I’m always surprised at how often I’ve given out the advice to new mothers that they take advantage of using a crock pot for making dinner, and the idea is a new one to them. I grew up helping with getting dinner on the table and so I went into my own household with a stable of recipes in my head. Not anything fancy, to be sure, but I had serviceable skills such as how to put a meal together without a “recipe” but rather based on experience and using what ingredients were readily available. Even in college I always made myself a proper lunch and dinner: as a person living with ulcerative colitis I needed to watch my nutrient intake and do what was right for my body rather than what was convenient.
I had always used a slow cooker but after the birth of my first child, it became imperative. I would awaken at 4:45 AM, nurse my son, put him back to bed and workout/shower/get ready for work. I’d drop him at daycare in order to be at work before 9 AM, where I’d be until at least 5 PM, at which time I’d pick him up, be home at about 6 PM, when he would need to nurse again. Bedtime was 9 PM for us both, at which time I’d change into my pajamas, nurse him to sleep, and crawl into bed myself.
Where does this leave time to prepare a healthy meal for dinner? It doesn’t, really. That’s where the slow cooker comes in.
Starting Dinner in the Morning
The advantage of the slow cooker is that it takes a few minutes in the morning to prepare everything and get it in the pot, but then a meal is ready by dinnertime, when everyone is tired and hungry. A slow cooker recipe can be exceptionally simple or more complex; it flexes to what is needed. It doesn’t have to always be chicken or beef; vegan and vegetarian recipes are not difficult to find. In addition, if you have a larger cooker, you can make enough food so that the meal can stretch into leftovers that can be used the next day or saved and repurposed into something a bit different.
A basic dinner in a slow cooker doesn’t usually take much preparation, so starting it in the morning could take as little as a few minutes. For me that would mean putting in the main dish (using whatever protein source I had), adding a liquid (broth or soup work well), putting some vegetables on top, and setting the whole thing on “low.” I came home to everything being cooked and ready and if necessary, a side dish of rice or another vegetable would take only a few minutes to prepare.
Want to ramp it up and do more? Absolutely it’s not difficult to find more intensive recipes that give the opportunity indulge that inner chef.
The Differences Between an Instant Pot and a Slow Cooker
Instant pots are all the rage, and I’m certainly not the first person with chronic illness to come to worship at the altar of the instant pot. The advantage that an instant pot has over a slow cooker is that it also gives you the option to cook things quicker. Now, that does mean that you can get dinner on the table in half an hour, but for me, I believe the trade-off is the effort. The half an hour of effort is short but it could be intense, depending on what you are cooking.
Another advantage of the instant pot is that it can serve as both a stove and a slow cooker. The saute option, for example, allows for searing a roast right in the instant pot, and then flipping over to the slow cooker or pressure cooker option. There’s no need to use a pot on the stove to sear meat and then move everything over to the cooker: it can all be done in the instant pot.
For those who are forgetful (and I count myself among them) and sometimes come home to realize nothing was defrosting for dinner, or that it would take too long to cook a vegetarian meal, the instant pot is a boon. It can cook even frozen foods relatively quickly (depending on what it is) and a home cooked dinner can be on the table fast, rather than ordering out for pizza in a panic.
The instant pot does have a bigger learning curve. It may take some time to figure out how best to use it and some trial and error with recipes, not to mention hitting up YouTube for instructions. But once a basic understanding is in place, it can be used to cook almost anything — quick.
Embracing Planning Ahead
It can be tough to plan ahead but once the habit is started, it will save time and energy and become easier. A few hours of recipe planning and shopping can be used for the creation of an entire week of dinners.
Tricks for Quick Weekday Meals
Get a slow cooker or an instant pot and learn how to use it.
Think about planning a whole week of meals with ingredients that work together rather than one meal at a time.
Prepare and plan for weeknight meals on a day off rather than after coming home from work.
Make a big batch of rice, noodles, pasta, or beans once a week and reheat as needed for an easy side dish.
Cook more than you need for one meal and reheat the leftovers on another day (use leftovers within 3 days or freeze them).
Try buying frozen vegetables or pre-cut fresh vegetables that can be put right in the instant pot or slow cooker without preparation.
Prepare ingredients ahead of time and freeze them so they’ll last longer and are all ready to put into the cooker.
Be realistic about the ability to plan ahead and the energy level needed to do meal planning. It may take several weeks to get a solid system in place.
Choose 5 or 10 recipes that are favorites and learn how to prepare them really well, adapting as needed, and rotate through them for variety.
Use resources such as apps, bloggers, and YouTube channels to learn how to save time and energy through efficient meal planning.