Meal Planning with the Slow Cooker

I've been thinking a lot about meal planning lately. 

Last year took on a life of it's own with the brand-new-recipe-every-single-day-because-I-am-absolutely-bonkers challenge.

But it's 2009. And 2009 seems to be the year that we (global along with personal 'we' here) go back to basics. 

Basics are good.

I fell in love with the slow cooker because of how I could stretch meals, and make-do with pantry staples.

I've slow-cooked and re-purposed with the cooker this past week or so, and would like to share.

Last Saturday, my mom hosted a breakfast to celebrate a visit from our Scottish relatives (not these ones; different ones, yet still related!)

 but mixed it up a bit. Mom didn't want meat.

 So I cut the meat, added mushrooms and another bell pepper, and upped the seasoning to make up for flavor since there wasn't any sausage. 

It turned out great.

On Sunday, I made
Tilapia in Foil Packets, served with quinoa and broccoli. Instead of using cheddar cheese, I used shredded Parmesan--it was fantastic, and the kids each ate two servings.

Yesterday (Monday), I made Taco Soup

Taco soup is still the hands-down go-to meal when I want to ensure the kids eat a hearty meal. 

Adam took leftovers for lunch today, and we still have 1 quart left for a planned leftover night.

It's raining BUCKETS, and I have no interest in going to the store, so I made due with stuff we had in the cabinets and freezer.

For pasta sauce, I'm using Trader Joe's Vodka sauce. 

For meat, I've cut up 3 frozen chicken and apple sausages (Aidells) and 5 gluten-free Italian Meatballs (Coleman Natural, purchased at Costco).

We didn't have any ricotta in the house, so I left it out, and used leftover mushrooms from the Hashbrown Breakfast Casserole, some spinach, and chopped broccoli from Sunday night's Tilapia dinner.

For cheese, I used shredded Mexican blend (not Italian, oh no!) I bought on sale to go with the Taco Soup. 

I also used 2 string cheeses.

And for the pasta: I only had 3 Tinkyada lasagna noodles in the house, so a few of the layers are with brown rice penne from Trader Joe's.

I didn't follow my own recipe AT ALL

But this will be a good dinner, I can already tell---and it was "free."

updated 3/5: we DID like this, but decided that it wasn't lasagna, just a casserole.

Wednesday is leftover night. I always throw in a leftover night (lots of times 2!)----we clean out the fridge and make-do with stuff already in the house. 

Sometimes I re-purpose leftovers and make fried rice

If I make anything "fried" tomorrow, it will be fried quinoa, because I still have 2 cups leftover from Sunday.

On Thursday I'm going to make
Cheeseburger Soup, and try to figure out why the cheese is separating on people. 

It may mean I'm going to try just stirring in the cheese cubes at the end. I'll let you know.

updated 3/5: 
okay, I tried it with adding the Velveeta and milk at the very end, and it works just fine that way. 

There is plenty of moisture in the pot from the broth and browned meat to cook the potatoes.

 The milk and cheese melted almost instantly, and by the time the table was set, it was good to go. 

I tried blending a bit with a stick blender to thicken the broth. it worked.

also, I made the Not-Too-Spicy Bean Dip for an afternoon snack. 

I didn't have taco sauce in the house, but I did have buffalo wing sauce (I kind of always have buffalo wing sauce. it's probably not normal), so I added 2 capfulls into the bean blob. 

I also stirred in about 1 tablespoon of sour cream for some added moisture, and a handful of shredded cheese (still left from Taco Soup night). 

The kids loved it, and ate a lot. The buffalo wing sauce provided a slight tang and kick without being spicy.

Friday is the school's pasta feed (I will bring pre-cooked brown rice penne in a tupperware) that I somehow agreed to oversee. hmm.

Saturday is
Brown Sugar Chicken--- always a big hit in our house 

(updated 3/5: it looks like we've been invited out on Sat, so this will be shoved into next week's plan.)

and on Sunday, I'm going re-make the
Fish Chowder

This is my older daughter's most-requested meal, but I got a hilarious email about how it stunk up Sherri's house--I'm so sorry Sherri!

 So I'm going to try adding the seafood at the very end to keep sensitive noses happy. :-)

We will probably start the next week with a leftover night and will eat additional leftovers for lunch.

The crockpot is your friend, use it! 

Feel free to leave any and all frugal crockpotting go-to meals your family loves in the comments, I'd love to see them, and I'm sure many others would, too.

For clean-out-the pantry/freezer meals, try:

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Posted by: Stephanie O'Dea | A Year of Slow Cooking at September 05, 2010

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What they say about this article

  1. I love this post. You cook the same way that I do most of the time. It's a little challenge to try to make do with what I already have in the house. Saves a trip to the store and saves money. Still loving my crock pot and visiting regularly for more recipes.

  2. Your CrockPot Salsa Chicken is my go to recipe!

    When I make up a batch, it usually lasts me a week of lunches and at least one or more dinners. I use it to have nachos, quesadillas, or I just eat it over rice. And I always have all the ingredients on hand.

  3. I just tried out your 3 packet pot roast....deeelish!!!

    We have a family in our church that needs meals and they are gluten free. so I have steered everyone making meals to your web site!!! thx!

  4. Anonymous3/03/2009

    And now I'm starving! But seriously, thanks for these recipes. I just printed off 3 "new" recipes that have me excited about Crockpot Mondays at my house again. :)

  5. The tilapia sounds awesome--do you think it could be done with frozen? Or I suppose I could be not lazy and just defrost it myself. :) But if you know that would be great--thanks! You are a wealth of information and fabu recipes and I'm so grateful.

  6. The tilapia is wonderful, and THAT is what Sherri should have made...
    :-) it's the best for not-crazy-about-fish people.

    My tilapia is always sort of frozen. I run the package under hot water to loosen it from the plastic, and in doing so, the outer layer thaws, but the inside is still pretty frozen. You will get condensation in the bottom of the crock, and the fish will be wetter, but it cooks just fine.


  7. You are the best for giving us all of these great ideas!

    My easiest recipe that is also cheap is Catalina Chicken. Put chicken breasts in the crock, then dump in a bottle of catalina or french dressing. Cook on high 4 hours, serve over rice.

    So so so easy, I can make 2 lbs. of chicken worth when I get the ingredients on sale, and it is my guy's favorite!

  8. Oh, I just love this and love your site! I love browsing through your posts for recipe ideas.

    I always, always make at least one or two batches of beans. So much better than the canned, I think. I loved your post about cooking dried beans, and quote the price of it to everyone I know!

  9. THis is going to sound stupid..... but if you are unsure about the size of your crock pot..... well, can I just pour quarts of water in and count them until its full??? LOL

  10. I'm so sorry to have left a negative comment on my first try, but I really wanted to try the fish chowder and like it!! Oh well. I did try the Korean ribs today, and I snuck a taste and they are phenomenal. I think they'll definitely make up for the fish. Thanks for writing such a good blog.. I'm just sorry I didn't find it sooner!

  11. My two favorite tips for making the crock your friend:

    1) We don't eat the same meal more than twice a week - the day I make it and leftovers once - but many things make enough for a third meal. My husband and son prefer a sandwich for lunch, so having it then is out. So I pack up that last meal and throw it in the freezer. In a couple weeks it doesn't feel like leftovers!

    2) Warm up those frozen leftovers in the crock! I'll defrost in the fridge overnight and then pop it in the crock - still partially frozen most of the time - in the mid afternoon and by dinner time it is defrosted and warm. This is key since my husband doesn't come home at the same time every day and we really try to eat as a family most nights.

  12. Thank you so much for your blog! I really appreciate all the work you do :)

  13. Anonymous3/03/2009

    Love the cleaning out the fridge/freezer part! thanks!

  14. I found this blog a little while ago and I'm seriously on here for one thing or another every single day, a few times a day!! Love it!!!! I do not like fussy cooking at all and the crock pot is the perfect solution! You are hilarious. Thank you for the good laughs and the great food!!! :)

  15. Funny. I had just written a "how I cook" post the other night! Loved this post and will enjoy perusing the recipes because my crockpot needs to get used more often!

  16. Anonymous3/03/2009

    I made your black bean salsa chicken soup tonight. I didn't share it with anyone else in the family, because it was so yummy (they had breakfast for dinner instead).

    Anyway, I've been swearing by meal planning since our family became Suddenly Frugal two years ago.

    Hey, did I tell you I got a book deal based on the blog? You can read that announcement here.

    Thanks. Keep up the good (and delicious) work.


  17. My cheese globs in that too. It also globs in the buffilo soup but they both taste so good we don't care.

  18. The cheeseburger soup wants a can or two of creamed corn added to it.

  19. I made a yummy Bean and Bacon soup in the crockpot just tonight. It cost me all of $1.30 to make since I also got some of the ingredients really cheap with coupons.

  20. I like to add cheese to my soups as I am serving them. I made potato soup tonight. I put shredded cheese in the bowl, added the soup and topped with a tiny bit of cheese and bacon for looks.

  21. We love Chicken Cordon Bleu - in fact, my four year old requested it this week.

    Brown Sugar Chicken is another favorite and DH really liked the Hot & Sour Soup.

  22. I realize that this doesn't have anything to do with the post, but it reminded me that I wanted to ask you something... please do not think I am a pain in the arse. :D

    I preordered your book on amazon (the organizing dealie) and just went to check it earlier today. Do you have any idea on the release date, or do I just need to hold my horses a little bit? ;)

    Thank you!

  23. Hi Sara,
    yeah, sort of. I'm sorry. It looks like they'll ship sometime in April.

  24. you know my fave is applesauce chicken in the crock pot! I'm still so glad that you tried my recipe for it and liked it. Now if you liked the peachy chicken too, I'd be really happy lol.

    Our new favorite is no-bean chili...and there's chocolate in it. My favorite ingredient...

  25. Sounds like a yummy menu! Have a great week :)

  26. Thank you for this post. I have been trying to get my head around a weekly meal plan for about a month now. It would save me so much time, stress, and money if I would just do it! You have inspired me.

  27. I'm so glad I found your blog. I love my crock pot and am always looking for new recipes for it. I have several on my blog. Check it out.

  28. Anonymous3/03/2009

    Cream cheese sandwhich?? What the heck is that, just bread and cream cheese? I must know!

  29. Stephanie, thank you for reminding me that I can substitute stuff. I know that sounds simple. But I've been so unmotivated to cook (even in my crockpot!) lately, and I read a recipe and think, "Oh! But I don't have kidney beans! Can't make that!" and laze off on dinner.

    I'm making something tonight, even if I don't have all the 'right' stuff!

    I sure miss your daily posts, but glad to see you're doing well.

  30. Anonymous3/04/2009

    I love how you do leftover night, such a good way to be frugal-use what you have! Seriously love reading your blog!

  31. I'm all about substituting ingredients for what you have on hand. Who knows, you might even find out it tastes better the "made up" way. I would not have thought to use string cheese in a recipe - I'll have to remember that trick.

  32. Anonymous3/04/2009

    Great blog!
    I really appreciate your job.
    Thank you.

  33. Krys,
    yes. A cream cheese sandwich is merely bread (brown rice Food for Life, toasted twice) and cream cheese. Those nutty kids seem to like that sandwich the best!


  34. On the cheese matter, I've found that not using shredded or quality cheese makes a huge difference as to how it melts. To save money, I buy blocks of good quality cheese and shred it myself or watch for sales on pre-shredded. If a cheese has oil in it, it will separate. Another trick to save money on cheese is to let it sit on a plate, uncovered in the fridge. This dries it out, which intensifies the flavor and less can used.

  35. LOVE THIS. I almost always 'tweak' your recipes to what I have on hand...or what's on sale! I don't like to measure many things, as a rule. I don't like all the extra dishes that come with using measuring cups and spoons and all that! There is just so much margin for error in a crock pot, so much flexibility!

    Plus, the way you explain your recipes sort of gives me ideas on what I can do differently. My family likes more meat in many things, but I have five people to feed instead of four. Adding more potatoes and a little more meat to the cheeseburger soup makes it go so much further. And PLEASE try to figure out why the cheese separates for some of us! It tastes so good, but isn't pretty to look at!

    Thanks AGAIN for all you've done! I am sure to buy your cookbook when it comes out. GOTTA SUPPORT THE CROCK POTTERS!!!

  36. I think you should post your weekly meal plan every week! It'll help you and help us =) I've written down half the meals you used =)

    Do you think the fried rice would be good with frozen shrimp? Just add it half hour before we're gunna eat?

    Thank you!

  37. Selfishly I loved your "new recipe every day" of 2008, but I think I like 2009 even better---again, selfishly! I'm glad you're still posting and feel a sense of relief for you at not creating something new every day. It's great you're revisiting recipes and reworking some and still sharing here with us. Even selfish me wants you to have a life too! :)

  38. I love Tinkyada pasta! It was a huge relief when I went gluten-free to discover a pasta with such similar taste and mouth feel to "regular" pasta.

    When you use rice pasta in a recipe that doesn't specifically call for it, do you have to adjust for it at all? I've only used it in a recipe once, and I had to add extra liquid. But I'm not sure if it was the pasta or the recipe that was the problem. I found a new crockpot recipe that I'd like to try, but now I'm not sure if there's enough liquid in it to cook the pasta or if I should add more.

  39. I have a cheeseburger soup recipe that I love to make and I have never had it seperate. I add velveeta or the equivalent to it at the very end and just stir till it melts. I also add a 1/4 C. sour cream to it. I don't even have it seperate when I refrigerate it. Maybe that will help.

  40. I'm headed to the store today so I won't be cleaning out the pantry but I love the ideas on changing things up!
    I too will miss the new recipes every day but you have such great ideas, it will be fun to see what comes next.

  41. Just checked out your new website. Looks great! Can't wait to take the time to look more!

  42. Anonymous3/05/2009

    Just happened to check your blog again and am thrilled to see you starting something new. I loved last year and was going through withdrawals this year, looks like I will be OK. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to and try in my crockpot again.
    Mary Ann

  43. The cheese is probably seperating on people because they are using light or fat free. I'm just guessing.

  44. Our go-to meal is always dried beans-- 'cause we always have them. I try to keep soup bones or ham in the freezer, and we always have carrots and onions.

    I have to admit I have not been much of a menu planner most of my married life. But I've had to change that, at least for this project, since I've been cooking 4 meals a week for my husband and his co-workers in the crockpot. I've found it saves me a lot of time because I can say "Oh, I'll need diced onions 3 days this week" and chop them all at once. (Of course it would save MORE money if I didn't buy such expensive stuff for them, but hey, they're paying for it. ;) Or if I planned my meals in there too. Oh well. Maybe when tax season is over I'll start... I think having people depending on me helps though.)

  45. I just found your blog from a friend and I LOVE it! I remember hosting Jessica Simpson and her then husband Nick at a winery I worked at then and us talking about crock pots, since I was recommending crock pot lamb with a certain wine we were tasting. "Ever cook with a crock pot?" I asked her. "Honey,I'm from Texas, of course I've cooked with a crock pot" she answered. I'm convinced the snobs at MTV didn't air the piece because they think crock pots aren't sexy - au contraire! What's sexier than being able to fool around while dinner's cooking, huh??? I can't HEAR you!!!

    Here's my favorite crock pot recipe that I know by heart. I do not have the 'throw something together without a recipe' gene, so it's great to have your site for new recipes since I've alreadymade everything I want in the 'Crocekry Cookery' book I got at the library sale.

    Line the bottom of the crock pot with 2 carrots, 2 potatoes and 2 ribs of celery all cut in big chunks, and one quartered onion. Top with 5-6 chicken thighs, skin on, please! Top with 2 cups of white wine seasoned with fresh or dried herbs of your choice. I frequently will just add a couple of tablespoons of curry powder. Before putting on the lid douse with sea salt and fresh ground 4 pepper medley (I'm totally addicted, my mom carries one in her purse). Set on low before you go to work and as we all know, when you get home the house smells good and dinner is ready! Mmmmm thanks girl!

  46. Great post! I am going to need this type of CP plan as the heating element in my oven just burned up last night. So the crockpot will definitely rule for a while! :-)

    Special thanks to Catherine for mentioning your Salsa Chicken recipe. I had the chicken thawed out and all the other ingredients. I can already smell it cooking--wonderful!!


  47. I tried your buffalo chicken lasagna recipe this week and it was seriously one of the best crockpot recipes I've ever had! I don't even like chicken wings, but my husband, my daughter and I all loved it! Thanks for such a great site!

  48. Anonymous3/08/2009

    Sorry to ask a question unrelated to the post, but what size crockpot do you use? I've been searching all over your site, but I can't seem to find an answer.

    Thank you!

  49. Hi Anon,
    no problem at all.
    I have a variety of crockpots----I usually use a 6 quart, but have a 5.5 quart, 4, quart, 6.5 quart, 1.5 quart and a Little Dipper.

    Your pot will work the best if it is 2/3 or more full.


  50. I'm a new (male) crockpot user, and don't really understand how some of the recipes work. You make brownies by sticking mugs in a crockpot? Is this just like having a mini-oven and the mugs are like mini-pans?

  51. Hi Charles,
    yup! I kind of think of the crockpot as an Easy Bake Oven for grownups.
    As long as the mugs are of heavy ceramic they do just fine in the crock.


  52. I can't tell you how much I love, love, love your recipes here! And the homemade thin mints I'm definitely going to have to try! :)

    I just gave you an award on my blog (I'm sure you get that a lot)! Feel free to go check it out. And thanks for being so wonderful!

  53. Anonymous3/10/2009

    Saturday night I made lasagna in the crockpot for the first time for my friends and it was really good. Thank's for expanding my crockpot recipe book.

  54. Crock pot lasagna sounds really good! It's making me want a late night snack!

  55. I don't know if anyone else has asked this, does the Taco soup freeze well? Thanks.

  56. Hi Jenn,

    Yes, it sure does!

  57. Anonymous9/06/2010

    im loving your recipes! i'm on a total crockpot kick :)
    made your corn chowder the other day and added chicken sausage for the husband who wants meat in everything. and now your orange chicken is cooking. on deck for the rest of this week...the pf chnags lettuce wraps and hawaiin chicken (i don't have any ribs). can't wait to get your book :)

  58. It is crock pot season with fall approaching. Although I like to cook in the crock pot in the summer if we are not grilling. It keeps the house cooler.

    Thanks for posting the picture of the planner. Great idea that I will adopt.

    One of the things I love about this blog and also how I cook and the crock pot is great for substituting items and making do with what I have available. It is very forgiving.