Nothing beats the convenience of having meals made up and ready to serve, which is why a slow cooker can be your best friend in the kitchen.
Through gentle simmering, slow cookers effortlessly turn the toughest cuts of meat and hardest vegetables to lush tenderness as you get on with your life. By choosing healthy recipes and cooking in big batches, you can easily prepare make-ahead meals for the whole week. Get started by digging into these slow cooker staples.
1. Overnight Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oats
Steel-cut oats make the best oatmeal, with a delightfully creamy texture instead of the sometimes-gluey consistency of rolled oats. They take time to cook, which is an issue for the morning rush but ideal for a slow cooker. The simplest recipes call for just oats and water, or you can make your batch deluxe with nuts, dried fruit and milk.
Your best bet for a week’s breakfasts is to make a plain-jane version, then reheat it each morning with different combinations of add-ins. An added bonus: Oats are known to be a powerful inflammation fighter, which is especially helpful on those cold mornings.
2. Slow Cooker Breakfast Casserole
If you prefer savory breakfasts in the classic eggs-and-protein tradition, you can still use your slow cooker to prepare several days’ worth at a time. The ingredients are simple: Plenty of eggs and milk or cream, plus your choice of sausage, ham or bacon and — of course — lots of cheese.
Most recipes add either hash browns or bread to make the finished casserole heartier. When you’re reheating the casserole for breakfast through the week, change it up by adding fresh herbs, different meats or salsa and other condiments.
Recipe: Taste of Home
3. Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate kid-friendly side dish, and as easy slow cooker recipes go, it’s one of the simplest. You don’t even have to pre-cook the pasta — just dump noodles, cheese and milk in your slow cooker and set it to Low. Start it at lunch and serve it at dinner, or start as you clean up from dinner and refrigerate it before bed. Freshen the dish up by serving it with salads or fun toppings, from crumbled bacon to crisp croutons to crushed-up Cheetos.
4. Slow Cooker Pot Roast
A good pot roast is one of the best crockpot meals there is. Turning a tough piece of chuck or brisket into tender forkfuls is what makes slow cooking so magical. It’s also supremely practical as a source of a week’s easy dinner recipes. Slice it for hot beef sandwiches, or shred it and serve it on a bun with barbecue sauce.
The leftover gravy and vegetables can make an instant “cheater’s stew” with some of the beef, and if you have any of that leftover, you can spoon it into a pie crust for a quick and easy meat pie.
Recipe: Martha Stewart
5. Slow Cooker Salisbury Steak
Crockpot recipes aren’t always built around tough cuts that require slow cooking. Salisbury steak uses inexpensive ground beef, formed into patties and slow cooked in gravy for an old-school comfort food classic. Whether you opt for traditional brown gravy or a creamy sauce, mushrooms and onions are the usual accompaniments.
It can be served over mashed potatoes, rice or broad noodles for three distinctly different dinner ideas — each with its own accompanying vegetables. You can serve the patties on a bun as a quick “burger,” or cut them into meatball-sized pieces for a sub sandwich.
Recipe: 5 Dinners, 1 Hour
6. Slow Cooker Chile Verde
Everyone knows that chili is one of the classic crockpot meals, but that doesn’t mean it has to be red. Pork-based chile verde is just as easy to make, and equally good for a week of make-ahead meals. The spicy, Mexican flavors transform inexpensive pork butt or chops into an impressive dish, whether you make it from scratch with tomatillos and peppers or use a store-bought sauce.
You can even toss in ingredients from around the house to keep meal prep simple. Serve it first with rice or tortillas, then use the leftovers for tacos or burritos. For a fun light meal or a filling snack, spoon leftovers over tortilla chips to make chile verde nachos.
Recipe: The Kitchn
7. Slow Cooker Lasagna
When you’re searching for dinner ideas that will appeal to everyone, lasagna is probably high on that list. Ordinarily, it requires oven space and an hour or two of your attention, but putting it together in your slow cooker is much easier. Just assemble the layers, turn your slow cooker to low, and you’re done. You can use no-cook noodles or regular noodles, whichever you’ve got. Regular noodles just need a bit more sauce in the slow cooker.
Recipe: Betty Crocker
8. A Big Mess o’ Meatballs
Meatballs don’t necessarily have to go into your slow cooker, but it’s an easy way to prepare them in bulk. Make up a basic recipe with simple seasonings and brown them either on the stove top or in your oven, then drain them and transfer them to your slow cooker. Give them 2 hours on Low, then remove and refrigerate the meatballs.
Now you’re ready to play: Simmer them in tomato sauce for sub sandwiches or to accompany pasta, thicken the broth to make gravy and serve them over mashed potatoes, reheat them in teriyaki sauce for an Asian meal, or put them back in the slow cooker with barbecue or sweet & sour sauce as a party dish.
9. Creamy Slow Cooker Chicken and Mushrooms
Slow cooker chicken recipes are a dime a dozen on the internet, so when you’re scouting for dinner ideas you should think in terms of versatility. Creamy chicken and mushrooms is a real winner in that department, whether you make it from scratch or opt for the convenience of mushroom soup. The finished dish goes equally well with potatoes, rice or noodles, just as it is.
You can also combine it with leftover vegetables and biscuit dough to make pot pie, or wrap it in pie crust or phyllo pastry for portable lunches or a company-worthy entree.
10. Slow-Cooked Pork Shoulder
Pork shoulder is a frugal cut that’s perfectly suited to the slow cooker. If you cook one to pot-roast tenderness as your Sunday roast, you’ll be set for a week’s worth of delicious dinner ideas. Slice it and serve it as roast pork with gravy made from the cooking juices, shred it and mix it with sauce for pulled pork sandwiches, add Mexican spices and brown the edges to make carnitas for tacos, or even use it to stuff Asian-style dumplings or steamed buns — the possibilities are endless.
Recipe: The Kitchn
11. Slow Cooker Split Pea Soup
Split pea soup is a classic warmer-upper for cold weather, but it’s a pain to make on the stovetop. It takes hours of simmering, and it’s all too easy for it to scorch on the bottom of your pot. Making it in your slow cooker instead is ideal because it can simmer away happily overnight without ever sticking or burning.
The classic version with ham is comfort food at its finest, but vegetarian versions can be tasty, too. You can give the meatless version of the soup a twist by adding curry powder or curry paste and serving it with rice as part of an Indian meal.
Recipe: Genius Kitchen
12. Slow Cooker Chicken Soup
Slow cooker chicken isn’t always about whole birds or large pieces, such as the breasts or thighs. Your slow cooker also happens to be a really great place to make chicken soup, that ultimate comfort food — and a great hangover cure. The long, slow cooking time gives plenty of opportunities for the flavors to meld, and you can take that basic soup in any number of directions.
Add noodles or rice as the mood takes you; give it Asian flavors with lemongrass and ginger; or thicken the broth to make chicken and dumplings, chicken stew or chicken pot pie.
13. Slow Cooker Sausage and Peppers
Although they’re often roasted or broiled, sausages are delicate creatures at heart and are at their juicy best when gently simmered until they’re cooked through. Gentle simmering is, of course, what your slow cooker is all about, so it’s a perfect place for sausages. Sweet, juicy peppers are their perfect accompaniment.
Uncooked or cured sausages are both good, and Italian sausages are especially so. You can cook them with just peppers and onions, for maximum versatility, or do them in broth or tomato sauce. They’re great on pasta, in buns or alongside a salad.
Recipe: Moms With Crockpots
14. Slow Cooker Broccoli Cheddar Soup
This is super simple to make in your slow cooker. You’ll need the usual ingredients — broccoli, seasonings, milk or cream, and plenty of cheese — but most of the preparation boils down to “dump and go.” Cheddar is the classic companion for broccoli, though truthfully you can use any melty cheese you like, from imported Gruyere to processed cheese products.
The soup is great as-is, but it also makes an excellent sauce for fettuccine. You can also bake it into pastries, or add more broccoli and serve it as a cheesy side dish.
Recipe: Dinner Then Dessert
15. Slow Cooker Beef Stew
The promise of easy, no-fuss stew has probably sold a lot of these appliances, and it’s still one of the quintessential slow cooker meals. Your slow cooker is unmatched at tenderizing tough cuts, and you won’t have to stir constantly to avoid burning as you would on the stovetop.
Pick a recipe that appeals to you, whether it’s built around fresh ingredients or maximum convenience. Leftover stew gets even tastier and can easily be the base for a pot pie, or put into a casserole with a layer of mashed potatoes.
Recipe: Lipton Kitchens
This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: 15 Budget-Friendly Slow Cooker Meals That Will Last All Week