A Week of Family Dinners from the Slow Cooker

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)
  • Meal Plan by: Anne Postic, writer and mother
  • Number of meals: Five dinners, six sides
  • Sized for: Two adults, two to three kids, and the occasional aunt or uncle
  • Ingredients: This plan includes a little bit of everything!

I have a lot of jobs. It’s a running joke. My sister asks, “What are you up to today?” “Work.” “Yeah? Which one?” But it’s nice. They’re all more or less freelance, and nine out of my 10 jobs can be performed from the privacy of my own home, where I work in pajamas, sometimes from my bed, more often than I like to admit.

Until now, it’s been relatively easy to get meals on the table, because I prep throughout the day — whenever I need a break — and pop out to the store for an ingredient or two if I need some fresh air. But I recently took a real job, with regular hours, and it didn’t come with a personal chef, so I’ve had to make a few adjustments. The slow cooker is my best friend, and this meal plan is an example of how, on some weeks, I use it to put every dinner we eat on the table.

(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

In addition to planning suppers ahead, I’ve had to get used to packing lunch to take with me instead of mixing up whatever strikes my fancy from the fridge when lunchtime hits. I love leftovers, and the office has a microwave. (This is kind of a treat for me, since we don’t have one.) A lot of these meals allow for leftovers, which I happily eat at my desk the next day.

The Meals

The Recipes

The Cooking Plan

You may have noticed that these recipes don’t all take eight to 10 hours to cook, and I know that some of you are away from home for even longer than that on a typical work day. I work close to home, and I’m able to stop into the house at lunch and get these going. However, on those days I can’t make it, I take advantage of my slow cooker’s “warm” setting. When the time is up, it keeps my dish warm. I don’t like to use that feature with the pasta dishes, as they tend to dry out, but with soups and stews, it works just fine.

What to Prep at the Beginning of the Week:

  • Make a large pot of cooked quinoa for Monday’s salad and breakfasts throughout the week. (I heat it in some almond milk and add dried fruit and nuts for breakfast.)
  • Fry bacon for the soup — though you only need a few slices of bacon, I usually cook the whole package and save the rest for breakfast or sandwiches.
  • Chop all the vegetables, if you shop ahead, and store them in separate containers.
  • If you have time, you can also cook the ingredients for the lasagna a day or two ahead and keep them refrigerated until you’re ready to make the lasagna.

If You Run Home at Lunch to Prepare:

  • Place all the ingredients in one place in the morning, so you can speed through the prep when you come home.

Weekday Task List:

Monday: I like to start the week with my easiest recipe, celery soup. This is a one-pot meal, and that pot is the slow cooker, no pre-cooking required. We always seem to be running behind on Mondays, and this is as simple as it gets. It keeps well on the warm setting, so I can start the cooker in the morning. If I’m lucky, I’ve cooked a big batch of quinoa on the weekend — I like it for breakfast, too — so the salad is easy to throw together.

  • If you haven’t already done so, chop all the vegetables (you can also do this the night before).
  • Combine everything in the slow cooker and cook for 5 to 7 hours on low.
  • When ready to eat, get the salad ready.
  • Fry the bacon for the topping, if you haven’t already done so.
  • Before serving, purée the soup.
  • Serve the soup and the salad together.

Tuesday: The sausage and spinach lasagna is a little more time intensive than most of these recipes, and I only work half a day on Tuesday, so I have more time. I recommend saving this recipe for a day when you also have extra time in your day. I always have homemade vinaigrette on hand for the salad, but it’s easy enough to whip up if we’ve run out.

  • Cook all the ingredients for the lasagna — you can do this the night before and then assemble the lasagna when ready to cook, if you want.
  • Assemble the lasagna in the slow cooker.
  • Cook for 3 to 4 hours on low.
  • When ready to eat, toss the salad and serve.

Wednesday: Emma’s black bean enchiladas are a huge hit in our family. I add the optional vegetables, using whatever I have on hand, from broccoli and spinach to a few cups of leftover roasted vegetables or a quick mirepoix. Thank you, Trader Joe’s, for your pre-chopped mirepoix. What a treat!

  • Make the enchilada filling — you can do this the night before and then assemble the enchiladas when ready to cook, if you want.
  • Assemble the enchiladas.
  • Cook for 2 to 4 hours on high.

Thursday: By Thursday, I’m ready for another easily prepped meal, so tuna casserole is on the menu. If I’m running a little behind schedule, I put crudités and ranch dressing on the counter, instead of serving them with supper, which is great, because the kids accidentally consume about three servings of vegetables while telling me about their days, before we even sit down to eat. If I have leftover greens from earlier in the week, I add a salad to this meal.

  • Steep the mushrooms and make the sauce for the casserole.
  • Toss everything together and pour it in the slow cooker.
  • Cook for 2 to 3 hours on low.

Friday or Saturday: We usually go out on Friday nights, because I need a break by then. (This was true even when I worked from home in my pajamas.) But by the end of the week, we’re ready for something special, and a huge pot of brisket and onions (because we don’t eat a lot of red meat) is pretty special in our house. When the main course is meat, I make sure to serve a vegetable course our youngest son will eat. I call these “Jack Sprouts,” because he thinks he invented them. In my experience, if a kid thinks they invented something? They’ll eat it.

  • Cook the onions and sear the brisket.
  • Cook for 6 to 8 hours on low.
  • When ready to eat, make the Brussels sprouts and serve.
(Image credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink)

Your Shopping List

This menu is sized for two adults, and two to three children. Most of these meals can be stretched to feed another person or three, and we often have guests throughout the week. The downside of the guests is the lack of leftovers, but their company is worth it.

At the grocery store:

  • Yellow onion (5 large)
  • Garlic (1 head)
  • Brussels sprouts (2 pounds)
  • Red bell pepper (2 medium)
  • Baby spinach (11 ounces)
  • Celery (1 bunch)
  • Small white potatoes (1 pound)
  • Salad greens (enough for 4 to 6 people as a side salad)
  • Dried wild mushrooms (1/2 ounce)
  • Whole milk (2 cups)
  • Heavy cream or whole milk (1/3 cup)
  • Part-skim mozzarella (16 ounces)
  • Monterey jack cheese (12 ounces)
  • Parmesan cheese (1 ounce)
  • Ricotta cheese (15 ounces)
  • Uncooked Italian sausage links (1 pound)
  • Thick-cut bacon (4 to 6 slices)
  • Beef brisket (3 1/2 pounds)
  • Chicken or vegetable stock (2 quarts)
  • Beef broth (2 cups)
  • Diced tomatoes (2 14.5-ounce cans)
  • Water-packed tuna (4 5-ounce cans)
  • Black beans (1 16-ounce can)
  • Salsa (2 16-ounce jars)
  • Wide egg noodles, like Manischewitz, or a sturdy pasta shape like rigatoni (12 to 16 ounces)
  • Lasagna noodles (6 ounces)
  • Quinoa (1/3 cup dry)
  • Flour tortillas (12 to 15 6-inch tortillas)
  • Pine nuts (1/2 cup)
  • Grapefruit white balsamic vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
  • Frozen peas (2 cups)
  • Frozen corn (2 1/2 cup)

From the pantry or freezer (check to make sure you have them):

  • Olive oil (2 teaspoons)
  • Butter (2 tablespoons)
  • Balsamic vinegar (1 tablespoon)
  • Worcestershire sauce (2 tablespoons)
  • Soy sauce or tamari (1 tablespoon)
  • Flour (4 tablespoons)
  • Italian seasoning (2 tablespoons)
  • Chili powder (2 teaspoons)
  • Cumin (1 teaspoon)
  • Kosher salt
  • Pepper
  • White pepper