Real Food Whole Life

Real Food Basics: How to Use a Slow Cooker

Real Food Meal PrepRobyn DownsComment

Using a slow cooker is one of the simplest ways to get a real food dinner on the table without much fuss. And if you work outside the home or run kids around to lessons and activities after school, a slow cooker is absolutely essential to avoiding the drive through and eating healthy at home. Find my full collection of real food, healthy slow cooker recipes here.

If you’re new to slow cooking, today I’m sharing the basics on setting-up, storage, prep, getting the most flavor out of your recipes, and dealing with leftovers. Whether you’re a slow cooker newbie or a seasoned pro, I hope you'll find some new ideas and inspiration! 

Real Food Basics: How to Use a Slow Cooker


1 | Find Your Perfect Size & Model

If you’re in the market for a slow cooker, there are a few things you’ll want to consider. The first is size. Slow cookers primarily come in two sizes: 6-quart and 3-quart (there are other options as well, but most recipes give measurements for these).

A recipe prepared in a 6-quart generally yields about 4-8 servings, while the 3-quart yields 3-6. The 6-quart is great for feeding a family, but even if you’re single or feeding 2 people, I recommend the 6-quart. The leftovers for many slow cooker recipes freeze well, so you can cook (and cleanup) once, and have several meals ready to go in the freezer.

The second thing to consider is whether the unit is programmable, meaning you can set a timer for a specified cook time and the unit will switch to warm after that time. I highly recommend the programmable option if you plan to slow cook while you’re away from home for more than a few hours during the cooking time. Programmable options are slightly more expensive but, in my opinion, the convenience of having dinner waiting for is worth the difference.

I use this 6-quart programmable slow cooker and this 3-quart slow cooker in my kitchen.

2 | Store it Within Reach

One of the simplest tips for using a slow cooker is to store it within easy reach. If it’s shoved into the back of a cabinet and difficult to access, you probably won’t use it on a regular basis. The kitchen counter is a great option, since having it easily available will ensure that preparing a recipe is as simple as chopping and dropping.

If the counter isn’t an option, clear a space on an easily accessible shelf in the pantry. And if that doesn’t work, think creatively about other storage options in your kitchen. Just be sure it’s within reach so you can grab and go when you’re ready to cook. 

Prep & Cook

3 | Chop, Rinse, & Drop

When you’re ready to prepare a recipe, gather all the ingredients together. Give the vegetables a good scrub and then get to chopping. If you’re using canned beans, drain them and give them a good rinse. I like to use a fine mesh strainer to make rinsing easy. Drop all the ingredients into the slow cooker, give everything a stir and set the timer.

I often prep slow cooker recipes the night before by preparing the recipe in the slow cooker insert, covering, and placing the entire thing in the fridge. In the morning, I remove the insert from the fridge, place it back into the base, and set the timer.

4 | Fill & Cover

To work efficiently, most slow cooker recipes need to be filled at least half to three quarters of the way full. Unlike stovetop cooking, liquid doesn’t evaporate, and vegetables often release additional liquid, so be careful not to overfill.

Slow cookers only work if the lid is on, so resist the urge to uncover and stir multiple times during the cooking process. Similarly, make sure your unit has a tight-fitting lid. Finally, if you’re adapting a 6-quart slow cooker recipe for a 3-quart, it’s fine to half the ingredients. Just be sure to fill the 3-quart at least half to three quarters of the way full. You may also need to adjust the cooking time down slightly, depending on the power of your slow cooker.

5 | Let It Do Its Thing

Once you’ve prepped the recipe, dropped the ingredients in, and covered, all you need to do is let it do its thing!


6 | Taste & Season

When the recipe is ready, remove the lid and stir. If additional ingredients are called for at this point, drop those in, cover, and cook for the additional specified time.

Once everything is ready, turn the heat off and taste. Due to the long cooking time, slow cooker recipes can often taste bland. There are a few things you can do to revive the dish to make it fresh tasting and vibrant. First, add acid in the form of vinegar or citrus. Add a tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired taste. If it still tastes flat, add salt, ¼ teaspoon at a time until it taste good to you. Finally, add heat. A few dashes of hot sauce will liven up any recipe.

7 | Freshen It Up

Another way to bring a slow cooker recipe to life is to add fresh ingredients at the end. Chopped herbs such as scallions and cilantro, creamy avocado, a little fresh salsa or sour cream go a long way to brighten any recipe.

Work the Leftovers

8 | Cool, Label and Store

If you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, allow to cool and then store in a tightly covered container in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. I like to use these glass storage containers because they stack neatly and resist leaking.

9| Freeze

Alternatively, freeze the leftovers. Freezing is a great option if you get tired of eating the same leftovers after a few days, or if you want the individual servings to last a while. I find wide-mouthed mason jars work really well because they are individually portioned and resist leaking if taken on the go. Masking tape works well for labeling the tops of the jars so you don’t forget what's in there later on. A wide-mouthed canning funnel also makes filling the jars simple and less messy.

Find all my healthy, real food slow cooker recipes, here.

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