Thursday, March 09, 2006

Using a crockpot to plan healthier meals

When we did "10 meals at Angela's house" last month, several of the Phit Chicks were intrigued by the ease of crock pot cooking. It wasn't long ago that I mentally categorized the crock pot with cassette tapes and stirrup pants -- just no longer en vogue. But I've found that this slow cooker has many possibilities for easy, healthy meal preparation, especially dinners. One of the keys is the slow cooker liners. You can buy them in the grocery store in the zip-a-lock bags & aluminum foil aisle. Here's how you can make three or four meals in 30 minutes.
1) Put the liner right in the crock pot.
2) Then put any meat (chicken breasts, fish fillets, even a roast) right into the liner. The cool thing is the meat can still be frozen.
3) Add some seasonings -- the kind you shake (poultry seasoning, tarragon, sage, oregano) or the kind you pour (soy sauce, a can of tomatoes) or mustard or lemon juice or whatever you like, right into the lined crock pot. Now, fresh herbs should not be added until closer to the end of the cooking cycle so they retain more flavor. And a good cook will tell you that even the dried herbs will lose some of their flavor. But the fact is,the seasoning adds alot to the dish, and it's lightyears ahead of boxed frozen dinnners or most of the microwaved meals you're spending too much money on at Applebees or Chilis.If you are using a recipe that calls for sour cream or milk or any dairy, do not add it until the end of the cooking cycle. But most things you can put right into the liner.
4) After all ingredients are in the liner bag, tie up the top of the slow cooker liner. Then put the whole thing into a large zip-a-lock bag. Sometimes when I do something heavy, like a roast or many chicken breasts, I put the filled liner bag on a paper plate then slide the paper plate and everything into the large zip-a-lock bag. (Like most meal planning, when you're in the assembly process, it's quite easy to make two or three of these dinners.)
5) After you have everything assembled and closed, put the meal into the refrigerator if you plan to eat it within a couple days, or put the whole thing in the freezer for later. If you freeze it, transfer it from the freezer to the fridge the day BEFORE you plan to cook it. Then the morning of, slide the liner right into the crock pot. At dinner time, you have a meal (minus preservatives and transfat and other crap that's in the packaged frozen dinners), and best of all, after dinner, NO CLEANUP! Yeah!I know when you're standing in the grocery store looking at four liners for $3, it seems like a less-than-frugal decision to buy them. But I guarantee you, having pre-prepared meals made of real food will save you money, calories and stress. And mentally, it's much easier to defrost a meal for dinner that you know won't require an hour of pot-scrubbing at the end of your day (that alone is worth three bucks!).You can find many more slow cooking hints and recipes here on the Crock Pot website.