We all want to eat healthier, but planning, shopping, and prepping wholesome meals gets old really fast. Who has the time and money to buy pricey (but oh-so-healthy) ingredients and cook a full meal every night? That’s where our old friend the Crock-Pot comes in. These magic machines can whip up a healthy meal while you’re out and about and turn nearly any combination of ingredients into a delicious, comforting dish. Plus, making slow cooker meals a few times a week can help you save money in a myriad of ways. Keep reading to learn our favorite tips, tricks, strategies, and recipes that will turn the Crock-Pot into your best-kept budgeting tool.
1. Purchase cheaper cuts of meat.
There’s no need to splurge on extra-tender (and extra-pricey) filet mignon when using a slow cooker. The slightly tougher, rougher, and “less desirable” (and therefore cheaper) cuts of meat are perfect for slow cookers since the hours-long, low-temperature cooking technique softens them right up. Want to give it a shot? Try this Rancher’s Roast Beef, Honey Barbeque Brisket, or Salsa Chicken Thighs.
2. Cook meals in bulk.
Bulk is best when it comes to saving money at the grocery store. Keep an eye out for sales and get ready to go all “Supermarket Sweep” when there’s a deal on your favorite ingredients. When you arrive home with 10 pounds of chicken thighs (or a few pounds of potatoes, rice, chickpeas, etc.) don’t freak out! Turn on the Crock-Pot and whip up a few batches of your favorite meals. When they’re fully cooked, store in Tupperware containers (or storage bags) in the freezer or fridge, and you’ll have loads of lunches and dozens of dinners at your fingertips.
3. Fill up on legumes and beans.
Since they often require fewer resources to produce, vegetarian proteins tend to be cheaper (and more environmentally-friendly) than meat or fish. Crockpots are ideal for whipping up a big batch of bean stew, lentils, or quinoa. Plus, the long cooking time makes it easy to achieve tons of great flavor without adding pricey meat. Pro tip: If you can’t shake the craving for meat at dinner, add a few chunks of bacon or even a ham hock to deepen the dish’s flavor. A few of our favorites? Vegan Curried Lentils, Chipotle Black Bean Soup, and Lentil Sweet Potato Soup.
4. Master meal planning.
Prepping dinner in the morning means that you have to plan ahead. But it also means that there will be fewer pricey last-minute purchases, wasted ingredients rotting in the fridge before they’re used up, and unnecessary dollars spent at the grocery store overall. On the weekend, make a list of ingredients you need for a week’s worth of make-ahead meals—that way, when you go to the store, you’ll have an action plan at the ready.
5. Think outside the box.
Yes, slow cookers are amazing for stews, chilis, and other hearty wintery meals. But they’re good for so much more than soup. You can even use them to make oatmeal: Prep everything at night, plug in the machine, and wake up to a healthy, filling, and super-cheap breakfast for the whole family. It’s also possible to make inexpensive everyday staples like rice, tomato sauce, yogurt, and baked potatoes (among many, many other foods) in the slow cooker. Here are a few of our favorite slow cooker staples: Vanilla Cinnamon Spice Quinoa, Slow Cooker Baked Potatoes, Slow Cooker Roasted Veggies.
6. Buy larger pieces of meat.
While at the butcher counter picking up meat, consider buying larger cuts of meat. For example, opt for a whole chicken rather than chicken breasts, a rib roast over strip steak, or a pork shoulder instead of chops. Buying a big chunk of meat is smart for a number of reasons: it’s typically cheaper pound-for-pound than buying smaller cuts, you’ll have enough to use for multiple recipes (or at least a super-big batch of one recipe), and if the cut of meat comes bone-in, the bone itself can be used to flavor homemade stock, stretching that one purchase over even more meals (and making each recipe cheaper overall). Ready to buy big? Try this simple Roast Chicken, Balsamic-Honey Pulled Pork, or Sweet and Spicy Ribs.
7. Manage your time.
Nobody wants to work long hours and then come home to a cold kitchen. Prep the slow cooker in the morning, turn it on, and get psyched for a hot dinner waiting for you at the end of the day. Saving time at night means you can go to bed earlier, which means you’ll be more alert and productive for work in the morning. It’s a win-win solution! De-stress your days even more by investing in a smartphone-controlled Crock-Pot (which will be available spring 2014) so you can monitor your meal from miles away.
8. Use dry beans rather than canned.
Slow cookers are ideal for dried beans—just soak them overnight in water, drain in the morning, add other ingredients, and flip the on switch. In general, dried beans tend to be less expensive than the canned variety, too. (Plus they definitely incorporate fewer preservatives and added ingredients, especially sodium.) Get started with Lighter Red Beans and Rice, Cuban Black Beans, or Slow Cooker White Beans.
9. Make pantry soup.
Ever read the classic folk tale Stone Soup? We won’t go into details, but the moral of the story is that it’s possible to make a tasty meal from just a few ingredients. A slow cooker is ideal for combining flavors and making just about anything into stew (plenty of low, slow heat can basically turn even an old, rock-hard leather shoe into a delicious, tender meal). Save precious dollars by foregoing the grocery store. Instead, peruse your cabinets, freezer, fridge, and pantry collecting ingredients for a mish-mash soup. Got grains? Toss ‘em in! An old Parmesan rind? Add it! Frozen ground beef? Put it in the pot. Here are a few easy recipes that could probably come together with ingredients in your pantry right now: Spicy Chicken Soup, Pantry Vegetable and Pasta Soup, Stone Soup.
10. Save on the energy bill.
Slow cookers actually use less energy than the stovetop or oven. Saving at the grocery store is fine and dandy, but shaving dollars off the energy bill is a truly impressive feat.
11. Make your own stock.
This “Little House on the Prairie” kitchen hack is so much easier than you think, especially when there’s a slow cooker involved. For veggie stock, collect the week’s veggie scraps (nothing rotten or slimy, please) in a plastic bag stored in the fridge. When the bag is full, dump them in the slow cooker, add enough water to cover the scraps, turn the machine on the “low” setting, and go about your business for about 10 hours. Strain the liquid through a mesh sieve and put it into containers in the refrigerator. For chicken stock, save the carcass and bones from a roast chicken, put them in the slow cooker with some vegetables, top with water, and cook on low for 10 hours. You can season both varieties with salt and pepper, spices, and herbs to add extra flavor. (This also works with fish or beef bones, too!). Get stocky with these easy recipes: Vegetable Stock, Chicken Stock, Beef Stock.
12. Resist the take-out menu.
Regardless of your favorite Crock-Pot strategy, using a slow cooker can help you resist the siren song of ordering take-out. If you love to prep meals in bulk, knowing that there’s always something tasty in the fridge or freezer makes that overpriced lo mein look much less appealing. If you’re more happy-go-lucky, just load up the slow cooker and turn it on before heading out for a super-busy day. Knowing dinner’s already taken care of will make that last-minute Chinese takeout unnecessary.
13. Cut down on dishwashing expenses.
The slow cooker is ideal for those who lack a dishwasher or the energy to wash a sink load of pots and pans right after dinner. Since most Crock-Pot recipes are one-pot meals, there are significantly fewer dishes to clean at the end of a meal. With just one large pot to wash, you’ll use less water, less soap, and less electricity (if you’re lucky enough to own a dishwasher).