Slow Cookers: They're Hot Again

Put some spice into dinner with an easy-to-use slow cooker. See more easy weeknight meals pictures.

If you're wrestling with the guilt of too many trips to the drive-through, investing in a slow cooker may be the solution you're looking for. If your 40 hour work week has stretched into 50 hours or more, the idea of making a home-cooked meal has probably lost its luster. Admitting defeat and settling for supersized fries and a burger (or pizza, Chinese food or fried chicken) may seem like the easy and practical choice, but you can do better. Remember Rosie the maid in the Jetsons cartoon series? All she had to do was push a button to get dinner on the table, and even though Rosie is probably conspicuously absent at your house, a slow cooker is one effective way to revolutionize meal prep and bring sanity back to dinnertime.

Using a slow cooker carries a surprising number of benefits: You probably don't need anyone to tell you that eating out or ordering in on a regular basis can get expensive. Slow cookers do a great job of making a few ingredients go a long way. They can also make the most of inexpensive cuts of meat and all-vegetable dishes. Employing a slow cooker will give you more control over the foods your family eats, too. Don't like the idea of your kids dining on preservatives and stabilizers? When you buy prepared foods or packaged mixes, you invariably run into the problem of ingredients added to make foods more shelf stable. They may not be dangerous, but there's something very reassuring about assembling meals using ingredients you recognize, trust and can actually pronounce.

Slow cookers are a bit like Rosie the maid, too. They do the work while you, like good old George Jetson, zoom off to work -- sans the space car. You add the ingredients to the slow cooker in the morning, set the timer, and dinner is ready when you get home hours later. It can be that easy. One pot cooking is fuss free. There's limited cleanup, and you can often just refrigerate the liner (inner pot) with the leftovers right inside.

Slow cookers aren't just for stews and casseroles, either. More than 16 percent of U.S. households use slow cookers to get a jump on dinner at least a couple of times every month, and they're making lots of different dishes in them. Whether you're interested in a fancy fondue or a dessert cobbler, a slow cooker can do the honors with very little supervision. Once you've discovered a few recipes you like, using a slow cooker can become a routine that's as familiar as shouting an order into the speaker at the fast food joint -- but a lot better for you -- and less expensive -- and more fun.