Healthy Slow Cooker Recipe Ideas

Outside-In Turkey Tamale Pie
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Think you're too busy to prepare healthy meals? Perhaps. But with these diet-friendly slow cooker ideas, you can whip up delicious recipes that are low on prep time.

What's a Slow Cooker?

A slow cooker is the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it cooking appliance. The countertop device cooks food at a low temperature in a covered container — just add your ingredients and leave it to cook. And while some people think of this kitchen tool as simply something for making chilis, soups, and stews, the slow cooker is much more versatile than that. 

Healthy Slow Cooker Ingredients

Lean Protein - To get the most bang for your calorie buck, stick with lean meats: skinless boneless chicken breast, shellfish, extra-lean ground beef (4 percent fat or less), lean ground turkey (7 percent fat or less), lean beef steak (like top sirloin), etc. For a decadent twist, go with a blend of leaner and heavier cuts. For example, when I'm making a pork dish, I use half pork shoulder and half pork tenderloin (really lean). Other recommended protein sources? Beans, reduced-fat cheese (for topping), and oats. 

Tip: For best taste and texture when cooking ground meat in a slow cooker, first brown it in a skillet sprayed with nonstick spray.

Vegetables - Don't skimp here. Veggies are a great way to bulk up your serving size. And pretty much anything goes: bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, carrots. Throw any vegetable into the mix. Just make sure the pieces are evenly sized, so they'll cook uniformly.

Tip: Some veggies give off a lot of moisture. To eliminate any excess water, uncover the pot and set the temperature to high for the final few minutes.

Fruit - Unexpected? Sure, but fruits like apples, pears, and pineapple can bring a nice touch of natural sweetness to savory dishes. And, of course, they're fantastic in desserts and sweet breakfasts. 

Tip: A little dried fruit — like raisins or dried sweetened cranberries — can taste incredible in slow-cooker meals. The dehydrated fruit really plumps up during the long cook time. Just watch the portion size, since the calories from the shriveled fruit do add up quickly.

Sauces and Broths - You'll want a good low-calorie base for your food to simmer in: low-fat marinara sauce; fat-free chicken, beef, or vegetable broth; and canned crushed tomatoes are all perfect. Jazz them up with a little BBQ sauce (45 calories or less per 2-tbsp. serving), vinegar (I love seasoned rice vinegar), lite/reduced-sodium soy sauce, hot sauce (Frank's RedHot is my top pick), and even low-sugar fruit preserves. 

Tip: Watching your sodium? Look for low-sodium broth, which has 140mg sodium or less per cup.

Herbs and Seasonings: Spice up your dish with fresh basil, garlic powder, and more. You'll add tons of flavor but hardly any calories. Other favorites? Onion powder and chili powder.  

Tip: Looking for a shortcut? Try out some seasoning-mix packets in flavors like taco, ranch, and fajita.

More Slow Cooker Tips

Choosing the Right Size - There are lots of variations out there — from teeny tiny to jumbo sized — for specialty uses. But if you're going to have only one in your home, I suggest a 4-quart slow cooker. 

Liners & Nonstick Spray - Here are two amazing ways to drastically cut down your cleanup time. Head to the aisle of the supermarket where the aluminum foil is stocked — you can often find slow cooker liners nearby. Just toss the liner when you're done, and your slow cooker will remain clean. You can also give your pot a spritz of cooking spray to keep the food from sticking to it. Make sure to spray the sides as well as the bottom. 

Cook Times - For most recipes, you can either set the slow cooker for an all-day cook (about 7 to 8 hours) or a shorter period (3 to 4 hours). For the daylong range, set the temperature to the low setting. For a quicker cook time, go with the high setting. Either way, don't forget to set a timer or an alarm on your phone.

Shredding Meats - If you like a shredded consistency (great for stews), add whole poultry breasts, pork filets, or beef steaks to the slow cooker. Once cooked, you can easily shred them with two forks, and then stir them back into the dish. It's much easier than cutting raw meats. 

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