Slow cookers, also called crock pots, 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 really help you save money. Keep reading to learn my favorite tips, tricks, strategies, and recipes that will turn the Crock-Pot into your best-kept budgeting tool. And if you don’t yet have one, I’ll also recommend the best slow cookers to look into.
How to Use Your Slow Cooker to Save Money
Be a Cheapskate
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.
The truth is, nothing loves a cheap cut of meat like the Crock-Pot. All that slow-braising turns the toughest cuts into succulent food for the gods.
And it goes without saying (but I will, anyways) … shop the sales!
Pro Tip: Beef chuck is an economical cut that comes from the shoulder of the steer. It can be cut into chunks for stew, ground into ground beef, or braised whole.
Beef chuck is the perfect stew meat — it’s full of connective tissue that softens and makes the meat tender and flavorful.
The key with this tough cut is to cook it slowly, and that’s where your slow cooker comes in!
There is an excellent recipe for Crock Pot Beef Stew (using inexpensive beef chuck) at Butter With a Side of Bread. Cooks have been raving about that recipe, and it was even featured on the TODAY show!
Cook in Volume
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 in 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 your slow cooker and whip up a few batches of your favorite meals.
When they’re fully cooked, store in plastic containers (or storage bags) in the freezer or fridge, and you’ll have loads of lunches and dozens of dinners at your fingertips.
Pro tip: Even better,vacuum-seal your meals to preserve their freshness and create future convenience.
Since they often require fewer resources to produce, vegetarian proteins tend to be cheaper (and more environmentally-friendly) than meat or fish.
Slow cookers 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.
Try the Crockpot Red Lentil Curry recipe from Pinch of Yum; it’s an exotic, yet simple dish that will have everyone asking you you made it!
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 your slow cooker meal, to deepen the dish’s flavor.
Plan Out Your Meals
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.
Be Creative – Your Slow Cooker is Versatile
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.
Pick up this bestseller for some guidance and inspiration:
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).
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 WIFI-enabled slow cooker so you can monitor your meal from miles away.
Clean Out Your Pantry and Fridge
Ever read the classic folk tale Stone Soup? I 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? You could probably create a masterpiece with ingredients in your fridge and pantry right now!
Energy Savings – Always a Good Thing
Slow cookers actually use less energy than the stove top or oven. Saving at the grocery store is fine and dandy, but shaving dollars off the energy bill is a truly impressive feat.
Homemade Stock is the Tastiest
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!
Check out this great step-by-step recipe for Easy Slow Cooker Chicken Stock at Little Broken.
Home Cooking VS Takeout
Regardless of your favorite slow cooker 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.
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).
How to Choose a Slow Cooker
If you don’t yet have a slow cooker, it’s worth noting that they do more than just save you money.
Home-cooked meals are often the first casualty of a hectic schedule. But if you’re not willing to sacrifice a healthy home-cooked meal, a slow cooker can take the frenzy out of preparing a feast.
They are perfect for soups, stews, and tough cuts of meat, slow cookers are designed to simmer food at a low temperature for an extended period of time.
So if you’re looking for slow cooker buying tips, here are my recommendations …
Types of Slow Cookers
Programmable Slow Cookers
With programmable slow cookers, electronic controls and a digital timer let you choose cooking time. Some let you program the slow cooker for up to 24 hours in 30-minute increments and the digital display shows remaining cooking time.
Many of these models automatically switch to a keep-warm setting when set time is up and can keep food warm for hours. Some also have manual mode.
Mechanical Slow Cookers
With mechanical slow cookers, all you have to do is just turn the control to the desired setting—low, medium, or high.
Mechanical models don’t have a timer so you’ll have to monitor the cooking, especially for smaller quantities of more delicate foods, and you’ll have to turn off the slow cooker. Some have a keep-warm setting but you’ll have to switch to this mode.
Settings and Sizes
Both types of slow cookers usually have two or three settings. When using the low setting, food will cook in six to 10 hours. Using the high setting allows food to cook in four to six hours.
If possible, turn the slow cooker on the high setting for the first hour of cooking time and then use the setting that fits your needs.
One hour on high is about equal to two hours on low. One hour in the oven at 350 degrees F is equivalent to about 4 hours on high, or 8 hours on low. Similarly, 3 hours in the oven is equivalent to 4-6 hours on high and 8-16 hours on low.
Slow cookers vary in size from 1 to 7 quarts. Smaller slow cookers are good for dips or sauces and larger cookers are great for large cuts of meats and soups.
A 3.5-4 quart size slow cooker is best if you’ll be cooking for four or fewer people.
A 5-7 quart size or larger slower cooker is best if you’ll be cooking for five or more people or you want leftovers.
Slow Cooker Features to Consider
Sturdy handles are a must, of course, but slow cookers also offer other features you might find useful, like roasting racks to let you roast meat and poultry or steam vegetables, wrap-around cord storage, and insulated carrying bags.
Most slow cookers we’ve seen have a removable ceramic pot. Some are metal. Some West Bend models have a metal cooking pot that rests on a heating base that looks similar to a hot plate.
You’ll see models with nonstick coatings and some that can safely be used in the oven, microwave, or on the stove top.
Ease of Cleaning
An easy-to-clean insert and lid that can go into the dishwasher is handy. Touchpad controls are easier to clean than knobs and buttons.
A glass or clear plastic lid lets you watch your progress without removing the lid and releasing heat. Some slow cookers have a split lid that’s hinged—this lets you check on your food by lifting one side while the other stays shut retaining the heat. This is handy when serving too.
Some slow cookers have a serving ladle that fits snugly into a notch in the lid. A locking lid helps keep food from spilling while in transport to potlucks and parties.
Capacities can range from 1.5 to 8.5 quarts. But some owner’s manuals say to fill the pot 1/2 to 3/4 full to avoid under- and over-cooking and to prevent spillovers.
Several manufacturers recommend a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker for a family of four that uses the slow cooker for whole chickens and roasts.
Slow cookers are round, oval, or oblong—the oval shape can come in handy if you plan on cooking roasts and other large cuts of meat.
Even slow cookers with similar capacities can vary in size. The bulky ones are more difficult to store and transport, and of course they eat up more counter space.
Insert the probe into a large cut of meat, choose the temperature you want the meat to reach, and when the temperature is reached the slow cooker will switch to the keep-warm setting.
Best Slow Cooker Crock Pots
Not all slow cookers are created equal. Since you’ll be leaving the appliance unattended for hours, you want to pick one you can trust. Here are my four favorite models:
Best Budget Crock Pot
If you’re looking for a no-frills, top-notch slow cooker, the Crock-Pot Manual Slow Cooker is the model to buy.
It looks nearly identical to the one our mom had 20 years ago—it’s what marketers would spin as “a timeless design.” But, as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Plus, its four-quart size makes it ideal for small kitchens where counters and cabinets are a precious commodity.
Best Portable Slow Cooker
Need to cook something for a crowd? Let me introduce you to your new best friend, the Hamilton Beach 6 quart Stay-or-Go slow cooker.
Making big meals—without slaving away in the kitchen—has never been easier. And if you’re leaving the house for your party, you don’t have to worry about spilling your dish in transport. The locking mechanism on top keeps everything sealed (and warm) until you’re ready to serve.
Best Slow Cooker for Meat Lovers
Now we’re getting to the models with cool bells and whistles.
The Hamilton Beach Set n’ Forget 6 Quart Slow Cooker with Temperature Probe is a step up from run-of-the-mill slow cookers comes with a built-in meat thermometer.
Next time you’re cooking a full chicken or a roast, poke the meat with the thermometer and set your desired temperature. Once the meat reaches the right temp, the cooker automatically turns from “cook” to “warm”—meaning the meat comes out perfectly juicy every time!
Creme de la Crumb features a mouthwatering slow cooker beef roast recipe which requires only 10 minutes of prep time, and can be adjusted to feed 4-8 people.
Best High Tech Slow Cooker
The Crock-Pot WeMo 6 Quart Slow Cooker comes with a really cool feature: If you download the WeMo app and plug in your Crock-Pot before you leave home, you can turn this model on and adjust the temperature from anywhere.
Well, yeah. But there are plenty of slow cooker recipes that require more precise timing, so being able to control the Crock-Pot from a distance can be really helpful.
This video has some great tips for choosing and getting the most out of your crock pot:
Slow Cooker Tips and Safety
If you’re hesitant to have your slow cooker on and cooking while you are away throughout the day, consider cooking foods during alternate hours that you are home, even while you sleep. Cool down the foods when they are finished cooking, storing it in the refrigerator prior to reheating it in the stove or oven for a meal later.
Here are some basic tips and safety rules to follow when using a slow cooker:
- For easy cleanup and care of your slow cooker, rub the inside of the stoneware with oil or spray it with nonstick cooking spray before using it. Slow cooker liners also ease cleanup.
- Never place a cold stoneware insert into a preheated slow cooker. Let them heat up together.
- Always thaw frozen meat and poultry in the refrigerator before cooking it in the slow cooker. To ensure complete cooking, do not put frozen meat in your slow cooker.
- Fill the slow cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Cooking too little or too much food in the slow cooker can affect cooking time, quality and the safety.
- Because vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry, place the vegetables in the slow cooker first. Place the meat on top of the vegetables and top with liquid, such as broth, water or a sauce.
- Add the liquid, such as broth, water or barbecue sauce, suggested in the recipe. Because liquids do not boil away in a slow cooker, in most cases, you can reduce liquids by one-third to one-half when converting a non-slow cooker recipe for slow cooker use.
- If possible, set your slow cooker on high for the first hour, and then turn the heat setting to low to finish cooking.
- Keep the lid in place during cooking. Removing the lid slows cooking time. Every time the lid is lifted, about 15-20 minutes of cooking time is lost.
- Add grains such as pasta at the end of the cooking process or it will become mushy. You may want to cook pasta or another grain such as rice separately and add it just before serving.
- Add milk, cheese and cream during the last hour to prevent curdling.
- Very soft vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and zucchini may be added during the last 45 minutes of cooking time.
- If the power goes out during the cooking process and you are not at home, discard the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking it by some other means such as on a gas grill or at a neighbor’s.
- Don’t put a hot stoneware pot into the refrigerator, a sudden change in temperature can lead to cracks. It’s better to transfer any leftovers into a shallow container and store that in the refrigerator.
- Don’t reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. Instead use a conventional stove or microwave and heat to an internal temperature of 165° F. After that, you can return the food to the slow cooker for transport or serving.
A slow cooker can do more than lower your grocery and electricity bill; they come in so handy with a delicious meal waiting for you and your family at the end of the day. With some simple preparation, you can create a wonderful dish, even with tougher, inexpensive cuts of meat.
With just one-step, one-pot preparation, your slow cooker meal will be mouthwatering and nutritious, with minimal cost and cleanup. Slow cooking brings out the maximum flavor of your foods with very little effort on your part.
And don’t forget to use your slow cooker all year round; n the winter, the aroma of a hearty slow-cooked meal will be so welcoming, and in the summer, your slow cooker will allow you to cook without heating up your kitchen.
Whether you haven’t been using your crock pot, or are looking into purchasing one, I hope you’ll find (or rediscover) the savings and enjoyment of using a slow cooker!
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