Hack your January with Easy Slow Cooking Meal Preparation

DECATUR – When the temperatures plummet and you leave and arrive home in the dark, warm up with a slow cooked meal. January is National Slow Cooking Month and from meats to soups to desserts, a slow cooker is a versatile piece of kitchen equipment that makes a hot meal easy after busy days.

“Slow cookers make many one-pot meals, such as soups, stews, and chili, more flavorful with long cooking,” said Caitlin Mellendorf, University of Illinois Extension Nutrition and Wellness Educator. “And less expensive, tough cuts of meat become tender after hours cooking at low temperatures.”

Slow cookers also don’t take up much countertop space and use less electricity than an oven. Add a few simple sides like bread, crackers, or salad and dinner is ready in minutes.

The key with good quality, slow cooked meals is timing. Some recipes, such as Italian beef or shredded pork BBQ, can stand upwards of 10-12 hours. Other recipes hold up better at less than eight hours on low or four hours on high, such as soups with lots of vegetables. Desserts might only need a few hours.

- Resist the urge to peek: Do not lift the lid off as this releases heat and slows cooking.

- Don’t overcook: Add quick-cooking vegetables, such as zucchini or spinach, during the last hour of cooking. Add dairy products in the last hour of cooking to prevent curdling.

- Fill to the correct level: Slow cookers cook best when half to two-thirds full. Under-filling may lead to dry or overcooked foods, while over-filling may lead to unsafely cooked foods.

- Slow cooker extras: Consider investing in a programmable slow cooker, with cook time settings that automatically switch to a “warm” setting to limit overcooking.

- Slow cookers also have a few extra food safety precautions, so read the manual and follow these tips:

- Thaw all foods fully since frozen items take longer to get out of the temperature danger zone of 41°F to 135°F, where foodborne bacteria like to grow.

- Do not store or reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. The heavy crock liner does not allow foods to cool safely and they will not heat up fast enough.

“One of my favorite slow cooker recipes is white chicken chili,” Mellendorf said. “The fat in the chicken thighs help them stay juicy while cooking.”

White Chicken Chili (8 servings)

3 lbs bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (or 2 lbs boneless, skinless thighs)
2 cups frozen corn, thawed
2 (15-oz) cans navy beans, rinsed and drained
1 medium onion, chopped
2 (4.5 oz) cans chopped green chilies
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
2 1/2 cups reduced-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
Toppings: Shredded cheese, green onion, tortilla chips

  1. Wash hands.
  2. Pull skin off chicken thighs by hand or cut off using kitchen shears.
  3. To a 6-quart slow cooker, add chicken, corn, beans, onion, green chilies, garlic, cumin, and oregano. Add broth and stir to combine.
  4. Cook for 8-10 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high. Remove chicken and shred; return to slow cooker. If using bone-in thighs, remove bones before serving.
  5. Serve with shredded cheese, green onion, and tortilla chips.

Nutrition analysis per serving (without toppings): 300 calories, 5g fat, 840mg sodium, 33g carbohydrate, 32g protein

For other questions on slow cookers, visit “Slow Cookers and Food Safety” through the USDA at fsis.usda.gov and “Now Serving: Slow Cooker Meals!” from University of Minnesota at ag.ndsu.edu/publications. Or, call your local Extension office.

The Illinois Extension Nutrition & Wellness program encourages individuals, families and communities to live healthier through online and in-person skill sharing. Learn about managing diabetes and heart disease, safely preserving foods, being food-safe at home and making healthier choices when shopping, cooking and meal planning. Find us on Facebook or Twitter.


Caitlin Mellendorf
Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness
Macon Extension Office
3351 N. President Howard Brown Blvd., Decatur, IL 62521
(217) 877-6042