Rita Hodges

Extension service

Itís 5:30 p.m. Whatís for dinner?

Each day, millions of people are faced with this question. Without a plan, takeout meals and fast food starts to look pretty good. Although eating out occasionally is OK, eating out too often can put a bulge in our waistline and a dent in our wallet.

So, whatís a solution for a time-restricted, nutrition-conscious, budget-minded individual? Look no further than the slow cooker. Slow cookers are great because they basically do the cooking while you are away. With a little planning, itís almost like having a personal chef.

In addition to preparing great tasting meals, a slow cooker can help save money. Compared to an oven, a slow cooker uses less electricity. In addition, slow cookers do not heat up the house like an oven can and this is an additional bonus during the hot summer months. Finally, slow cookers are a great way to prepare inexpensive, lean cuts of meat. The moist heat generated by the slow cooker makes these cuts of meat more tender compared to other cooking methods.

Another great feature of slow cookers is the ease of use. For the most part, all you have to do is place the ingredients in the slow cooker, plug it in and turn it on. However, important food safety recommendations can easily be ignored and the food prepared in the slow cooker can cause a foodborne illness. To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, use the following tips:

1. Start with a clean cooker, utensils and work area; wash your hands before and during food preparation.

2. Refrigerate perishable foods until preparation time. If you chop meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator in covered containers.

3. Never place frozen meat or poultry in the slow cooker.

4. In the past, it was not recommended that large pieces of meat or a whole chicken be cooked in a slow cooker. However, recent research suggests that the newer models of slow cookers are safe for cooking large pieces of meat and poultry. Follow the instructions and recipes that came with your slow cooker. If you donít know how old your slow cooker is, be on the safe side and cut the meat and poultry into smaller pieces and place them in the cooker with the correct amount of liquid.

5. Fill the slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full. Root vegetables cook slower than meat or poultry, so place them on the bottom. Add the meat and then fill the slow cooker almost to the top of the food with liquid (broth, sauce, or water).

6. Donít peek. Each time the lid is removed, it can take 20 minutes to regain the lost heat and this increases the cooking time.

7. If you are not home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, throw out the food, even if it looks done.

8. Use a food thermometer to make sure meat and poultry dishes have reached a safe internal temperature.

9. Store leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate within two hours of cooking.

For more information, contact Rita M. Hodges, county extension agent for family and consumer sciences, 701 S. Interstate 35E, Suite 3, Waxahachie; call 972-825-5175; or e-mail rmhodges@ag.tamu.edu.