Quick and easy meals in the slow cooker

Using a slow cooker can meal preparation simple.

An open slow cooker filled with beef stew, with a ladle resting in it.

Slow cookers can make getting a hot meal on the table easy and quick after a busy day. Before you begin a busy day, simply put all your ingredients in the slow cooker and set the cooker. Make sure the heat setting is set high enough to cook, not just warm your food. It’s a great alternative for working families or if you are having a family outing like a day out at the sledding hill. Slow cookers are even handy for summertime to avoid heating up the entire kitchen from using the oven. Families that like to camp can use a slow cooker if there is electricity available to plug in the cooker for a tasty meal with one-pot cleanup. 

Here are some tips to remember when using a slow cooker:

  • Usually slow cooker meals can be prepared in eight to ten hours. Cooking time can be shortened by using the high setting on the slow cooker to about five to six hours. Use a thermometer to make sure your meal is thoroughly cooked (165 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Tougher cuts of meat, which may be less expensive, can be used in slow cooker meals because the meat cooks slowly without loss of liquid. The slow cooking tenderizes the meat and the liquid does not get lost as escaping steam. Less tender cuts of meat cook with less shrinkage.
  • Keep the lid on the slow cooker. Every time the lid is lifted during the cooking time, 15 to 20 minutes is added to the overall cooking time.
  • A slow cooker is very economical to use because it uses low wattage over a longer period.
  • Add milk, cream or sour cream during the last hour of cooking to prevent separation or curdling.

Make sure food prepared in the slow cooker is safe to eat by following food safety guidelines recommended for the slow cookers:

  • Always wash hands before beginning food preparation.
  • Thaw meat and poultry before putting into the slow cooker.
  • High moisture recipes like soup and stew work best for cooking in a slow cooker. The moisture content produces steam which helps to quickly cook foods in the cooker, as well as maintain heat.
  • Do not heat leftovers in a slow cooker. If you are using the cooker to keep foods warm, heat the food quickly on the stove, then place in the cooker.
  • Choose recipes that are the right size for your slow cooker. The food should fill the slow cooker at least half full but no more than two-thirds full.

You can convert your own recipes for the slow cooker. Follow the above food safety recommendations. Since slow cookers do not allow for the evaporation of liquids, you can cut down on the amount of liquid in most recipes such as stews (not soups). To learn more, refer to this chart of conversion from oven cooking time to slow cooker time from the University of Nebraska Extension

A few places to find recipes appropriate for the slow cooker include: University of Nebraska Extension, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the United States Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate My Plate Kitchen and University of Nebraska Extension website.

Michigan State University Extension recommends cleaning and sanitizing all food preparation areas before and after creating your slow cooker recipe. Save time and keep your food safe when creating meals in a slow cooker.

To learn more about how to keep your food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food and Water website.

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