In the freezer section of the grocery store, I recently came across several different brands of frozen crockpot meals. Normally I am not a huge consumer of pre-prepared frozen meals; in my opinion homemade cooking is worth the investment of time, every time. But I thought I might give these meals a try for the benefit of the column, and to see if there was a way to make slow cooking, generally a fairly easy process, even easier.
These meals are conveniently packaged and labeled as complete crockpot meals. They even make use of the Rival crockpot brand name with a photograph of the Rival crockpot on the cover filled to the brim, with recipes featuring All American favorites such as Chicken and Dumplings, Beef Stroganoff, and Hearty Beef Stew. I thought, what the heck, I may as well give it a try. My cooking time HAS been rather limited lately since we adopted a golden retriever-poodle mix puppy and she has become the focus of most of my free time. In fact she has finally settled down and is peacefully sleeping at my feet as I write this article.
The main savings of time for these meals is in the shopping and prep work. So in total you most likely would save about 20 minutes between making a list, gathering ingredients, and preparing them (I am taking into account shortcuts such as baby carrots and pre-cut stew meat that would allow for about 10 minutes total prep and measure time for a basic recipe, and 10 minutes of list making/shopping time), versus the one minute to select the crockpot bagged meal out of the supermarket freezer. The cooking time for both the homemade and frozen meals would be about the same.
The bagged meals consist of meat and vegetables mixture with a smaller internal bag of sauce and another sealed pouch containing a starch such as dumplings, noodles, or potatoes. Each bag contains eight servings— smallish 2/3rd cup servings at about at 200 calories each. The directions are fairly foolproof allowing a pretty wide margin for error. The final ingredient (the starch) is added 30 minutes before mealtime. It really doesn’t get much easier. However on some of the meals, I am not so sure the taste stacked up to the well rounded taste of a great slow cooked meal made from scratch, and was more akin to any other frozen meal, slow cooked or not. It seems that part of the appeal of these meals then, is in the magic and romance of the idea of slow cooking.
There are several different frozen slow cooker meal brands but the one with the most appeal to me was the Marie Callender brand. This brand had more “real” ingredients, less sodium and no trans fats. It also used higher quality meat that tasted how it was supposed to taste. For a couple of dollars more I would say it is worth the money. However if additives are a concern, keep in mind that all brands contained some form of extra processing in addition to a less than desirable ratio of vegetables to other ingredients; the best way to eliminate those concerns is to make it yourself.
You can also re-create the ease of these meals with more of a homemade flavor by simplifying as much prepwork as possible. For example you can purchase bags of pre-cut soup veggies and red potatoes in the produce section, cubed stew or pre-cut chicken and packaged seasonings—onion soup mix is always a favorite (if you are trying to go the all natural route I would suggest any of the great spice mixes made by Penzey’s).
Another way to give frozen crockpot meals a fresher taste is to build upon the concept from the popular TV food channel show of combining premade foods with some of your own prepwork. . . maybe add some chopped parsley as a garnish at the end or add in some additional fresh veggies, placing your own personal stamp on dinner.
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