When my oven went BOOM last week, it was time to dust off the slow cooker and reacquaint myself with the delight that is slow cooking. Not only is it cheaper, easier and often tastier, the sense of accomplishment when dinner is ready is really hard to beat. So get your meal planning hat on and check out what I cooked for 14 days of slow cooker family meals.
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This year, I tasked myself with two dinner-related challenges – one, to use my slow cooker at least once a week; and two, to try at least one new recipe each week. Clearly, my oven was in on the challenge and decided to take the test to the extreme!
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All of a sudden, I was fully immersed in 14 days of slow cooker family meals, which thankfully featured more successes than failures. Granted, my oven was fixed at the end of week one, but we were really enjoying the results of the slow cooker meals, so I just kept going! I should clarify that this is completely unheard of – I go through phases of using my slow cooker, and truthfully had forgotten about it entirely in recent months.
I love to cook, so sometimes the ‘leave it alone’ aspect of using the slow cooker doesn’t appeal as I like to stir, taste and tweak as I go. However, when it’s busy – and let’s face it, isn’t it always?! – there is no doubt that getting things ready in the morning and forgetting all about it until you want to serve dinner is unbelievably enticing.
So, what did I learn during the past two weeks?
- I need to add more variety to our weekly dinners, as we all enjoyed the new flavours of these slow cooker family meals
- I didn’t actually keep track of how much I saved or spent on these meals, but it was undoubtedly cheaper than my normal meal plan – particularly meals like the veggie burrito bowls and the mac ‘n’ cheese.
- Without question, we ate better and healthier. I always add a lot of veggies to our meals, but the slow cooker meals were even better and we had a lot less ‘quick fixes’ like pasta.
- I need to plan in more meatless meals as they were enjoyed by the whole family
- Certain days during the week where after-school activities leave a 10-minute window for dinner are ideal for making these slow cooker family meals – they are ready to eat whenever you are.
- I really like the feeling of reassurance that dinner is under control – I can concentrate on helping at homework time and chauffeur to the various activities without worrying about the eternal ‘what’s for dinner’ dilemma.
- Ultimately, I need to plan better! I’ve never quite gotten into meal planning more than a day or two in advance, but the last 14 days have made me organise myself better to ensure I can get dinner into the slow cooker in the morning.
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14 Days of Slow Cooker Family Meals
If you’re on the hunt for a variety of slow cooker family meals to keep both adults and kids happy, take a peek at what I’ve been cooking – and don’t miss my tweaks, comments and our family verdict under each image.
Moroccan Beef and Barley Stew
This Moroccan beef and barley stew was really very tasty, and probably my favourite dish of the lot! I served it with bulgar wheat, but rice or couscous would also have been really tasty. There was a gentle heat to it, but nothing too spicy – and you could always add a dollop of natural yoghurt if needed.
Tweaks: I had some tomato puree (about 1 tbsp or a little more?) left in the fridge that needed using, so added that with the harissa paste. I added a good splash of Worcestershire sauce to deglaze the pan after the pastes went in, as I love the flavour when cooking beef. I added a little less raisins than called for, and I also added some frozen peas about 45 mins before serving.
Verdict: 10/10. An all-round success when everyone wants seconds, and my 8-year-old asked to have leftovers the following day. This is like the equivalent of being inducted into the Slow Cooker Family Meals hall of fame!
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Balsamic Chicken and Vegetables
This chicken and vegetables dish really appealed to me because it was a slow cooker one-pot meal, that required nothing more of me than to dish it up at dinner time.
Tweaks: My plans for a one-pot went awry when I realised I had forgotten to buy the green beans – so I went ahead with everything else and ended up cooking the beans separately before serving (typical!).
Verdict: 6/10. I love balsamic, however everything had the same flavour (other than the beans) which was perhaps a little overwhelming. I think in future I would definitely look to have at least one vegetable cooked separately.
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Vegetarian Burrito Bowls
This is my idea of comfort food – warmth, spices, and plenty of flavour! These vegetarian burrito bowls were perfect for a busy weeknight as it was all store-cupboard ingredients and things I had in the fridge. It would also be perfect for using up whatever you had to hand. For toppings, we had sour cream, sliced avocado, grated cheese and some tortilla chips.
Tweaks: Having looked at other recipes for burrito bowls, I made a few changes to this one. Firstly, I had some extra veggies that needed using, so added about half a dozen mushrooms, half a green pepper (in addition to the yellow), and half a courgette. I also added a small tin of sweetcorn to up the veggie quota. I wanted to use up what I had in the cupboards, so used chilli flakes instead of a red chilli, and used basmati rice instead of brown rice. I pulled back on the heat to keep it kid-friendly, so only used half a tablespoon of chipotle sauce, but also added one teaspoon of chilli powder for the warming flavour. Finally, I used vegetable stock instead of just water – I started with 500ml but it didn’t seem to be enough water for the rice, so I added another 400-500ml of boiling water during cooking.
Verdict: 6/10. It was tasty and definitely one of the most straightforward slow cooker family meals we tried, but undoubtedly it’s the toppings that really bring this to life. I had leftovers the following day for lunch and used a flour tortilla to make a burrito – yum!
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Slow Cooker Pot Roast
This slow cooker pot roast may seem like an extravagant midweek meal, but it was half price when I went shopping this morning (and needed to be used today) so it gave me the chance to try something new without a big ‘it was expensive’ panic!
Tweaks: For the veggies, I added a couple of chopped parsnips in with the carrot, onion and celery, and I didn’t add the garlic straight into the slow cooker, but rather sauteed it in the pan after searing the beef and deglazed with the stock. I didn’t use the bacon as using it to then throw away seemed pointless (although I’m sure the flavour would be lovely). For thickening the gravy, I prefer to use cornflour and will just mix with water rather than more stock.
Verdict: 2/10, points purely for how delicious it smelled while cooking. We were so disappointed, but this was not good. At all. Despite all the herbs and flavour that went in, it was surprisingly bland and very tough. Thankfully, there were plenty of leftovers in the fridge…
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Creamy Beef Stroganoff
I chose this recipe for beef stroganoff because I liked how simple it seemed – chop, cook, eat – which would seem to be ideal for a busy weekday.
Tweaks: I prefer to brown my meat before adding it to the slow cooker, so I browned the beef in a pan and added it on top of the mushrooms. Into the same pan as the beef had been, I sauteed an onion until softened and added in a few crushed garlic cloves – when these were ready, I added the sauce ingredients to just bring them together before pouring over the beef in the slow cooker.
Verdict: 2/10. Points only for simplicity, however it was not to our taste at all. The ‘sauce’ was very liquid-y going into the slow cooker, and then had to be thickened quite substantially at a later point. I have never had to use as much cornflour as the recipe called for! I’m not sure the cream cheese is needed at all, and certainly not as much as stated.
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Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup
I love sweet potatoes so I really wanted to give this slow cooker chipotle sweet potato soup a go – there is nothing more comforting than soup for a weekend lunch, plus I love that I can get the family’s veggie quota up with something so tasty.
Tweaks: Chipotle powder is hard to come by here, so I just used chilli powder (I used medium, but you could opt for hot if you prefer extra spice).
Verdict: 6/10. I would love to try this again with the chipotle powder – I do love the heat and smokey flavour that it brings. My daughter preferred her soup with a spoon of creme fraiche stirred in, but it was definitely a success.
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Slow-Cooked Loin of Pork
I bought a loin of pork with the intention of roasting it, then the oven went BOOM on the same day, so I had to think of an alternative. I was really nervous about doing it in the slow cooker, but wow – it was amazing! The comments on this recipe and others I read said that it would be necessary to pop the pork under the grill to crisp up the bacon (as in the photo) – I wasn’t able to do this thanks to the faulty oven, so check my tweaks below.
Tweaks: The big one, is that I didn’t use any bacon – and, surprising as it may seem, the dish didn’t lack for it. For the rub, I added half a teaspoon of dried sage. I didn’t have fig jam, so used orange marmalade instead, and added some ground cloves and ground cinnamon (1/4 tsp each), ground ginger (1/2 tsp) and orange juice (1/2 cup approx) to the glaze as I wanted it to be more of a sauce. Searing the pork on all sides is essential (a total game-changer for flavour!) so don’t skip that step – I then put the pork sitting on a bed of chopped Bramley apple in the slow cooker. Once the pork was in, I quickly added the sauce to the pan to deglaze it and pick up all the lovely pork flavour, before pouring it into the slow cooker. At the end of cooking, I removed the pork to a board for slicing and poured the sauce (including the softened apples) into a small pan. I mixed 1 tsp of cornflour in 1 tsp of water, and added it to the sauce to thicken. After a few minutes, I strained it into a jug for serving.
Verdict: 10/10. I have never had such tender pork, ever! It was a revelation – and my family are still talking about it. The sauce was really delicious, but the dish would still be tasty without.
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We love chilli, so I decided to try a vegetarian version that’s packed with beans, quinoa and veggies.
Tweaks: Some of the ingredients aren’t as readily available here, so I substituted as needed – for example, some chopped chilli and a good dash of chipotle sauce in place of the adobo chilli. I used half kidney beans and half black beans, and omitted the green chillies. We had a variety of toppings – sour cream, grated cheese, avocado, crushed tortilla chips and chopped coriander.
Verdict: 5/10. I usually add quite a bit of veg to chilli (chopped carrots, courgette, peppers, corn, etc) and I missed them in this (ironically, vegetarian) version. I also made it too spicy for my daughter, so even with plenty of sour cream stirred in, she ended up eating yesterday’s leftovers.
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Sesame Honey Chicken
This sesame honey chicken had a combination of ingredients that we all LOVE, so I was excited to give it a go.
Tweaks: I halved the recipe due to the amount of chicken I had, but I was a little generous when measuring out the sauce ingredients as I didn’t want it to be dry. When I removed the chicken from the sauce to shred, I kept some aside from my daughter as the sauce had a bit of a kick – she loved it, I just didn’t give her too much of the sauce itself. I served this meal with rice and a side of steamed broccoli which was necessary as there was no veg in the recipe.
Verdict: 7/10. I thought it was a bit too sweet (although no one else did), so I would probably tweak that a little in future. It also needs veggies added, either on the side or within the dish, to really make it a family meal.
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I absolutely LOVE Indian food, so when I came across this recipe for butter chicken I just had to give it a go.
Tweaks: I made this recipe as is, but would make some amends for another time. It needed a vegetable added, perhaps peas or spinach, and was very mild so I would increase the spices and also add some fresh grated ginger.
Verdict: 7/10. Definitely a winner with us and will be added to our slow cooker family meals rotation – although I would make the above tweaks in future.
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Butternut Squash Mac ‘n’ Cheese
I have to admit, I have a complete girl crush on the lovely Ree Drummond (aka Pioneer Woman) – yet have actually cooked very few of her recipes. This butternut squash mac ‘n’ cheese ticked all the boxes for easy, slow cooker, veggie and kid-friendly.
Tweaks: The recipe doesn’t call for much squash (in fact it was only about half of the one I had) so I doubled it to really justify bothering with the slow cooker. I then removed half of the puree before adding the pasta and cheeses, bagged it up and froze it for another day. As I was tasting the sauce, I really thought it was going to be too much of one flavour, so I quickly chopped and sauteed some chorizo to top off the bowls.
Verdict: 3/10 (or 5/10 with the chorizo). Unfortunately, this was one of those dishes that tastes good for the first bite or two, but then becomes very heavy and stodgy. The squash was an interesting addition, but it was the chorizo that in any way saved it. I really wanted to like this one, but it just didn’t live up to expectations. The frozen puree will be added to a soup at some point.
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Today’s slow cooker meal was actually dessert as we had quick quesadillas and corn on the cob for dinner. This apple crisp, with all it’s cinnamon flavour, is pure comfort food! Serve with ice cream, cream, caramel sauce or any of your favourites for a winning dish.
Tweaks: I halved the recipe as there was only three of us, and added half a teaspoon of ground ginger to the apple mixture.
Verdict: 9/10. What’s not to love about apples and cinnamon? We really enjoyed it and, although it wasn’t quite as crunchy as you would achieve in the oven, it was really tasty and got the thumbs up from us all. It definitely needed ice cream (or cream), and would be delicious with added blackberries or rhubarb.
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Barbecue Shredded Chicken
This pulled pork-type dinner was exactly what we were craving today, and with only five ingredients (including salt and pepper!) it was a super lazy Saturday meal that required absolutely no effort on my part!
Tweaks: I used a mix of chicken breasts and thighs, and tried to alleviate some guilt around the ‘convenience’ aspect of this dinner by using a low-sugar BBQ sauce.
Verdict: 6/10. This was like the slow cooker version of a Saturday night takeaway – not the healthiest of meals, but it was pretty tasty. We had the chicken in soft white rolls, with some shredded carrots and chopped spring onions for crunch, a green salad, and coleslaw.
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Honey Lime Ginger Pork
After the success of last Sunday’s slow-cooked loin of pork, I wanted to try and recreate the melt in your mouth flavours. This time, I chose a honey, lime and ginger pork and served it with broccoli and sweet potato mash.
Tweaks: Instead of just using salt and pepper for the rub, I added 2-3 tablespoons of brown sugar and some crushed garlic to ensure the seared crust was as tasty as possible.
Verdict: 8/10. This was so incredibly tender – so much so, I couldn’t really slice it! The sauce, once thickened, was delicious and necessary. Definite thumbs up from the whole family and it will certainly be on the menu in future, however I think last week’s version edged this one just a fraction.
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