How I Prep a Week of Back-to-School Slow Cooker Dinners
Back-to-school season is both wonderful and overwhelming. Summer break throws my family’s dinner schedule all out of whack, so the return to routine is welcome — but there seems to be so much planned during the first few weeks of school that it’s hard to find our rhythm. To get us into a groove, my family is relying on the slow cooker and two hours of weekend meal prep to make the transition back to school easier.
This Power Hour Meal Prep will set you up with a quick breakfast that everyone loves, lunches for grown-ups, and five dinners that require minimal weekday prep. It works well for any hectic week, whether it’s back-to-school time or you just have a lot on your plate.
My Meal Prep Goals
- Breakfast: A quick, filling option that the kids can feed themselves and everyone likes enough to eat over five days.
- Lunch: Nourishing, vegetable-forward lunches for myself and my husband.
- Dinner: There’s very little time between school pick-up, PTA events, and sports this week, so we need dinners that we can set up in the morning and eat at 5 p.m. or start in the late afternoon and come home to after soccer.
- Nutritional Goals: This week’s meals are omnivorous, although we don’t eat meat every day. There’s an intentional focus on fiber to keep everyone fueled.
Meal Prep Plan Snapshot
- Feeds: Four people (2 adults and 2 kids) for breakfast and dinner; two for lunch.
- Prep Time: About 2 hours.
- Meals Covered: About 80% (no weekend meals).
- Weeknight Cooking Required? Meal components are prepped, and dinners require between 10 and 30 minutes of cooking in the morning or afternoon to pull everything together.
My Meal Plan
These are all the ingredients required to cook through this meal plan, but check your fridge, freezer, and pantry before shopping — you’ll likely have staples on hand you don’t need to buy.
- Produce: Fruit for overnight oats, 4 medium carrots, 2 celery stalks, 4 yellow onions, 1/2 small head Savoy or green cabbage, 1 pound shredded coleslaw mix, 5 ounces fresh baby spinach, 9 garlic cloves, 1 knob ginger, 1 sprig fresh rosemary, 1 sprig fresh thyme, 1 sprig fresh oregano, 1 bunch cilantro, 1 medium zucchini, 4 pounds russet potatoes (about 8 medium), 3 bell peppers, 3 scallions, 2 limes, 1 avocado
- Meat & seafood: 1 (3- to 4-pound) boneless pork shoulder or pork butt, 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 6), 4 ounces pancetta, 2 pounds uncooked Italian or bratwurst sausages
- Dairy: 2 cups milk, 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 1 cup shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese
- Dry goods: 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats, chia seeds (optional), ground cinnamon, ground cumin, chili powder, dried thyme, 2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, 1 (22- to 25-ounce) jar marinara sauce, 1 (16-ounce) jar sliced pickled jalapeños, white rice, tamari or soy sauce, honey, maple syrup, rice vinegar, 1 quart low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth, 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk, all-purpose flour, whole-grain mustard
- Bakery: 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas, 10 hot dog buns or small sandwich rolls
- Freezer: 1 Parmesan cheese rind, 1 (20-ounce) or 2 (10-ounce) bags fresh cheese tortellini
- Other: 1 cup beer
Power Hour: How I Get the Prep Done
- Start Vegetable Minestrone in the slow cooker. This soup takes a few hours to cook, so getting it started first means it can cook during meal prep and into the afternoon with zero hands-on help.
- Chop vegetables for Upside-Down Taco Bowls. Prepping this lunch is as easy as opening a bag of coleslaw and chopping some green onions. I like to mix this base up and divide between containers. You can also halve avocados and put them in a storage container, then eat them with this lunch.
- Make dressing for Upside-Down Taco Bowls. Store the dressing in an airtight container and leave the salads undressed until you’re ready to eat these bowls.
- Slice the peppers and onions for the Slow Cooker Sausages. I add the peppers, onions, and sausages to a large zip-top bag and keep it in the fridge, so that all I have to do day-of is dump everything into the slow cooker.
- Peel and chops the potatoes, onions, and garlic for the Slow Cooker Potato Soup. Add everything except the cooking liquid, evaporated milk, and potatoes to a large zip-top bag. I had some concerns that the potatoes would brown while they waited to be cooked, so I placed them in their own bag in a brine of water and salt, then drained them before cooking.
- Combine jalapeño juice, syrup, and pork for Pulled Pork Tacos. This takes very little time, and makes these tacos even better because the pork pieces marinate in the cooking ingredients.
- Make sauce and prep chicken for Teriyaki Chicken. Almost everything but the cornstarch can be combined for this chicken in a large zip-top bag for easy storage and prep.
- Mix up and store the Overnight Oats. I doubled this recipe and made smaller portions for my kids and regular portions for myself and my husband.
- Add zucchini to minestrone and pack up meal prep. I’m storing the minestrone in a large container in the fridge, but individual jars or microwave-safe containers would make this easier to reheat at the office.
My favorite discovery this week: My whole family will eat Overnight Oats on repeat for a whole week! I’d long assumed I needed a different breakfast every day.
Both my husband and I ended up eating Slow Cooker Minestrone on Sunday night after our meal prep session and several days during the week, and we still have leftovers! Next time I’ll either halve the recipe or plan to freeze some for future dinners.
Upside-Down Taco Bowls with Pulled Pork Taco leftovers is possibly the best lunch I’ve eaten all year, and it was so easy that I kind of wish I had bought ingredients to make more midweek.
Monday: One-Hour Cheesy Spinach Slow Cooker Tortellini was the perfect first-day-back-to-school dinner. Because the kids had a half day to start, we were home in plenty of time to throw this together while we went through the headache-inducing first-day packet. I had to recycle 27 pieces of paper (only 2 of which were actually important), but hey, dinner was delicious!
Tuesday: The Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Tacos were the highlight of my week, both for dinner and for lunches, and my husband asked that we eat it again soon.
Wednesday: The Slow Cooker Teriyaki Chicken actually got put in the freezer — I forgot that we had a school fundraiser the first week back. But what I love about slow cooker meals that are built in a bag and cooked later is that they are already freezer-ready! If plans change, you can freeze them for another week (it’s like a little present to yourself).
Thursday: I was admittedly a little nervous about how the Easy Slow Cooker Potato Soup meal prep would hold up, so let me assure you it was fine. The potatoes were a little brown on Thursday morning, but after cooking you wouldn’t have known it.
Friday: Slow Cooker Sausages with Peppers and Onions was actually cooked entirely by my husband and daughter while I was out at a meeting that ran late. Another boon for meal prep waiting in the fridge.
At the end of the week, not having to think about meals was the best way to start the school year. There are a few things I might tweak going forward (swapping the minestrone for something faster-cooking and making more of those taco bowls, for starters), but I was thankful for a stocked fridge and my slow cooker this week.
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.
This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: How I Prep a Week of Back-to-School Slow Cooker Dinners