The Art of the ‘Dump Meal’: Nine Super-Simple Ways to Get Maximum Efficiency and Value from a Slow Cooker

One of the most efficient ways for a family to save money is to simply eat meals at home as often as possible. Feeding three or four or five people with take-out or at restaurants all the time becomes quickly expensive, even if you choose super-cheap options, and if you consider the health impact of eating restaurant-prepared food, it becomes even more costly. (Research suggests that home cooking is a key part of a healthier diet, simply because you control what goes into the meals and you’re usually using better ingredients.)

The counterbalance to that is our busy lives. For many people – myself included – preparing a meal at home becomes yet another task in a day that’s already filled to the brim with tasks. After a long day at work followed by parental responsibilities and marital responsibilities and community responsibilities and a pile of household chores, simply being able to offload the task of meal preparation can seem like a huge breather.

So, the problem is this: Meal preparation at home is cheaper in the moment and healthier over the long term, but it requires a larger time and effort commitment. That’s an equation that becomes particularly tricky when you’ve got a highly committed life.

Our solution to that has been to find ways to reduce the time and effort it takes to prepare meals at home – in other words, to reduce the friction of meal preparation.

We use a lot of tactics for this. We make meals in advance on the weekends, often by planning a “meal prep day.” We make convenient spice mixes so that it’s easy to just add several dashes to a dish to make it come together quickly. We keep the ingredients for “staple meals” on hand for when we need something we can prepare on autopilot – for example, we always have a box of pasta and a jar of marinara sauce in the pantry and a bag of flash-frozen vegetables in the freezer.

Last, but not least, we have a slow cooker. The slow cooker is probably our most valuable tool for reducing the time and energy investment in meal preparation on busy evenings.

Our favorite use for the slow cooker is in preparing what we call “dump meals.” A “dump meal” is one where you can just “dump” several ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low (or program it to turn on low in a few hours), and then just let it sit there all day. When you get home and are ready to eat, the meal in the slow cooker is all ready to go.

What this often does is that it lets Sarah or I actually prepare dinner right in front of the kids as they’re eating breakfast. I’ll talk to them about their day or about current events or about what books they’re reading at the breakfast table while actively assembling supper in the slow cooker. I’ll flip it on “low” just as they’re walking out the door and put any dishes or utensils I may have used into the sink or dishwasher. Supper prep is complete – all I have to do is serve it that evening!

For us, these “dump meals” are worth their weight in gold. They enable us to have a great family meal together on even the busiest nights, and they make it easy for us to eat in two separate groups when that doesn’t work out (we usually try to make sure that at least one parent eats with each child when they’re eating dinner, so we might have one kid eating with one parent at 5:30 and the other two kids eating with the other parent at 6:15 on super-busy evenings).

Another advantage of “dump” meals is that you can prepare most of them well in advance by putting most or all of the ingredients together in a gallon freezer Ziploc bag or another freezer-safe container and just freeze them until you’re ready to use them. Most of the recipes below work perfectly well in that environment, particularly the soups and stews.

Interested? The first thing you need is a slow cooker, and pretty much any slow cooker will do. I prefer ones that actually feature a crock on the inside and I generally don’t bother with ones with lots of electronics, because that seems to be the element that fails first. My suggestion? Go to your local Goodwill or other secondhand store and find a used slow cooker there. If you can’t find one, then I recommend this 7-quart manual Crock Pot, which is a great slow cooker at a nice price.

It’s also useful to get an outlet timer (like this one). This enables you to plug in the slow cooker and walk away even if the cooking time is shorter than the length of your day. Just set the timer so that there’s no power running to the crock pot until you want it to start cooking. That way, if you have a recipe that requires six hours on low, you can set the timer to turn on the outlet at noon and then the recipe will be done at 6 o’clock.

Here are nine of our favorite “dump meals” – some vegetarian, some otherwise. Most of these boil down to simply adding a bunch of stuff to the slow cooker, turning it on low, and walking away.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Beef Stew

When Sarah and I were first married, this was our traditional Tuesday night meal together during the winter months. We would make a pot of this, and then we’d have leftovers on Wednesday and Thursday to take to work.

– 2 1/2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
– 1 medium onion, finely chopped
– 2 celery ribs, sliced
– 30 baby carrots, approximately, or 2 cups sliced carrots
– 5 small red potatoes, cut into small bite-sized cubes
– 1 cup frozen corn
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 6 oz. can tomato paste
– 1 32 oz. container beef broth
– 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
– 1 tablespoon salt
– 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
– 1 tablespoon dried parsley
– 1 teaspoon dried oregano

Directions Combine all ingredients in the slow cooker and set it on low for ten hours. That’s all.

If you want your stew to be a bit thicker, about half an hour before it’s finished, mix together 1/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water and mix it into the stew – you can do this right when you get home.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Lasagna

This recipe structure works with all meat, all vegetables, or a mix of the two. You can use almost anything there – in fact, just a few days ago, our vegetables consisted of just quinoa. Four cups of it. It was delicious.

– 2 24 oz. jars of your preferred pasta sauce
– 1 box lasagna noodles, uncooked (don’t need the “oven ready” ones)
– 2 cups cottage cheese
– 1 egg, beaten
– 1 tsp. oregano
– 4 cups chopped vegetables of your choice (almost anything works) OR 4 cups chopped cooked meat of your choice (again, almost anything works) OR mix and match the cups
– 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
– 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
– olive oil

Directions Coat the inside of the slow cooker with olive oil. Put about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the slow cooker. Add a layer of uncooked noodles, breaking them so that they fit – it doesn’t have to be perfect. Mix the oregano, egg, and cottage cheese together, then add about 1/3 of the cottage cheese mix as an even layer on top of the noodles. Add about 1/3 of the meat or vegetables as the next layer, then a layer of 1/4 of the mozzarella. Repeat the layers twice more, starting with the sauce – 1/2 cup sauce, followed by layer of noodles, followed by 1/3 of the cottage cheese mix, followed by 1/3 of the meat/vegetables, followed by 1/4 of the mozzarella. Add a final layer of noodles on top, cover it with just a bit of sauce, and put the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan on top. Cook on low for 5-6 hours, using a timer if needed.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Chili

This is a fall and winter classic at our house, and it’s so simple that our 11-year-old has actually prepared it before. I told him that if he wanted chili for supper, he could make it himself, and I handed him the recipe card for it. He put it together and started it himself and it turned out wonderfully. The optional ingredients at the bottom are purely to taste, as chili has infinite variations.

– 1 pound uncooked lean ground beef or turkey OR 2 15 oz. cans black beans OR 2 15 oz. cans red kidney beans OR 1 can each
– 1 15 oz. can red kidney beans OR 1 15 oz. can black beans (in addition to the first ingredient)
– 1 15.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes (28 oz if you prefer a runnier chili)
– 2 cups water
– 1 medium onion, finely chopped
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
– 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
– 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)
– 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (optional)
– 1/2 cup leftover dry red wine (optional)
– 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (optional)
– 1 tablespoon barbecue sauce (optional)
– A dozen chocolate chips (optional)

Directions Mix everything together and cook on low for 8 hours. Remember, use one can of beans only if using meat; use three cans of beans total if making a vegetarian version.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Pot Roast

With this recipe, it’s well worth your while to get a good roast. Chuck roast works best, but you can substitute a beef brisket or a round roast if you don’t have a chuck roast available. If you’re pulling the roast from the freezer, make sure it’s fully thawed before using this recipe or else it won’t be fully cooked.

– 2 to 3 lb chuck roast
– 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
– 1/2 medium bell pepper, chopped (any color will do)
– 2 stalks celery, chopped
– 2 large potatoes, chopped into bite sized pieces
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 1/2 cups beef broth (or 2 beef bullion cubes and 1 1/2 cups water)
– 1/2 cup tomato sauce
– 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Directions Place the roast in the bottom of the slow cooker. Place the vegetables on top of and around the roast. Add the other ingredients on top of the vegetables. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Chicken or Vegetable Tetrazzini

This recipe does require a bit of extra effort in the morning before you leave – you need to boil up some pasta and put it in the fridge! You’ll add it right at the end, within a few minutes of actually serving it (I like to add the cooked pasta just before setting the table for dinner, then put the crock directly on the table after the table is set).

– 2 pounds chicken breasts, sliced into 1″ thick strips, OR 4 cups vegetables of your choice (for a vegetarian version – I like using just a standard frozen vegetable mix)
– 1/2 small white onion, diced
– 8 button mushrooms, sliced
– 1 cup broth, vegetable or chicken
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
– 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
– 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
– 1 8 oz. package cream cheese, cut into small cubes
– 1/2 to 1 pound spaghetti noodles, cooked to package directions

Directions Put the cream cheese, mozzarella cheese, and cooked spaghetti noodles in the fridge for later. Add the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours. About ten minutes before serving, add the cream cheese to the slow cooker, then use two forks to shred the chicken breasts, then add the pasta. Just before putting it on the table, put the mozzarella cheese on top.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Potato Soup

This is about as easy as it gets. Can you chop a few potatoes? Can you cut cream cheese into cubes? Can you put ingredients into a slow cooker and turn it on? Then, my friend, you’re in for some delicious potato soup!

– 8 small yellow potatoes, cut into bite-sized cubes
– 1 small onion, finely diced
– 4 garlic cloves, minced
– 8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
– 1 tablespoon salt
– 1 tablespoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon paprika
– 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
– 2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, cut into small cubes
– 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Directions Put everything but the cream cheese and the cheddar cheese in the slow cooker and turn it on low for 8 hours. Before serving, stir in the cream cheese until melted. Serve with the shredded cheddar as topping. If you wish to thicken it, add a tablespoon of corn starch or flour and stir when it’s hot and repeat until it’s at your desired thickness.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Frittata

I like this recipe because you can pretty much use any ingredient you want and come out with something tasty. It is super flexible, and it’s almost never failed me as long as I stick to something that at least seems reasonably palatable. I sometimes make this before I go to bed and then start it when I first wake up on a Saturday morning so we can have it for breakfast, but it also works well for dinner.

– 4 cups cooked meats or uncooked vegetables of my choice, cut into small pieces (ham, broccoli, onion, bacon, steak, carrots, spinach – almost anything works)
– 8 ounces Swiss cheese, sliced thin
– 12 eggs, beaten until consistent
– 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
– 2 teaspoons salt
– 1/4 teaspoon tarragon
– 1/2 teaspoon basil
– 1/2 teaspoon thyme
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– nonstick cooking spray

Directions Mix the pepper, salt, tarragon, basil, thyme, and garlic with the eggs and set aside for a moment. Spray down the inside of the slow cooker thoroughly. Add the meats and vegetables to the slow cooker on the bottom, then put the sliced cheese on top of those ingredients, then pour the egg mix on top. Cook on low for three hours, no more.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Red Lentil Curry

This is my wife’s favorite slow cooker recipe of all time. I think she would make this weekly for herself and just subsist off of it if she were single. She always makes a double batch of this and then takes the leftovers to work several days in a row. This is her particular version of the recipe.

– 4 cups brown lentils, uncooked
– 2 onions, diced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
– 2 tablespoons butter
– 6 tablespoons red curry paste
– 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala
– 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
– 1/2 teaspoon sugar
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
– 2 28 oz. cans pureed tomatoes
– 6 cups water
– 1 cup coconut milk
– rice or naan bread for serving

Directions Add all ingredients but the coconut milk to the slow cooker, stir, and cook on low for 8 hours. If you come home and it looks dry, add more water to your own judgment – different lentils absorb water differently, and sometimes it can end up soaking up all of that liquid. Just before serving, mix in the coconut milk.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Black Bean Soup

Since we just listed Sarah’s favorite recipe, we’ll finish off with mine. I seriously cannot get ENOUGH of this stuff. I love this soup so much I have actually eaten it for breakfast. I will eat it and eat it and eat it and eat it. I love black beans and I love how this soup comes out. (I just wish the rest of my family all loved it, too, so we could have it twice a week.) Plus, it’s really really easy.

– 3 cups dried black beans, soaked in water (see directions)
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 1 large yellow onion, chopped
– 1 orange bell pepper, chopped
– 1 red bell pepper, chopped
– 5 garlic cloves, minced
– 8 cups vegetable broth or vegetable stock
– 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
– 2 teaspoons salt
– sour cream, tortilla chips, and shredded jack cheese, to serve

Directions The night before, put the beans in a separate pot and cover them with water so there’s at least two inches covering the top of the beans. Put a lid on the pot and let it sit overnight, at least eight hours (do it in the early evening and you’re fine).

You can do this part the night before, too. Add the oil to a skillet and heat it over medium-high heat. Add the onions, peppers, and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent. Add 1/2 cup of the broth to the skillet while it’s still hot. Save the onion, garlic, peppers, and liquid.

In the morning, pour the water off the beans, rinse the beans a bit, and add the beans to the slow cooker. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, and liquid to the cooker, too, along with the rest of the broth/stock, the cumin, and the salt. Cook on low for 8 hours. Serve with the sour cream, tortilla chips, and shredded jack cheese. Eat more of it than you should (wait… that’s my own personal part of this recipe).

Final Thoughts

The best part about “dump” recipes for the slow cooker is that they’re incredibly easy and the actual work can be done in the morning or late in the evening before, so that you’re not rushed at all during the actual meal time. You just come home to a house that smells amazing and serve up dinner for everyone within a few minutes.

These recipes are all very inexpensive compared to going out to dinner and most of them will generate leftovers, even for a family. If you’re not sure if there’s enough for your family, just double the recipe and add a little cooking time.

They’re also healthy, and they manage to be pretty delicious, too.

Slow cooker “dump” meals manage to actually hit the mark for us in terms of fast, cheap, healthy(-ish, in some cases) and delicious, all at the same time. They’re a key part of how we keep costs low, even though we’re busy in the evenings. I hope you find some value in copying these recipes or modifying them to your own use!

Good luck!

Related Articles: