If you need a little extra help in the kitchen, look no further than your clunky slow cooker. The multitasker’s dream appliance, a slow cooker (often known by the brand name Crock-Pot) allows you to go to work, do the laundry, get some exercise, or simply kick back with a book while your ingredients turn themselves into flavorful, one-pot meals.

It’s also a healthy way to cook. Because liquids in the tightly covered pot do not evaporate, slow cookers retain all the food’s juices and nutritional benefits. The result is nutrient-rich and flavorful vegetables, tender meats, savory soups and stews, even desserts—all without the additional butter or oil needed in many oven-baked dishes. And forget fatty meats; by simmering in a slow cooker all day, every item gets tenderized, making the most of naturally lean (and less expensive) cuts.

All you have to do is combine your ingredients—this can be done the night before by popping the removable insert in your refrigerator overnight, or by assembling the ingredients just before you leave the house. Select the temperature and time, and then let the cooker do the rest. When you arrive home after a long day, you’ll be greeted with the delicious smell of a hearty, healthy meal. Then relax: No matter what unfinished business you have at home or at work, dinner is a done deal.

Autumn Harvest Minestrone
Serves 8 / This hearty recipe incorporates fall’s wonderful root vegetables, but you can also make it in the spring or summer with asparagus, green beans, fresh peas, and tomatoes.

4 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
4 small new potatoes, chopped into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
2 leeks, chopped (white and light green parts)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 zucchini, sliced into 1-inch discs
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
3 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
32 ounces vegetable broth
1 cup slightly cooked vegetable rotelle (corkscrew pasta)
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup chopped Swiss chard
1/2 cup frozen peas
Grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese, for garnish

1. Combine carrots and potatoes in slow cooker. Add leeks, onion, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, and spices. Pour vegetable broth over mixture. Cover and cook on low heat for 6–8 hours.

2. During the last 15 minutes of cooking, add cooked pasta, garbanzo beans, chard, and frozen peas. Stir, re-cover, and continue cooking. Serve garnished with cheese.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 207calories
% fat calories: 6
Fat: 1g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 9g
Carbohydrate: 42g
Fiber: 8g
Sodium: 513mg

Italian Stuffed Squash
Serves 2–4 / Delicious squash combined with nutty rice and tangy goat cheese is a healthy delight, providing a hefty dose of fiber, vitamins A and C, and a little calcium. Serve whole or cut into wedges.

1 large acorn or kabocha squash, halved and seeded
Olive oil
1 cup water
1/2 cup wild rice blend
1/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds or pine nuts
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup crumbled goat or feta cheese

1. Brush squash halves with olive oil and place in slow cooker (slice off bottoms to level, if necessary). Pour 1 cup water into the cooker, around (not into) squash.

2. In a small bowl, combine wild rice blend, pumpkin seeds or pine nuts, minced garlic, tomato paste, salt, pepper, and spices; stir until well-mixed. Stuff rice mixture into each squash half. Slowly pour about 1/2 cup vegetable broth into each squash cavity until full (don’t let stuffing overflow). Pour any remaining broth around squash.

3. Cover and cook on low for 6–8 hours or on high for 3–4 hours. Just prior to serving, sprinkle with crumbled cheese.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 366 calories
% fat calories: 21
Fat: 9g
Saturated Fat: 3g
Cholesterol: 10mg
Protein: 11g
Carbohydrate: 62g
Fiber: 10g
Sodium: 787mg

Green Chile–Chicken Posole
Serves 8 / This traditional New Mexican dish features dried posole (hominy), corn kernels with the hull and germ removed. In this version, avocado slices, diced tomatoes, and fresh cilantro add a healthy, fresh-from-the-garden taste. The red chili sauce is easy to make, but you can also use store-bought. Serve with corn tortillas.

1 cup chopped red onion
1 12-ounce package dried posole (hominy)
3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1-1/4 pounds), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons minced garlic
3 cups water
2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground New Mexico chili pepper powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 4-ounce can diced green chilies
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste

Red Chili Sauce
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons New Mexico chili pepper powder
2 cups water
Salt, to taste

Diced avocado, diced tomato, grated jack cheese, and fresh chopped cilantro, for garnish

1. Place onion, posole, and chicken in slow cooker. Add garlic, water, and broth. Add oregano, chili pepper powder, and salt; stir. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours.

2. Thirty minutes prior to serving, add green chilies, black beans, and cumin. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir and re-cover.

3. To make red chili sauce, heat canola oil in a medium saucepan and add flour. Sauté until brown, about 3 minutes. Add chili pepper powder, water, and salt. Whisk until smooth and simmer 15 minutes. Serve posole drizzled with sauce and topped with garnishes.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 306 calories
% fat calories: 15
Fat: 5g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 39mg
Protein: 26g
Carbohydrate: 40g
Fiber: 10g
Sodium: 786mg

Beef, Cremini, and Kale Stew
Serves 6–8 / Use all-natural, lean beef for this comfort-food favorite. To serve, cut three small loaves of crusty sourdough bread in half and hollow out the centers; pour in stew just before serving.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes, all fat removed
1 tablespoon canola oil
1-2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch chunks (about 2-1/2 cups)
3-4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 1-1/2 cups)
3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/3 teaspoon dried thyme
16 ounces dark beer, such as Guinness or any type of stout
2 cups chopped fresh kale

1. Place flour in a shallow dish or large freezer bag and season with salt and pepper. Add beef and dredge until evenly coated. In a large sauté pan, heat canola oil over medium-high heat. Cook beef, turning, until browned.

2. While beef is browning, layer sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and onion in slow cooker. Add browned beef, garlic, and spices. Pour in beer. Cover and cook on low for 6–8 hours. Thirty minutes before serving, stir in chopped kale.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 562 calories
% fat calories: 30
Fat: 18g
Saturated Fat: 5g
Cholesterol: 144mg
Protein: 54g
Carbohydrate: 40g
Fiber: 6g
Sodium: 477mg

Thai Chicken Curry with Sweet Potatoes
Serves 6–8 / This spicy, warming dish can be made with different vegetable combinations, such as bamboo shoots and potatoes, red bell pepper and water chestnuts, or pineapple and snow peas (add this last combination 45 minutes prior to serving).
If you’re vegetarian, omit the chicken and add lightly sautéed tofu when you add the green beans and peas. For even more spice, garnish with red pepper flakes and sliced Serrano pepper. Serve with basmati rice.

1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
4 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 cup chopped white onion
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced (about 3/4 cup)
1/2-1 teaspoon Thai red curry powder or Thai seasoning (optional)
2-3 teaspoons red or green curry paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce or liquid aminos
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1 small eggplant, diced into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup fresh green beans, trimmed
2 stalks lemongrass
4 chicken drumsticks, skin removed
1 14-ounce can light coconut milk
1/2 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
3/4 cup frozen peas
Salt, to taste
Fresh basil, for garnish

1. Combine sesame oil, ginger, and garlic in a medium bowl. Add onions and yellow bell pepper; stir thoroughly. Add curry powder, curry paste, cumin, soy sauce, salt, and brown sugar. Mix thoroughly and set aside.

2. Place sweet potatoes, eggplant, and green beans in slow cooker. Remove tough base and outer layers of lemongrass; cut each stalk into 3 pieces and crush slightly with the flat edge of a knife. Layer stalks on top of vegetables.

3. In a nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray, brown chicken drumsticks over medium-high heat until golden on each side. Add chicken to slow cooker.

4. Spread onion-curry mixture over vegetables and chicken. Pour in coconut milk. Cover and cook on low for 6–8 hours or until vegetables are tender and chicken is cooked. Forty-five minutes prior to serving, add pineapple juice and frozen peas. Add salt if needed. Stir gently and re-cover. To serve, garnish with fresh basil.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 241 calories
% fat calories: 35
Fat: 9g
Saturated Fat: 4g
Cholesterol: 32mg
Protein: 12g
Carbohydrate: 27g
Fiber: 4g
Sodium: 623mg

Cinnamon-Rum Bread Pudding
Serves 8–10 / Because this method retains moisture, you need less cream and butter to get bread pudding’s traditional rich taste. For best results, make in an oblong (not cylindrical) cooker. Serve with candied walnuts or vanilla frozen yogurt.

1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 cups (8-9 slices) stale cinnamon-raisin bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, lightly toasted
2 eggs
4 egg whites
1 cup fat-free evaporated milk
1-1/2 cups plain soy milk
1 cup sucanat
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup rum, or 1 tablespoon rum extract

Rum sauce
4 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 cup fat-free half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons rum

1. Coat slow cooker with 1/2 tablespoon butter. Add bread cubes, raisins, and nuts.

2. In a small bowl, beat together eggs, egg whites, fat-free evaporated milk, soy milk, sucanat, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour over bread-raisin mixture. Add rum or rum extract and toss gently. Cover and cook on low for 3–4 hours or until pudding is firm and lightly browned. Thirty minutes prior to serving, place lid slightly ajar to facilitate browning.

3. To make rum sauce, melt butter over medium heat. Add brown sugar. Stirring constantly, cook until brown sugar is fully incorporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in half-and-half, cinnamon, and rum. Reduce heat to low and let simmer until somewhat reduced, about 5 minutes. Drizzle over each serving of bread pudding.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (with 1 tablespoon sauce):
Calories: 424 calories
% fat calories: 28
Fat: 12g
Saturated Fat: 3g
Cholesterol: 64mg
Protein: 11g
Carbohydrate: 63g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 288mg

Since developing these recipes, Melissa B. Scott now plans to use her slow cooker regularly (especially for bread pudding). She lives in Santa Barbara, California.