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10 Dishes to Make in Your Slow Cooker

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I'm a busy mom of two, working full time and trying to keep up with sports practices, school functions and business meetings. While I love to collect recipes and dream of home-cooked meals, I have to face the reality that cooking takes precious time. That's why I love to read these magic words in a recipe: "Throw it all in a slow cooker, cover and cook for 8 to 10 hours."

The slow cooker is, quite simply, my hero. With so little effort on my part, it delivers a delicious-smelling house when I return home from work, a yummy home-cooked meal waiting to be dished out, an easy clean up and a kitchen that has not been over-heated by the oven.

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Almost any type of food can be made in the slow cooker, but cooking times vary depending on the dish. Here are 10 things you can do with this appliance; run an Internet search for exact recipes:

Stew: This is one of the most common dishes to make in a slow cooker, as well as one of the best. The smell of a stew bubbling all day, greeting you as you walk in from a long day at work, can't be beat. On the way home, pick up a fresh loaf of crusty bread and a bag of mixed greens, and dinner is ready.

Beans: If you asked dietitians to name the healthiest food in the world, chances are many would say beans. Dried beans are also one of the best buys in the grocery store - so much nutrition for your buck! The slow cooker is perfect for cooking dried beans, because they demand a longer cooking time to make them tender.

Apple butter: Despite its name, this dish is not full of fat - and yet, apple butter is a great replacement for regular butter on muffins and toast. It's also great to sub in for syrup on waffles. Just throw peeled apples with some cinnamon and sugar into the cooker, add a little water or apple cider and walk away.

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Oatmeal: The slow cooker can be put to work overnight, too! Imagine waking up to the smell of apple-cinnamon oatmeal, or perhaps cherry-almond or even pumpkin-spice. Mix regular steel-cut oats with skim milk (or soy or almond), toss in the fruit and spices and let it cook while you sleep. This recipe could burn if left for too long, but some slow cookers come with timers to help delay the "start" time.

Artichokes: Artichokes take a decent amount of time to boil, which tends to keep them out of many family's dinner rotation. However, they can easily be steamed in the slow cooker. Place them on low heat in the morning with some liquid, and they'll be ready to go for dinner.

Caramelized onions: In my opinion, everything is better when you add caramelized onions - burgers, sandwiches, pizza, ice cream (well, maybe not everything). Making them in the slow cooker is a snap, and it also gives you some leftover liquid that you can save to make the next item: homemade stock!

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Stock: Keep leftover chicken bones, clippings of hearty vegetables like carrots and celery and leftover liquid from dishes like caramelized onions in your freezer until you're ready. Then dump all the ingredients in your cooker with some more water, and simmer away.

Bread: It takes an hour or two to "bake" bread dough in the crockpot, and you'll need to use your oven at the very end if you want a browned crust. But the result is a house filled with the smell of baked bread, and the bonus of very little oven use heating up your house.

Pulled pork: One of the best ways to use your slow cooker is to "cook once, use twice." Pulled pork provides the beginning ingredient for several quick dishes. I use it for sandwiches, tacos and simply on its own with a bit of barbeque sauce.

Dessert: Sometimes, the key to keeping them home for dinner is having a great dessert. Try your slow cooker to make bread pudding, bananas foster or even chocolate cake.

[See Video: Top Chefs Talk Healthy Eating.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.

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