Who doesn’t love the idea of someone – or something – cooking for you? The problem is most households can’t put a personal chef on payroll. That’s why millions of people rely on their trusty slow cookers or Instant Pots to get them through a week’s worth of meal prepping.
These appliances can save you time, stress and money, but the benefits don’t stop there. With these handy meal-prep tips, you can get even more out of your slow-cooking sous chef.
Instant Pot vs. Crock-Pot: What’s the Difference?
Before diving into the meal-prep hacks, it’s important to understand how Instant Pots and slow cookers operate. There’s no arguing that both are helpful additions to any kitchen, but they do function differently.
An Instant Pot is an electric pressure cooker that can speed up cooking by two to six times using up to 70 percent less energy, compared to slow cookers. It also has a range of different cook programs, including those for stewing, making yogurt or cooking poultry.
A Crock-Pot, on the other hand, usually comes with only a couple settings: low and high. That’s because Crock-Pots use a constant temperature to slowly heat food. In a slow cooker like this, meals can take 30 minutes to 20 hours to prepare.
The slow-cooking process is ideal for certain foods, such as soups. Meanwhile, Instant Pots are great for last-minute dinners. No matter which one you choose, though, the following tips will ensure you make the most of your meal prep.
How to Use a Slow Cooker and Instant Pot For Easy Meal Prep
1. Freeze for the future
Heat and eat: That’s the beauty of frozen, ready-made meals. Unfortunately, frozen foods are often pumped with sodium and require a zap in the microwave. Thankfully, you can skip all that with the help of your slow cooker or Instant Pot.
How? During the weekend, set aside time to chop and assemble ingredients that come together to make a meal. Instead of actually making the meals, though, you’ll organize each group of ingredients in freezer-safe containers.
Label the containers by recipe name and note the day of the week you plan to prepare that meal. This significantly streamlines your prep time during the week, so all you have to do is take food out of the freezer and toss it in your slow cooker or Instant Pot.
2. Batch-cook protein
Sometimes, you plan for pizza on Friday, but then lose your craving by the end of the week. But with a batch of protein at the ready, you can whip up any meal you want in less than 30 minutes.
How? Cook beans, chickpeas or lentils for an instant taco bar or to top salads, or marinate and scramble tofu for a plant-based breakfast in a pinch. You can choose to prepare one batch of protein to use in multiple dishes throughout the week, or cook a bunch of proteins to give your taste buds a little variety.
3. Speed up breakfast
Once you’re done batch-cooking protein, try the same tactic for your breakfast. After all, mornings are when you’re the tightest on time. Between dressing the kids, packing lunches and walking the dog, any few seconds you can save are invaluable.
How? Use your slow cooker to make a breakfast you can eat on all week long. While a big pot of oatmeal is a no-brainer, you can also get ahead of the curve with breakfast casseroles, cinnamon rolls, breakfast pizza, hash browns and banana bread.
4. Strategize your selection
When you’re preparing a feast like Thanksgiving, you have to time every dish just right. Otherwise, you end up overcrowding the oven and delaying the big meal. On a night like this, it’s the perfect opportunity to pull out your slow cooker or Instant Pot. The key is being strategic about your cooking.
How? Place the slowest cooking foods in your slow cooker or Instant Pot. Foods like sweet potatoes or green bean casserole that take an hour in the oven will bake just as well in your countertop appliance. Meanwhile, you can throw a sheet of peppers and onions in the oven, where they’ll roast in a matter of minutes.
5. Reduce waste and boost your budget
Is your pantry stocked with staples? Dried foods and canned goods can sit around for months, even years. Instead of leaving them to sour, clear out your cupboards and throw them in the slow cooker or Instant Pot. You’ll reduce food waste and help stretch your grocery budget a little further.
How? These appliances were practically made for simmering lentil soup, cooking black-bean chili or making a big batch of blueberry oatmeal. But practically any pantry staple can be used up. Got a bag of lentils? Then you can make Instant Pot lentil stew. What about that big bag of brown sugar? Before it hardens, use it in this slow cooker apple butter recipe. The options are endless!
6. Work the settings
One of the easiest ways to take advantage of your Instant Pot is to use its settings. The Instant Pot Duo comes pre-set with 14 smart programs that take the guesswork out of cooking. At the push of a button, you can make soup, stew, chili, poultry, porridge or rice. You can also use the Instant Pot to steam, saute, pasteurize, make yogurt or just keep food warm.
How? Literally, it’s as simple as choosing the setting you want and hitting start. That said, features and functions vary by model. So be sure you consult your Instant Pot’s user manual for details.
Meal-Prep Best Practices
In addition to the tips above, there are several best practices you can implement to streamline your meal prepping. Below are a few general ideas that are helpful no matter what or how you prepare your foods:
- Set a food budget for the week, so you can create a very specific shopping list.
- Organize your favorite Vitacost recipes on Pinterest, and you can view them on your tablet like a mobile cookbook in your kitchen.
- Plan a menu that fits your schedule for the week and accounts for any meals away from home.
- Reuse recipes you know and love, especially when you don’t have time to get creative.
- Pick one day every week to chop, dice and divide ingredients you’ll need for the week.
- Stock up on sectioned food containers to help keep your fridge organized and your food safe.