Of the many appliances you might find in the average kitchen, two in particular are capable of helping you make healthy meals with a minimum of fuss. The slow cooker and the Instant Pot can both make your life a lot simpler and maybe just a little bit healthier too.
The slow cooker, also called a Crock-Pot, is an old, favorite timesaver first introduced in 1940. “As the name implies, a slow cooker cooks food on lower heat over hours,” says Sue Heikkinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes care and education specialist based in Colorado who works with MyNetDiary, a calorie and exercise tracker launched in 2007 that’s based in New Jersey. “Slow cookers are well-loved for preparing easy one-pot meals” and have long been a staple on kitchen counters across America.
One of the most loved aspects of the slow cooker is how hands-off it is. You just chop up your ingredients, toss them in and let the machine take care of the rest. Roughly 4 hours to 8 hours later, your meal is ready, depending on the recipe. It’s easy to set the cooker before you head off to work, and when you get home, dinner will be ready and the house smells delicious.
Much more recently, in 2010, the Instant Pot, a type of electric pressure cooker, moved into a similar space on kitchen counters. A multi-function cooker, the Instant Pot is a pressure cooker (which uses pressure to cook foods faster), slow cooker, steamer and saute machine all rolled into one. “While Instant Pot is the most well-known brand, there are other electric pressure cookers on the market,” Heikkinen says.
Unlike a slow cooker, an Instant Pot can have your meal ready much faster and also with minimal work from you. If you don’t have a long lead time to let a meal bubble away all day in the slow cooker, the Instant Pot might be the better option.
Which Kitchen Appliance Is Better?
Each machine can greatly reduce the amount of time you spend preparing healthy, home-cooked meals. While there are some similarities, they are quite different. Heikkinen recommends getting “both, if your budget and storage space allow.” And she notes that “you can’t go wrong with either appliance. If you’re on the fence, ask your friends and family which they use or even ask to borrow one for a test run.”
If you’ve only got room for one, consider what you’re trying to do in the kitchen and what kinds of meals you most prefer.
Heikkinen lists a few things you should think about when making a selection:
Slow cookers are tried and true and super safe to use. This can be an advantage over the newer Instant Pot, which some people are concerned about because of the inclusion of the pressure cooker. “While Instant Pots are safe and relatively easy to use, some people may be frightened by the idea of cooking under pressure or intimidated by the number of features and options,” Heikkinen says.
To be clear, Instant Pots and pressure cookers are entirely safe when used correctly, but for some people, getting comfortable using them may take some time. “Slow cooker operation is as simple as can be,” Heikkinen says. It’s hard to mess up a meal in a slow cooker, and that simplicity can be very appealing for busy people who don’t want to have to spend a lot of time learning how to operate a new device.
Think about how you plan to use the machine. If you want to make big pots of stew that you’ll freeze for later, you might want a slow cooker. For quick, weeknight meals, the Instant Pot may be the better option. “You can purchase up to 8-quart capacity Instant Pots and slow cookers, but you can’t fill the Instant Pot more than two-thirds full when pressure cooking. This may make the slow cooker a better choice if you want to cook large batches of your favorite recipe,” Heikkinen says.
Meal Planning Skills
” If you aren’t a planner, the Instant Pot wins out,” Heikkinen says.
If you forgot to take a roast out of the freezer to thaw, you can safely cook frozen meat in an Instant Pot under pressure, but you can’t do that in a slow cooker because “the slow cooker wouldn’t maintain the meat in a safe temperature range, putting you at risk for food-borne illness.”
In addition, “many slow cooker recipes call for an overnight soak of dried beans, but some Instant Pot recipes allow you to skip this step.” In short, you need to be able to plan ahead a little bit with a slow cooker, but that’s less of an issue with the Instant Pot.
If a parent or grandparent was a keen user of a slow cooker for family meals or holidays, then you probably have some positive associations with this appliance that might sway you towards the Crock-Pot. “The nostalgic element and association with comfort food that comes with slow cookers is appealing,” Heikkinen says. “I love seeing the slow cooker on the counter and getting whiffs of something yummy when I walk by.”
You should also consider whether you want to prep your meal in the morning and have it cook all day — or have a shorter timeline between prep and eating. If you want to prep and eat right away, the Instant Pot can do that.
“Though it can drastically reduce cooking time, the Instant Pot isn’t exactly instant. It takes up to 15 minutes for the Instant Pot to reach pressure and up to 30 minutes to naturally release pressure after cooking,” so you’re still going to have some lead time Heikkinen says. But this is a much shorter timeline than the several hours most slow cooking meals require.
Heikkinen also notes that if you’re the type of cook who likes to be very hands-on and “continually testing and adjusting seasoning along the way, you may prefer slow cooking techniques instead of pressure cooking. There’s no peeking allowed when pressure cooking,” but you can easily check on your meal in the slow cooker.
Minimizing energy use is another consideration when choosing an appliance,” Heikkinen says, and here the Instant Pot is the winner because pressure cooking speeds the timeline and uses less energy than slow cooking.
When it comes right down to it, Heikkinen says the versatility of the Instant Pot wins out over the other factors if you don’t have the space for both machines. She says she recently purchased one for her daughter to use in her college apartment because of her space constraints. “The Instant Pot is truly a multi-purpose wonder, taking up less valuable space and dirtying fewer dishes.”
[READ: Heart-Healthy Soups.]
Healthy Cooking in Slow Cookers and Instant Pots
Heikkinen notes that you can amp up your healthy eating routine with both of these machines, as they’re “ideal companions for healthy cooking. Traditional slow cooker recipes such as soups, stews and chilis allow you to easily plan complete meals featuring lean meat, legumes (beans and peas) and lots of veggies. The Instant Pot makes it easy to cook whole grains and legumes — foods most of us don’t eat often enough.”
What’s more, by making it easier to get dinner on the table, Heikkinen says these machines can help reduce your “reliance on take-out and restaurant meals, supporting your healthy eating goals.” Reducing the amount of time you’re needed to actually cook a meal can also free up more time to do other things like exercise or plan meals for the coming week.
Both appliances make it easier for you to eat healthfully the next day if you’re at work. It’s easier to resist a coworker’s invitation to the sub shop across the street if you have delicious leftovers waiting for you in the fridge in the office.
“Most anything you make in your Instant Pot or slow cooker will be fantastic as leftovers, whether for lunch the next day or stowed away in the freezer for a busy weeknight dinner,” Heikkinen says. This can save you a lot of money and calories.
For the easiest and most nutritious meals, look for soups, stews and chili recipes, Heikkinen says. These meals tend to be “exceedingly flexible and forgiving, making them ideal cooking methods to help novice cooks gain confidence in the kitchen.”
Slow Cooker Chipotle Chicken
Heikkinen offers this MyNetDiary slow cooker chipotle chicken recipe, saying it’s “as quick and easy as it gets. You can serve the chicken whole or shred it and use it for tacos.”
Prep time: 10 minutes. Cooking time: 2 hours.
Calories: 149 calories per serving.
— 16 oz boneless, skinless, raw chicken breast.
— 1/2 tbsp chili powder.
— 1/2 tsp garlic powder.
— 1 tsp ground or whole cumin seed.
— 1/2 tsp black pepper.
— 1/4 tsp onion powder.
— 1/4 tsp red pepper or cayenne spice.
— 1/4 tsp dried, ground oregano.
— 1/2 tsp table salt.
— 1/2 tsp paprika, smoked or Hungarian.
— 15 oz can of diced tomatoes. (Opt for the no salt added variety to reduce your sodium intake.)
— Place the chicken in the slow cooker.
— Combine the seasonings and sprinkle over the chicken.
— Drain the tomatoes and pour over the chicken.
— Cover and cook on high for 2 hours or on low for 4 hours.
— Check to make sure chicken is no longer pink in center.
— Shred the chicken, if desired.
Tip: Garnish with romaine lettuce and sliced jalapeno peppers.
Instant Pot White Bean and Kale Soup
This white bean and kale soup is a nutrition-packed and hearty option that’s also vegan, Heikkinen says.
Prep time: 5 minutes. Cook time: 50 minutes.
Calories: 316 per serving.
— 1 lb dried white beans.
— 2 stalks celery chopped.
— 1 medium onion peeled and diced.
— 1 garlic clove minced.
— 3 cups chopped kale.
— 1 tsp salt.
— 1/2 tsp black pepper.
— 6 cups vegetable broth.
— 1 tbsp olive oil.
— In a large bowl, soak beans overnight in water deep enough to cover them completely.
— Drain the beans and add them to the Instant Pot.
— Add all other ingredients, close the lid and set steam release to sealing. Press the manual button and adjust the time for 20 minutes.
— When the timer beeps, let pressure release naturally, which will take about 20 minutes.
— Remove the lid and stir. Serve hot.
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