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Dietitians Dish: Slow cooker makes good nutrition easy during spring break

By By Lindsay Adams
March 18, 2014 at midnight
Updated March 17, 2014 at 10:18 p.m.

Lindsay Adams

Spring break is over for most folks, and you're on the homestretch of school before summer. Your schedule is probably packed, and planning to cook dinner can seem a bit daunting some days. Using your slow cooker to prepare dinner, a meal in a pot, is a great way to plan a meal without all the stress. Here are a few tips to making sure your slow cooker meals are successful.

Don't open the lid: I know it can be tempting to take a peek to check on your meal, but each time you open the lid, steam is released. This can add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time is opened. Stirring is not usually necessary during slow cooking, unless instructions specify, so try to keep your slow cooker covered at all times.

Choose the right type of meat: Tougher, fattier cuts of meat, such as chuck roasts, short ribs, pork shoulders and lamb shanks, become very tender with the moist, low heat of a slow cooker. Very lean cuts of meat, such as pork tenderloin, will often dry out when cooking with a slow cooker. Additionally, dark meat chicken - thighs and drumsticks - will remain juicier than white meat. Since the cuts of meat that work best with slow cooking are fattier, make sure to keep your portion size of the meat to about 3-4 ounces to avoid excess intake of saturated fats.

Don't overfill your slow cooker: Only fill your slow cooker to about 2/3 full. The contents often expand over time, which could possibly leave you with quite a mess when you get home from work. On the other hand, if you do not fill your slow cooking adequately, food could end up cooking too quickly and could burn. Aim to keep your slow cooker between one fourth to two thirds full.

Put vegetables on the bottom. Vegetables usually take more time to cook compared to meats, so they should be placed on the bottom of the slow cooker for quicker cooking.

Add dairy products last. Adding dairy products last will help prevent them from curdling. Sour cream, milk and yogurt often breakdown in the slow cooker, so stir them in the last 15 minutes of cooking.

Don't add frozen foods. It is best to use thawed meats in the slow cooker. Using frozen foods in the slow cooker can keep food in the danger zone, where bacteria can flourish (40-140 degrees) for too long. Another reason to avoid frozen foods is that mixing frozen foods with non-frozen foods can result in an unevenly cooked meal. The only exception to this rule is for prepackaged meals sold in the freezer section, which are fine to use frozen if directed on the package.

Look for slow cooker recipes that incorporate vegetables and healthy grains such as brown rice or quinoa. Don't forget that other foods such as breads, side items and even desserts can be prepared in the slow cooker. So make good use of your time and money, and let the slow cooker do the cooking while you are at work.

Lindsay Adams is a registered dietitian with DeTar Healthcare System. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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