With the school year beginning, families will be rushed more than they have been in the past few months. Getting nutritious meals on the table for dinner can be a challenge. Think about getting the slow cooker out and use it for preparing tasty, nutritious meals.

Slow cookers are great because they essentially do the cooking while you are away. Put the ingredients in the slow cooker, leave for work, and come home to a great-smelling, mouth-watering dinner.

By following some basic safety rules, it can be a fool-proof method of cooking.

First, know the differences between types of cookers. As defined by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, a slow cooker is a countertop appliance that cooks foods slowly at a low temperature, generally between 170 degrees F and 280 degrees F. Heating coils in the outer shell stay on continuously to heat the crockery liner.

The direct heat and steam generated by the slow cooker, combined with the long cooking time, make it a safe form of home food preparation.

However, another kind of countertop cookerócalled an intermittent cookerómay cause some consumer confusion. This kind of cooker has a heating element in the base. The heat cycles on and off during cooking in order to keep the temperature constant.

If a cooker has a dial that shows temperatures in degrees, it is probably an intermittent cooker. An intermittent cooker is NOT recommended for slow cooker recipes.

Slow cookers that have not been used for a while need to be checked for accuracy before they are used. Follow this testing method:

Fill the cooker with 2 quarts of water.

Set the cooker on low and heat the water for eight hours.

Using an accurate food thermometer, check the water temperature. Be sure to do this step quickly as the temperature in the cooker will drop 10 to 15 degrees when the lid is off.

The water temperature should be AT LEAST 185 degrees F. If the temperature is less

than 185 degrees F, the slow cooker is not safe to use and should be replaced.

Cautious use of a slow cooker does not stop once its accuracy is established.

Be sure the slow cooker, utensils, and work area are clean before adding recipe

ingredients. ALWAYS wash hands before handling any food.

Keep food safety practices in mind. Perishable foods should remain refrigerated until they are being prepared. Constant refrigeration before use helps keep down populations of bacteria in food.

Defrost meat or poultry BEFORE putting it into a slow cooker for cooking.

Use the slow cooker to prepare foods with a high liquid content, such as soup, chili, or stew or meats with liquid.

Cut foods into small pieces BEFORE placing it in the slow cooker. Do NOT attempt to cook large pieces of meat or chicken in a slow cooker.

Fill the cooker no more than one-half to two-thirds full. Put vegetables on the bottom; add the meat, and then the liquid.

Make sure the cooker is on the right setting for the amount of time needed for the food to cook. DO NOT LIFT THE LID DURING THE COOKING PROCESS.

If you are not at home and the power goes out before the cooking is complete, throw the food away. If you are at home, finish cooking by some other method, such as a gas stove or an outdoor grill. If alternate cooking methods are not available, throw the food away.

With a food thermometer, make sure the dishes are a safe temperature. For poultry, that is 170 degrees F for breasts and 180 degrees for thighs. Ground meat is done at 165 degrees F, roasts at 160 degrees F for medium and 170 degrees F for well done.

Store leftovers in shallow containers in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking.

Some tips for easier slow cooking and clean-up are:

Before starting food preparation, spray the inside of the cooker with cooking spray for easier cleanup.

Processed cheese usually melts better than cheddar cheese.

Browning meat before adding it to the cooker adds flavor and removes some of the fat.

Ground meat should be cooked thoroughly and drained before being put in the slow cooker.

If possible, add seasonings near the end of the cooking cycle to preserve as much of their flavor as possible.

So, plan to serve nutritious, healthy meals to your family, even when your schedule gets even busier!