Dietitian shares advice
I remember opening the front door after a long day of school, and the aroma of my mother’s roast slowly cooking would consume me. It smelled as if she toiled over a stove all day to prepare the evening’s delectable meal.
But the truth is she was just as busy as we were. Suppertime was always a top priority but never a cause for concern in our house — because my mother prized the crock pot.
One of our household favourites was a classic cut of roast, sided with herb-infused potatoes and carrots that just fell apart in your mouth.
For my mother it was very easy to whip together a meal, let it cook all day, and serve it to a family of five. Everyone was satisfied.
Fast forward years later to last Christmas when I received a chrome, 7 quart (7.9 litre) crock pot — perfect for me and my fiancé.
But after eating every possible roast-concoction growing up, I knew there had to be another approach to using a crock pot to its full potential. Just because slow-cooked meals are consistently delicious, does not mean they’re always nutritious.
So it was time to make meals just as hearty as the classics I had growing up but with a contemporary twist: meals packed with tons of nutrition based on minimal-cooking effort. And after much trial and error, as well as the advice of registered dietitian Rory Hornstein, I’ve compiled tips I’ve learned for creating full-scale, nutritional meals using a crock pot.
Time-strapped cooks usually fill crock pots with cheaper, larger cuts of dark meat suchas: roast, brisket, sirloin steak and short ribs. But Hornstein, a dietitian at Mount Royal University recommends being conscientious when buying all cuts of meat.
“There are cuts of beef and pork that are just as lean as a boneless, skinless chicken breast,” says Hornstein.
“And by the same token, there are cuts of chicken and turkey that have just as much fat as a well-marbled steak.
“If you were to replace a serving of London broil with a roasted-chicken leg — for example — you’d end up eating three times more fat,” she says.
Extra lean meats, Hornstein says, are the way to go. She says the best cuts of meat to keep your eye out for in the grocery store are: Eye-of-round roast or steak, sirloin-tip side steak, top-round roast steak, bottom-round roast steak and top-sirloin steak.
Also, it’s important to choose cuts “that are graded ‘choice’ or ‘select’ instead of ‘prime,’ which usually has more fat.”
When making meals like chili in the crock pot, Hornstein says to choose lean ground beef with the lowest percentage of fat, adding that, “Ground beef has almost twice as much iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 as ground turkey or ground chicken.”
A BREAKFAST BOOST
It’s easy to dream up a mouth-watering supper when busting out the slow cooker, but what about the most important meal of the day — breakfast?
Hornstein says: “Slow cooking oatmeal is an easy way to serve a family a hearty breakfast before facing the elements. You can assemble it in the slow cooker in the evening and wake up to a bowl of hot, nourishing oatmeal.”
She adds that the “complex carbohydrates in steel-cut oats,” over old-fashioned oats, are a great option for a regular, “main energy source.”
“In every 50 ml (1/4 cup) of steel-cut oats, you will get 29 g of carbohydrates and then 50 ml (1/4 cup) of steel-cut oats contain 38 g of fibre too.”
PREP AHEAD, BE PRACTICAL
Planning meals ahead of time, such as with the oatmeal breakfast, can be a family “money, sanity and time saver,” Hornstein says.
She even praises her crock pot calling it a “handy appliance” and her “best friend in the kitchen.”
So preparing your meal’s ingredients the night before can save a lot of time and effort when firing up the crock pot early in the morning. Small chores like chopping veggies and measuring dried spices into Tupperware containers beforehand help tremendously.
And according to Canadianliving.com, plan-ahead prepping steps like pre-browning and freezing your ground beef can not only save time, but also maximize flavour when stored properly and unthawed before cooking.
As well, try portioning your food. Different meal varieties like soups, stews, chilis, and goulashes can yield more than a single meal for the family. Hornstein says to purchase freezer-proof containers and labels to store the leftovers. And make sure to name and date your meals, because frozen foods tend to all look the same in containers, she adds.
Prepping and freezing the food in advance creates a “a hands free cooking experience,” Hornstein says, adding that her family’s favourite meal preparation is when she slow cooks an entire chicken in her crock pot, slices it up to freeze and use it for “sandwiches, enchiladas, chicken salads, chicken soup, chicken stew.”
To ensure proper poultry handling, chicken.ca says there are precautions to take when separating, chilling, cooking and freezing poultry without it coming into contact or harvesting bacteria.
They recommend to chill and separate chicken individually if in breast form, and to use freezer-proof containers if sliced. Take precautions to avoid freezer burn, as poultry becomes lacklustre and loses nutrition.
It’s the little things to remember that can either maximize full nutrition in a slow cooked meal. And when using the crock pot, “the possibilities are endless” when it comes to meal variety, Hornstein says.
And that is half the reason I praise it myself. We have very little time to spare as it is, but I now have the means to produce quick and nutritious meals that I can freeze and serve for weeks ahead. Hot and hearty meals fit for my small but hungry family.
For many other food ideas, you can also read The Calgary Journal’s food blog.