing the ingredients first. Use a food thermometer before eating to ensure the products have reached a safe temperature.
“Food that is not thawed first will likely not heat quickly enough in the slow cooker to stay food-safe, and it is not likely to be cooked fully in a timely way, either,” she added.
Higgins also recommends filling the slow cooker half to three-fourths full. Filling it more could cause the ingredients to expand and potentially make the slow cooker overflow. Inversely, filling it less than half full could cause the ingredients to burn.
Make sure to turn the cooker to the correct setting. It is best to start it on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking and then turn to low if desired. The warm setting should only be used for keeping the food warm.
Leftovers are a huge upside of using a slow cooker; however, properly storing and reheating these leftovers is important, the experts said. Make sure to transfer the food from the slow cooker into a shallow container. Consider stirring the food to transfer the heat out in a timely manner before putting it in the refrigerator. This allows the food to cool down further and more evenly in the refrigerator.
To reheat the leftovers, Higgins recommends to first heat them on the stove or in the microwave, and then add them to the slow cooker to keep them warm.
More information about healthy eating is available at local extension offices across Kansas.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.