SherryH, a staff writer and friend here at BFS, lives near the coast of North Carolina. Her family consists of her husband, their two adult sons, and the requisite writer’s cats. In 2013, Sherry survived a brain tumor that destroyed her eyesight. She’s determined not to let that slow her down. She recently started blogging at Blind, Not Invisible.
I’ll be honest. I love to eat out. Our area has a lot of great restaurants, and I love a fast food burger or chicken sandwich now and again. And when I’m tired, or we’ve had a busy day and there’s nothing planned for dinner, it’s really, really tempting to let someone else cook–and do the dishes!
But it isn’t good for our budget, and eating out is much less of a treat when you do it all the time. I’d rather go out to celebrate a special occasion or enjoy time together as a family (or as a couple!) than because I was caught short and didn’t have anything planned.
So I do a lot of cooking at home, and there are two appliances I absolutely rely on to help keep it cheap and easy. Because I like cheap and easy. 😀
My Slow Cookers
I have three slow cookers. There’s the 4-quart model that used to be my workhorse, and still comes in handy for smaller dishes or side items at big holiday meals.
About a year and a half ago, I upgraded to a 6-quart cooker, because my husband and I found a really good deal at a thrift store. This is the cooker that lives on my kitchen counter and gets used at least several times a week.
Finally, there’s the baby – a 1-quart cooker we inherited from my husband’s late aunt, a lovely older woman who lived alone and cooked, on the rare occasions she cooked, for one. I don’t use this one often, but it’s really handy for carrying melted cheese dip to potlucks.
So what do I use them for? Almost everything.
Soups and stews are the obvious candidates, but I’ve also done scalloped potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, and roasted potatoes. I’ve even boiled eggs and made bread in my slow cookers, though I don’t think it’s the most efficient way to do either.
I like my slow cooker because it doesn’t use a lot of energy. In the summer, it doesn’t heat up the whole house like the oven would, saving money on our cooling bill. Slow cooking is great for tenderizing tougher cuts of meat, which tend to be the cheaper ones.
They’re also good for cooking large quantities of food for later use. Last week, the IGA near us had a great deal on split chicken breast. I squeezed six breasts into my large cooker, sprinkled on a little thyme and garlic, and let them cook all afternoon. That evening, when they were falling-apart tender, I boned and chopped them. Two went into that evening’s chicken and rice, and I divided the rest into two packages and froze them for future meals.
Can’t Beat the Convenience
Of course, with a slow cooker you still have all the prep that would go into a particular meal. You’ve got to chop veggies, brown meat, heat frozen ingredients, or open cans. But what the slow cooker does is to uncouple that time from actual dinnertime and let you do it when it’s convenient for you.
I can do all my prep in the early afternoon when I’m fresh, then go take a break or get some writing done. Come dinnertime, all someone has to do is throw together some rice or mashed potatoes or whatever, and we’re ready to eat. If I clean up after my prep, there aren’t even many dishes to wash.
Having dinner simmering away in the slow cooker makes it a lot less likely that we’ll end up going out because everyone’s too tired to cook!
Several years ago, a friend of my husband’s gave us a little front-loading freezer. He’d bought it thinking it was a refrigerator he could use at his office. Since it wasn’t, and we could use it, he passed it along to us.
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that little freezer.
It lets me stock up when I find a really good deal, and it means having something on hand to cook so that I don’t have to ask someone to make a trip to the grocery store–or succumb to the temptation of eating out.
Ideally, the little freezer would have uncooked meat on the bottom shelf, vegetables and cooked meat in the middle, and fruits and miscellaneous items on the top. In real life, stuff tends to get stuck wherever someone finds a space, and then I have to get someone to find things for me when I want them. I do keep an inventory, so at least I know what’s in there to look for!
Like the slow cooker, the freezer lets me shift my prep time, so that I’m not starting from scratch when it’s already late and everyone is hungry and cranky.
Some canned tomatoes and kidney beans, a package of cooked ground beef with onions, and I’ve got chili ready to roll.
If I take out a package of chopped cooked chicken in the morning or defrost it in the microwave, we can have chicken and rice in the time it takes to make rice.
I still have to do the prep in advance, of course, but the freezer allows me to do it on my time, to pick a day I’m not otherwise busy and go to town. I can also do it in big batches, like I did with those chicken breasts, which saves energy cuts down on overall labor.
One thing you won’t usually find in my freezer are prepared meals. I know some people swear by them, but it’s never really worked for us.
For one thing, I have limited freezer space and I don’t have a lot of containers large enough to freeze entire meals. I might freeze a package of ham slices or holiday turkey large enough to serve as the basis for another meal, but that’s as far as I go. Side items and veggies don’t take that long to cook.
For another, my family is perfectly happy to devour leftover soups and casseroles as lunches the next day, or even have them for breakfast. We need those meals, too, and leftovers are quick and easy when someone’s in a hurry, so that works out just fine for me.
I have thought about freezing single portions so they can be grabbed and heated on the go, but it seems like a lot of trouble when there’s usually something else quick around, and I’m not sure how well even smaller containers would fit in the freezer. They’d be great for packed lunches, but no one here carries their lunch right now, so it seems like an unnecessary step.
Do you have a slow cooker? How often do you use it, and what do you make? Do you find that your freezer helps you save money?
From Crystal: I’m trying some of these recipes over the next two weeks, thanks!