If your family is anything like mine...they like to eat. And well, it's good to eat. We need energy in the form of food in order to function properly. When we eat the right food we function even better! So, it's important with me working now that I find a way for my family to eat well while being easy and simple to prepare.
Enter the slow cooker!! We use the slow cooker a LOT around here and I'm so grateful for the many recipes floating around in the web-o-sphere. I'm also grateful for the Fix-It and Forget-It 5 ingredient favorites: Comforting slow cooker recipes book that a lady from church gave me. This book has been used many many times and I plan to keep using it until we decide to stop using the slow cooker to make dinner (and with me working that won't be anytime soon). To only need 5 ingredients saves me a ton of time and money. These recipes are easy to throw together in the morning when I'm hanging out with my two little helpers before I head to work. Then when we get home all we have to do is fix a simple side, of which I plan to stock the fridge with on the weekends...like rice and veggies or whatever.
If you haven't started using your crock-pot as a way to save you time and money (you won't have to eat out as much) then let me encourage you to do so. It's really rather simple and doesn't take too much prep work.
DISCLAIMER: This is simply MY experience. Everyone has their own way of shopping, preparing meals and ideas on what is okay to serve their families. These are the things that work for MY family. They may not work for you, they may give you ideas of something you could implement but they are not a rule for your family.
I don't know what got me started with making crock-pot meals. I didn't really start using my crock-pot like I do now until about two years ago...but I don't know what/who got me started. I do know that since I started working if I didn't have this way to cook a good healthy, filling dinner that we'd be eating out, or breakfast for every dinner on a night that I had to work. Yes, my husband can cook but he's busier than I am.
Greg and I usually arrive home around 5 (some days I'm home earlier) and about three nights out of the week he needs to be back out the door by 6:00-6:15...which doesn't leave much time for dinner, which means it needs to be pretty much ready to eat when we get home. So without the crock-pot we wouldn't eat...okay we'd find something but you get the idea. We like to eat healthy, unprocessed whole foods as much as possible. We buy organic when it's on sale but really just focus on buying lots of fresh fruits and veggies to go with a protein.
All that being said, I love to prepare freezer crock-pot meals making my mornings and meal planning SO much easier. It works for us and it could work for you. It takes some prep work and a little planning but when you're finished you will feel so good about having a freezer full of healthy whole food meals waiting for you to cook whenever you'd like. So here's a little "tutorial" if you will about how I prep my crock-pot freezer meals. I know there are other types of freezer meals that can be made -lasagnas, pot pies, etc - but like I said the meals for us need to be pretty much ready when we walk in the door so we don't have time to put something in the oven an hour earlier.
FIRST. Scour the internet for some crock-pot meals. A google search for crock-pot freezer meals will lead to many different options. My favorite go to recipe site and the one I always recommend is New Leaf Wellness. She has a lot of great whole food crock pot freezer meals.
After you pick out your recipes then you need to compile your shopping list. The good thing about these recipes is that a lot of them use the same type of ingredients so you can buy in bulk! Don't forget to put gallon ziplock freezer bags on the list!!
Then write out the name of the recipe along with the date on the ziplock bag. In the top left corner of the bag I like to write how long to cook the meal on high and on low (just in case) and on the top right corner of the bag I write any ingredients that I would need to add on the day of the cooking. I used to write all the ingredients on the bottom left side of the bag but I don't do that as much anymore since lately my recipes all come from the same place. The reason it would be good to write the ingredients is in case you gift the meal to someone you would know what was in the meal in case of allergies. Also you may want the ingredients listed for yourself in case you change some thing in your families diet (it can look so different when frozen).
Then I like to make a list of the recipes I am making and write down anything that needs to be chopped or prepped for that recipe. Then I know that I need to chop up 5 green bell peppers and 8 tomatoes so I can chop all of one kind of veggie at a time. The only hard part about doing this is when you come to 10 onions!! Just make sure the onions are refrigerated so they won't sting your eyes as bad!
You can tape the recipes to the cabinet above where you are working or if you are working from a cook book just make sure the book is handy. I also like to make note of page numbers when I'm using an actual cook book.
Then just chop chop chop or assemble the ingredients.
I will chop all the carrots and add them to the different bags as I go. I don't worry too much about measuring everything and usually you don't have to until you get to the spices. Just chop chop chop!
After everything is chopped I add any spices that are listed in the ingredients. It helps to make some of them ahead of time (such as Italian spices). After the spices I grab my meat from the fridge and add it to the bag. I do any meat that does not need to be chopped first...then I can pop it in the freezer right away. If any meat needs to be chopped I only bring out one kind at a time. There are TWO reasons for doing the meat last. 1) You're not leaving meat out to get warm while you chop everything else 2) The meat will be at the top of the bag thus making it the first thing in the crock-pot when you dump it in!
Then you need to seal the bag and get all the air out...or at least as much as possible! Use a straw in the corner of the bag to suck the air out if you want to. Someday I'll get one of those fancy sealing machines! Lay the bag flat and put in on a freezer shelf. Once it is frozen you can stack them vertically. The first time I made freezer meals I just plopped the bag down and left it, lying it flat really does save space.
We have a freezer (two actually) in the garage so I like to write what freezer meals are in there on the outside of the door with a dry-erase marker. If you have your meals stored in your house that may not work as well but you could just as easily write it on a piece of paper and cross the meal off once you use it. This has been so helpful to me when planning meals. No need to prop the freezer door open for minutes while I figure out what's inside. Just make sure to cross things off as they get used!!!
Here are a couple of other little hints and things to remember if you're new to this type of "cooking".
*Some recipes will call for you to brown the meat before you freeze it. I have made these types of meals and they turn out fine but I don't usually make them anymore because it takes me a lot longer to assemble my meals if I'm cooking two or three pounds of ground beef during my assembly session. You could always pick those meals and just brown the meat on the day of cooking. I simply don't have time to do that so I choose meals that are just assembly required and not any pre-cooking.
*Some people are freaked out by recipes that have raw meat touching raw veggies but let me assure you that since everything is going to be frozen right away and then cooked either on high for a while or on low ALL.DAY.LONG there's really nothing to worry about. We've probably eaten 60 freezer meals and haven't gotten sick from them even once. But if that still worries you just freeze the meat in its own bag and make sure to label both bags that they go together!!
*There are some ingredients that you can just add on the day of cooking like stock or broth. Sometimes there's not much room left in the bags for the liquids even though the recipe calls for it!
*You don't have to be a great cook in order to provide great healthy meals for your family. You are literally chopping a few things and dumping things into a bag. Then you dump it into a crock-pot and call dinner done!! Just don't forget to turn the crock-pot on (and plug it in)...not that I would know from experience ;)
Having a freezer stocked with nutritious easy to cook meals is an incredible feeling (as long as the power doesn't go out ;)).
I have organized a few freezer meal swaps in the past...I am not certain if I will continue to do that this school year or not. Just get four of your friends that want to stock their freezer with meals and start a swap. Everyone makes 5 of the same meal...which makes it easier on your budget since you can buy in bulk and it's just easier to prep the same meal 5 times than 5 different meals. Then (ideally) you freeze all 5 meals. Find a time to have everyone meet at someones house (hopefully yours since you are organizing it) and swap the meals. Make sure to keep one of the 5 meals you made. Then you will have 5 different meals with only having to prep one kind!! It's a win win!! You can do this with 4 people or even 6 but I wouldn't get much bigger than six to keep it somewhat simple for everyone. Just make sure to make enough meals for everyone in the group and don't forget yourself (sometimes I make two for my family right away)!!
I know there's a lot of information here! Please PIN this so you can come back to it later and share it with your friends. I'd love to answer any questions that you have so please leave a comment with questions and I'll make sure to come back and answer them to the best of my knowledge!!
Do you have a favorite slow cooker meal? I'd love to try it. You can also see more meals that I've found and pinned here. Enjoy your back to school time and prep some slow cooker meals so you don't have to worry about dinner!!