If the idea of making dinner entirely from scratch on weeknights is daunting, the slow cooker can be a lifesaver. But if you're like me and mornings are just as hectic as the end of the day, there's no time to measure or chop ingredients and get them into the slow cooker. Enter: this Power Hour meal prep plan, an ingenious way to spend your weekend afternoon.
After a two-hour prep session over the weekend, you'll start the week with a fridge full of prepped and pre-portioned ingredients that go directly in the slow cooker at the start of each day. This plan includes a week's worth of breakfasts, lunches, and slow cooker dinners for a family of four.
Also, a note on food storage: I used zip-top bags for this plan, but I make sure to wash and reuse them several times to cut down on waste and maximize their use. You can also easily swap in any washable food storage containers — we've linked to a few of our favorites below, too.
My Meal Prep Goals
- Breakfast: Breakfast for my husband, two preschoolers, and me (five days).
- Lunch: Lunch for my husband and me (five days).
- Dinner: Dinner for my husband, two preschoolers, and me (five days).
- Nutritional Goals: This week is all about using the slow cooker to keep us eating home-cooked meals despite a hectic daytime schedule.
Meal Prep Plan Snapshot
- Feeds: Four people for breakfast and dinner, two for lunch
- Prep Time: About 2 hours
- Meals Covered: About 65% (no Friday night dinner or weekend meals)
- Weeknight Cooking Required: Minimal — dinner elements only require reheating or a minute at the stove to cook an egg
My Meal Plan
- Make-ahead smoothie packs in two varieties: tropical turmeric and classic strawberry. I pour any smoothie left in the blender into ice pop molds throughout the week and freeze for Friday's breakfast.
- Slow Cooker Pesto Chicken pita pockets with fruit
- Leftover Slow Cooker Coconut Milk Chicken, jasmine rice , and fruit
- Leftover Slow Cooker Butter Bean Minestrone with crusty bread and fruit
- Slow Cooker Coconut Milk Chicken over jasmine rice with mixed greens
- Slow Cooker Breakfast Burrito Bowls with fried eggs for grown-ups and scrambled for the kiddos, along with diced avocado and tortilla chips
- Slow Cooker Butter Bean Minestrone with crusty bread
- Slow Cooker Chili Mac and Cheese
My Shopping List
These are the ingredients I bought or used for this meal prep plan. I also relied on items already in my pantry or refrigerator, including maple syrup, unsweetened vanilla almond milk, turmeric, pesto, kosher salt, black pepper, jasmine rice, unsalted butter, chili powder, ground cumin, ground fennel seeds, garlic powder, and hot sauce.
- Produce: 6 bananas, 2 cups frozen mango, 2 cups frozen pineapple, 1 small hand fresh ginger, 1 pint cherry tomatoes, apples, 1 head garlic, 1 fresh Thai red chile, 4 limes, 1 box mixed greens, 3 medium sweet onions, 1 large carrot, 1 celery stalk, 4 plum tomatoes, 1 small zucchini, 2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, 1 avocado
- Meat: 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, 1 (3- to 4-pound) whole chicken, 1 pound lean ground beef, 8 ounces uncooked breakfast sausage
- Dairy: 4 cups plain Greek yogurt, 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, 1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, 4 large eggs
- Dry Goods: 2 (15-ounce) cans coconut milk, 10 cups low-sodium chicken broth, 1 pound dried butter beans, 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1 (28-ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste, 1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth, 8 ounces elbow macaroni, 1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, 1 cup salsa, 1 (4-ounce) can fire-roasted green chiles, tortilla chips
- Bakery: 4 pita pockets, 1 baguette
- Freezer: 48 ounces frozen strawberries
With the planning and shopping done, it's time to put the Power Hour plan into action. With a busy week ahead, I lean hard on the slow cooker both during Power Hour and for dinner each day this week. I divide my meal prep into quart-sized zip-top bags to keep things organized.
Here's what I did to get the prep done (and we've created a handy pinnable image with the menu and prep list, if you want to save this for later!).
1. Prep and make Slow Cooker Pesto Chicken. My use of the slow cooker starts during prep, and because the pesto chicken takes 1 1/2 hours to cook, that's where I start. I prefer boneless, skinless chicken thighs to breasts, so I start by dicing a few thighs. Time is of the essence during Power Hour so I use store-bought pesto instead of homemade, stirring three tablespoons into the chicken and slow cooking on low. Once the chicken is done, I add another two tablespoons pesto. I set the chicken aside to cool before tucking into pitas with cherry tomatoes, which I pack for lunch.
2. Cook rice. Meanwhile, I turn my attention to the jasmine rice, following these instructions. I'll make a double batch to ensure there's enough to serve with dinner on Monday and add to a few lunches throughout the week. Once the rice is done, I spread it out on a baking sheet and refrigerate to cool quickly before transferring to a storage container.
3. Prep all produce. While the rice simmers and steams I go down my produce prep list: Peel and chop ginger, peel bananas, juice limes (enough for 1/4 cup), peel 7 garlic cloves (leaving 6 whole and mincing 1), dice 3 onions (I'm substituting onion for shallot in the burrito bowl), dice 1 carrot, dice 1 celery rib, dice 4 plum tomatoes, dice 1 small zucchini, dice 2 Yukon Gold potatoes, slice scallions.
4. Measure beans for Slow Cooker Butter Bean Minestrone. I label a zip-top bag "Slow Cooker Minestrone Bag #1"and fill with dried butter beans. On Tuesday night, I cover the beans with water to soak before slow cooking them on Wednesday.
5. Measure macaroni for Slow Cooker Chili Mac and Cheese. I label a zip-top bag with "Slow Cooker Chili Mac Bag #1" and fill with the macaroni noodles.
6. Grate cheese. The chili mac and cheese calls for a mixture of shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. I toss the cheeses together then divide between two zip-top bags, labeled "Slow Cooker Chili Mac Bag #2" and "Slow Cooker Chili Mac Bag #3". On Thursday I'll stir one bag into the mac, while I'll use the other for topping.
7. Brown sausage for Slow Cooker Breakfast Burrito Bowls. It's finally time to step to the stove. I'll use the same pan — my cast iron skillet — for all of the stovetop work and there is no need to clean it between steps. First up, browning breakfast sausage for the Slow Cooker Breakfast Burrito Bowls, which takes about 5 minutes. I remove the browned sausage crumbles to a plate to cool.
8. Sauté onion for Slow Cooker Butter Bean Minestrone and Slow Cooker Chili Mac and Cheese. I need sautéed onions for both the minestrone and the chili mac so I'll do them all at once. (Just remember to leave some diced onion raw for the burrito bowls.) Once soft and golden, I remove half of the onions to a plate and leave the rest in the pan.
9. Brown and season ground beef for Slow Cooker Chili Mac and Cheese. Finally, I add the ground beef to the skillet of remaining onions. I cook until browned and then sprinkle in the seasonings. I remove from the heat and let it cool.
10. Assemble zip-top bags for each recipe. Now that all of the elements are prepared, all that is left is to assemble the bags for each recipe. Refrigerate the dinner bags and freeze the smoothie bags.
- Strawberry Smoothie Bags: Divide frozen strawberries and whole peeled bananas between 4 zip-top bags.
- Tropical Turmeric Smoothie Bags: Fill 4 zip-top bags with frozen mango, frozen pineapple, 1/2 peeled banana, chopped ginger, and turmeric.
- Slow Cooker Whole Chicken in Coconut Milk: Fill 1 zip-top bag with sliced ginger, peeled garlic cloves, basil, and 1 whole Thai red chile.
- Slow Cooker Breakfast Burrito Bowl Bag #1: Fill 1 zip-top bag with (cooled) cooked sausage, raw onion, salsa, minced garlic, and salt.
- Slow Cooker Breakfast Burrito Bowl Bag #2: Fill 1 zip-top bag with diced potatoes.
- Slow Cooker Minestrone #2: Fill 1 zip-top bag with sautéed onion, diced carrot, diced celery.
- Slow Cooker Minestrone #3: Fill 1 zip-top bag with diced tomatoes, zucchini, pepper, ground fennel, and salt.
- Slow Cooker Chili Mac and Cheese #4: Fill 1 zip-top bag with cooled, cooked seasoned ground beef and onion mixture.
Each morning I pull 2 smoothie packs from the freezer and blend each with 1 cup unsweetened almond milk and a splash of maple syrup (my sweetener of choice). There's always a bit of smoothie left in the blender after pouring everyone a glass, so I pour that into ice pop molds for breakfast on Friday.
Lunch this week alternates between Slow Cooker Pesto Chicken and leftovers. I tuck pesto chicken and cherry tomatoes inside pitas and serve with fruit on Monday and Wednesday. After eating the Slow Cooker Coconut Milk Chicken on Monday for supper, I shred the meat and store it just barely covered with the coconut milk broth. I add a small scoop of rice and a heaping handful of mixed greens to my lunch box and top with the shredded chicken for lunch on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday's lunch is a serving of Slow Cooker Minestrone with a few slices of chewy baguette.
Dinner this week is a breeze, thanks to Power Hour. Each day before heading to preschool drop-off, I load the slow cooker with prepared ingredients.
- Monday, Whole Chicken in Coconut Milk: The zip-top bag of produce goes into the slow cooker with a whole chicken (I skipped the browning step, because Monday was a pain), a couple of cans of coconut milk, and a can of chicken broth. Chicken cooks on low for 4 to 6 hours, and just before serving I stir the lime juice into the coconut broth. I serve the chicken over rice with a generous ladle of fragrant broth and a side of mixed greens.
- Tuesday, Breakfast Burrito Bowls: In the morning, I add the prepped bags of burrito bowl ingredients to the slow cooker with a drained and rinsed can of pinto beans and a can of green chiles. I turn the slow cooker on to low and cook for 6 to 8 hours. I dice an avocado and make eggs to top dinner bowls. Before closing the kitchen for the night, I cover the dried butter beans with water to soak overnight.
- Wednesday, Butter Bean Minestrone: The soaked beans, minestrone bag #2, and broth go in the slow cooker for 6 hours on low. Minestrone bag #3 goes in for an hour while I slice up the baguette and pull out the jar of store-bought pesto to top each bowl.
- Thursday, Chili Mac and Cheese: In the morning I combine the chili mac bag #4, broth, a can of tomato paste, a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes, and drained and rinsed kidney beans in the slow cooker. I cook everything on low for 7 to 8 hours, then stir in the chili mac bags #1 and #2. Top with the cheese from bag #3 and cook for another 15 minutes. Once the cheese melts, I scoop into bowls and topped with the sliced scallions.
Once you've mastered this slow cooker plan, keep your eye out for even more Power Hours. (You can see all the plans so far here.) And if you do cook primarily slow cooker meals, please share your own favorite meals and meal prep strategies below!
Power Hour Meal Prep is the series where we help you put it all together. We show you how to eat well during the week with an hour or two of Power Hour prep over the weekend. Every plan is different; mix and match to find your own personal sweet spot.