This article first appeared on U.S. News and World Report Money.
When most people think of a slow cooker, they think of a device of convenience. It saves time, after all. You can put your ingredients into the pot in the morning, come home from work, and find a meal already prepared for you, saving you time during those crucial rushed early evening hours. You can assemble the ingredients for a soup or a stew, cook it throughout the day, and have it completely ready to go when guests arrive.
Slow cookers are undoubtedly convenient, but where they secretly shine is in the money they can save you. Our slow cooker easily saves us hundreds of dollars each year simply because of the sensible ways we use it.
For starters, when we use our slow cooker on weeknights, it almost always replaces takeout or a meal eaten at a restaurant.
For our family of five, it’s pretty easy to assemble a slow cooker meal for all of us for less than $2 per meal. At a restaurant, even children’s meals are far above that $2 per meal rate. Meals for adults are substantially more expensive.
If you assume that we’re eating takeout or delivery or at a restaurant for an average of $6 per head, that means a crockpot meal is saving us $20 each time we use it. If you figure we do this once a week, that’s $1,040 per year right there. Even if you adjust the estimates drastically, you’re still seeing hundreds in savings over the life of the slow cooker.
Another strong factor in favor of the slow cooker is the leftovers, which is best explained by example.
Let’s say that we’re making a soup or a stew for supper. On average, our family members might eat two cups of the soup for a meal, so ten cups – or two and a half quarts – will serve our needs. However, our slow cooker easily holds five quarts of soup.
So, we make a big batch of low-cost soup and put aside five small containers – each holding two cups – to freeze for later. When we need a quick lunch, we just pull one of those containers out of the freezer, pop the soup into a bowl, and microwave it.
Making a large pot of soup means that we can buy some of the ingredients in bulk and not have any ingredients wasted, meaning that each bowl of soup is less expensive than it would otherwise be.
Plus, the leftover soup covers for our lunch tomorrow – meaning we don’t have to go out to eat, saving us even more money.
You can use your slow cooker to prepare a batch of steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast, starting it on low the night before. This makes for a very inexpensive warm healthy breakfast for the entire family that requires no morning preparation and can just be tossed in the dishwasher for cleanup. This is far less expensive than most other breakfast options.
You can use your slow cooker to make vegetable stock. Just save vegetable scraps in the freezer and, when you have a bunch, add them to the slow cooker and fill it up with water, then leave it on low for several hours. When you have a few moments, pour the liquid through a strainer to remove the large pieces, then save the liquid in small frozen containers. This stuff is basically free – and you pay three bucks for a few cups of it at the store. You can do the same with beef stock and chicken stock by saving those meat scraps, too, along with appropriate vegetables like onion scraps.
The advantage of the slow cooker is that it’s really easy to do these things and it’s really hard to mess them up. You just dump in the ingredients, set it on low, and walk away for several hours. When you come back, your meal is finished. Since you made it at home, it’s far cheaper (and made of better ingredients) than meals you might eat outside of the home, and it actually saves time by moving the prep work to a more convenient part of the day.
Our slow cooker is an invaluable part of our weekly routine, saving us both time and money. Consider picking one up for your own use, if you haven’t already.