Cook­ers can kick fast-food habit


Austin American-Statesman - - FOOD & LIFE - Ad­die Broyles

Do you have a slow cooker gath­er­ing dust in your pantry?

Up un­til a few years ago, Beth Rowan cer­tainly did. The North­west Aus­ti­nite and her hus­band had re­ceived a slow cooker as a wed­ding gift 20 years ago, but like many well-in­ten­tioned kitchen ap­pli­ances, it sat mostly un­used un­til Rowan de­cided she needed help get­ting a health­ful din­ner on the ta­ble for her busy fam­ily of four.

Shuf­fling mid­dle school­ers from school to their var­i­ous classes and meet­ings didn’t leave much time for mak­ing din­ner, but Rowan re­fused to give into the eas­i­est op­tion that she saw many fam­i­lies re­ly­ing on: a spin through the drive-thru.

She pulled out the slow cooker and watched it trans­form dried beans and in­ex­pen­sive cuts of meat into health­ful meals that ev­ery­one in her fam­ily seemed to en­joy.

As she started cal­cu­lat­ing how much time, ef­fort and money it cost to make meals in the slow cooker, she re­al­ized how much more food you could get for your dol­lar — and for rel­a­tively lit­tle ef­fort — from a slow cooker than at a fast-food restau­rant.

She could feed her en­tire fam­ily for sev­eral days for what it costs to buy four combo meals at $5 each. “I re­al­ized that peo­ple spend so much money on fast food and don’t get much for it,” she says.

This isn’t news to fam­i­lies who reg­u­larly use slow cook­ers, but Rowan knew that many Austin fam­i­lies on a bud­get might not even have

a slow cooker, must less recipes and knowl­edge of how to use them.

With some en­cour­age­ment from her hus­band, Rip, Rowan started a Face­book group called Slow Cook­ing in a Fast­Food World and ap­plied for a $1,000 grant from the Austin chap­ter of the Awe­some Foun­da­tion, a non­profit that gives “a mi­cro-ge­nius grant for flashes of mi­cro-bril­liance,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

In May, she won the grant and was able to pur­chase 30 slow cook­ers to give away to low-in­come fam­i­lies in Austin.

Over the sum­mer, she devel­oped sev­eral weeks’ worth of meal plans that not only guide cooks on how and when to pre­pare the in­gre­di­ents and din­ners, but also how to in­cor­po­rate the leftovers into other meals dur­ing the week.

Rowan wanted to make sure most of the recipes were for dishes that her own chil­dren, 11-year-old Leah and Claire, 14, would like, and her friends of­fered to help test the meal plans to make sure they worked and were easy to fol­low. (Rowan even hosted a cook-off where she asked friends to bring their best egg casseroles pre­pared in a slow cooker.)

For ex­am­ple, one meal plan calls for mak­ing pulled pork with coleslaw on Mon­day, pork ta­cos on Tues­day, lemon chicken on Wed­nes­day, chicken fried rice on Thurs­day, Moroc­can chick­peas on Fri­day, fol- lowed by mine­strone soup on Satur­day.

The cost for all the in­gre­di­ents for that week of din­ners? About $30.

“To think that you could buy food for a week” for that amount, she says. “It’s pretty amaz­ing.”

This fall, she teamed up with Dee Gon­za­les, a par­ent sup­port spe­cial­ist at Keal­ing Mid­dle School, who helped spread the word about Rowan’s project.

At a fam­ily fair in Novem­ber, Rowan gave away 15 slow cook­ers to fam­i­lies that Gon­za­les had helped iden­tify as ideal re­cip­i­ents.

“So many of our par­ents have to work two jobs,” Gon­za­les says. “They need to leave food al­ready pre­pared for the older chil­dren, and with the slow cooker, they can uti­lize in­ex­pen­sive cuts of meats and still make dishes that have nu­tri­tional value.”

In­stead of eat­ing high­calo­rie, low-nu­tri­tive snacks or mi­crowaved food — or not eat­ing at all un­til the par­ent comes home late — the kids can have a full meal that’s ready to eat when they get home from school.

An­other ben­e­fit is that be­cause most slow cooker dishes don’t re­quire ac­tive cook­ing over di­rect heat or flame, they are a safe alternative to tra­di­tional cook­ing for chil­dren who are old enough to help put the meals to­gether but not old enough to cook food on the stove.

Gon­za­les says she’s al­ready seen an im­pact on the fam­i­lies who re­ceived the slow cook­ers last month.

In­stead of eat­ing just pork or beef, some of them are eat­ing more chicken dishes, which are typ­i­cally lower in fat. Gon­za­les says that in the next few months, she hopes to give slow cook­ers to fam­i­lies in some of the ele­men­tary schools that feed into Keal­ing.

Rowan’s project still is small, and she has no in­ten­tion of leav­ing her day job — she’s an ed­i­tor at a lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion pub­lish­ing house — but one way that she plans to build her slow cooker com­mu­nity is to put to use some of the many un­used slow cook­ers that are likely sit­ting in homes all over Cen­tral Texas by set­ting up drop-off lo­ca­tions around Austin.

If you have a gen­tly used (or new but un­needed) slow cooker that you’d like to do­nate it, just bring it to one of the fol­low­ing lo­cally owned re­tail out­lets and tell them that you’d like to do­nate it to Slow Cook­ing in a Fast-Food World: Foodie Kids (3742 Far West Blvd., 3463333), Serve: Gourmet Gad­gets and Goods (241 W. Third St., 480-0171) and Fara­day’s Kitchen Store (1501 RM 620 North, 266-5666).

If you’d like to con­tact Rowan about help­ing put slow cook­ers in the hands of fam­i­lies who need them or would like to try some of the slow cooker meal plans that she’s cre­ated for the project, email her at slow­cooking­i­nafast­food­ or go to Face­­Cook­ing In A Fast Food­World.

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