You might have heard it in passing. Maybe it was from a friend, your dear old mum, or the cashier at the store where you bought your slow cooker, "You know, a slow cooker can save you a lot of time and money." Great, you thought, Wonderful... you muttered, NOW WHERE'S. MY. MONEY. Where's your money indeed. Well my thrifty, but impatient, friend, you've come to the right place.
Maybe you've wondered how exactly to save the most money on ingredients with your slow cooker. You might have even thought "how on earth does a slow cooker save me time? Isn't it sloooow?" If you're new enough to slow cookers to have thought the latter, you're in for a treat, because all of these tips below will be completely new to you. But even if you're a slow cooking pro, there are a few gems here that even your Royal Slow-Cooking-ness may not have thought of before. Whoever you are, by the time you're done reading this list of tips, you'll be the one nodding your head at the stranger lugging a brand new slow cooker to their car, sagely professing, "You know, that slow cooker is gonna save you a lot of time and money."
1. Use cheaper cuts of meat
It's no secret that slow cookers excel at transforming tough, cheap cuts of meat into tender, juicy morsels of heaven. With your trusty slow cooker at your side, you can confidently walk by the filet mignon at the butcher's, and disregard those expensive short ribs. With the right recipe and preparation, even the most inedible brick of chuck steak can become a mouth-watering morsel that will give its rib-eye cousin a run for its money.
But while cooking a tough slab of meat for hours on end, in and of itself makes it incredibly tender, you still have to know which cuts of meat make the best substitutes for their pricey counterparts that are often mentioned in recipes. Fact of the matter is, most recipes you find online will call for those pricey cuts, because they are better known and more popular. Check out our handy guide to economical cuts of meat below and become a pro at finding the perfect money-saving substitute for every recipe in your cookbook. We even included some recipe recommendations to try with them!
Keep Reading: 3 cheaper cuts of meat your slow cooker can make so tasty, you'll swear off filet mignon
2. Freezer bag meals
Get gas. Go to the grocery store. Cook. Get gas. Go to the grocery store. Cook. How can you break this endless cycle? Well, one way is you can buy and prep food for the entire week in a single sitting.
One of the biggest benefits of your slow cooker is that all the action happens in a single pot, and usually all the ingredients are added at once. What that also means, is that many meals can be prepared in advance by putting all the uncooked ingredients in a freezer bag, and then freezing it. When the day comes that hunger runs high and time runs low, just pull out a bag and dump its entire contents into your slow cooker. Turn it on, head out to work, and come home to a hot, fresh, meal. You can prepare every meal for the entire week, or you can keep a secret stash of slow cooker meals in the freezer and whip one out when the need arises. Not only will you save money by buying in bulk and making fewer trips to the grocery store, you'll be saving a lot of your time as well. Just remember to date the bags.
Now, don't get ahead of yourself, not all slow cooker recipes can be prepared like this, but we've assembled a list of some of our favorite freezer bag recipes, for your convenience, in the link below.
3. Replace your oven
Your slow cooker is a magical device. Most likely, you've used it to braise food, make stews, or maybe even prepared the occasional soup, but it's a far more flexible appliance than you might think.
To a large extent, almost anything you might consider preparing in your oven, you can also prepare in your slow cooker. Yes, that means you could make a pizza in your slow cooker. You could make a whole chicken in the slow cooker. You could even bake bread if you so desired. If you want to be daring, our chef even made us a cheesecake one day... in a slow cooker. It was completely nuts.
Yes, this does mean that you could use your slow cooker as a second oven to make dessert while your main oven is filled with a giant turkey. Yes, it means you could save money on your electric bill and cool down your house in the summer by using your slow cooker instead of your inefficient and house-warming oven. Yes, it even means you could go super-green and fight climate-change (if you believe in that sort of thing) by leaving your oven behind entirely.
If you're accustomed to experimentation, this is probably all the inspiration you need to open up a world of possibilities. If you need some ideas, or just want some recipes that have been proven to work, check out our favorite unusual slow cooker recipes below.
4. Make breakfast overnight
You've heard it before, "breakfast is the most important meal of the day." You've read it on Facebook, you've seen it on TV, you've been told it at the doctor's office, and you're hearing it again here. What they didn't mention was that breakfast is also the most inconvenient meal to prepare of the day. Whether you're a busy parent trying to get your kids out of bed, or a tired college student trying to get yourself out of bed, or just not a morning person, mornings always seem to be far busier than any other time of day.
Sure, there are the quick fixes: you could throw some cereal in a bowl and pick from the dwindling number of offerings that aren't filled with sugar, preservatives, and an endless list of artificial ingredients. You could pick up that pricey pastry or carb-filled bagel from the corner store (honestly, you're probably better off skipping breakfast if those are the options you're considering). Or you could do that thing your doctor keeps suggesting, make steel-cut oatmeal from scratch. But what your doctor fails to realize is that preparing steel-cut oatmeal properly is no simple task. To do it right, you've got to soak it the day before, for hours. You then have to actually cook it, which takes another 15-30 minutes of your precious morning. And then, after all that, you still have to have enough time to eat it before heading off to work, run errands, or go to class.
Well, guess what. Little known secret, but your trusty slow cooker is great for preparing healthy, tasty, breakfast foods for you, overnight. That's right, you can make that poor little pot work for you, not only all day, but all night too! A few minutes of prep the night before, and when morning hits, you can just roll out of bed and plop yourself in front of a fresh, hot, breakfast in seconds. Steel-cut oatmeal? No need to soak, it'll do that while it cooks all night long! Check out our favorite overnight oatmeal recipe below.
Keep Reading: How to make overnight cranberry maple oatmeal
5. Cook with vegetarian proteins
You know what's cheaper than cheap meat? Cheap vegetables.
"Huh? Vegetarian what? I'm no vegetarian!"
Stay with me here, I didn't say become vegetarian (not that it wouldn't be a good idea in general from a health perspective, but let's be honest, if you aren't vegetarian by now, you're probably not going to be anytime soon). No, no, no, I said vegetarian proteins. What does that mean? Well, it means you can eat less meat, but still satisfy your need for protein, using... vegetarian proteins. You know, legumes? Beans?
Look, I'll keep this short and sweet. Legumes and beans are great sources of protein, but are often difficult to cook because they require long cook times to fully extract their flavor. With a slow cooker, however, legumes and beans make excellent and economical supplements to your meat-filled meals, so you can have a little less meat, and a few more veggies, capisce? Okay, I can see you're still reticent. If you aren't convinced that vegetarian anything can be tasty, just check out the recipe below that features beans.
Keep Reading: How to make slow cooker red beans and rice with sausage
6. Learn to meal plan with a slow cooker
The benefits of meal planning are enormous from both a time and monetary standpoint. You don't need to worry about making multiple trips to the grocery store. You don't need to think about what's for dinner or searching online endlessly for new recipes. You don't need to worry about having leftovers. If these are headaches that trouble you, know that you aren't alone.
This is why we put together the one slow cooker meal plan that does it all. Make one grocery trip off a shopping list for the entire week, and never worry about what's for dinner again. Each meal works out to be less than $2.50 per person! Check out the meal plan guide in the link below.
Keep Reading: The one slow cooker meal plan that will change your life
7. Invest in the right slow cooker
Our final recommendation to saving money is for you to invest in the right slow cooker. Make sure you know what kind of features you need in your slow cooker, because there certainly are a lot of them out there. Whether it's more advanced timer settings, the ability to keep food warm after it's done, or even fancier features, like the ability to brown food and slow cook, all in the same pot, it's important to think about what you'll be using your slow cooker to make so you don't overspend, or worse, end up with a device that can't do what you need it to do.
Remember, higher cost doesn't always equate to better quality, or more useful. If you don't need all the bells and whistles, you can save money on the slow cooker itself by getting one with fewer options. But if you do need those features, you'll be saving a lot more by having a slow cooker that can do it all, than spending hundreds on other equipment.
If you don't know where to start, you can check out a few of our favorite slow cookers below. We've gone through about two dozen now in our test kitchen, and prepared hundreds of meals with them. Many have broken, and some never really worked right to begin with, but the ones that have stood the test of time we've included in this list.
If you follow these recommendations, and have a lot of mouths to feed, you could save hundreds of dollars each month. Whether it's from gas saved from grocery trips, money saved from ingredients and the electric bill, or time saved from convenience, these are real savings that will make your life better. What's that you say? That's still not enough to pay your rent? Well I have something to say to you, Mr. or Ms. Nice-House... you fancy.
Keep Reading: 20 tiny homes that cost less than a car
Already knew all these tips? Have a few more you'd like to share? Leave us your advice in the comments, we'd love to hear from you!