Have you ever had a slow-cooker fantasy? You know the one, where you imagine walking into your house after a long day at work, push open the door, and are immediately hit by the smell of a homemade meal simmering away? Maybe it’s beef stew, a vegetable curry, pulled pork, or butternut squash soup? Me, too, and I don’t think we’re alone. There is something magical about a nutritious, affordable, warm, home-cooked dinner ready and waiting for you. Even if you did all the dinner planning, preparation, and filled that slow cooker mere hours before, the reality that dinner cooked itself is never anything less than extraordinary.

Slowing down is what we’re all after right now, and while I won’t call slow cooking lazy, I certainly wouldn’t call it strenuous (little prep, almost no clean up). If you want to feed the football fans swarming your sofa, stock the freezer with homemade goodies, prepare a week’s worth of lunches, or cook for a potluck jam, a slow cooker will become your fast friend.

I find most people fall into one of three slow-cooker categories: newbies (never touched the thing), one-trick ponies (make one or two things in the slow cooker but nothing more), and aficionados (95 percent of their meals come out of a slow cooker). I am somewhere in between – I use a slow cooker every couple of weeks, have a handful of go-to recipes, but often try new things. I’ve had highs and lows. When my husband was in graduate school we hosted another couple for dinner. One of the guests was vegetarian, and not wanting to slave over a complicated dish and serve dinner at 9 p.m. after a long day at work, I decided to make an Indian eggplant entrée in the slow cooker. Needless to say, it was a disaster. Despite being on high for more than seven hours, the eggplant was tough and soggy – and we all know what tough and soggy eggplant tastes (and smells!) like. But I was not deterred. Since then I have made a variety of successful slow-cooker meals and have learned a few things along the way.

In my opinion, attempting to make lasagna, a cake, noodle dish, rice bake, or pasta dinner of any kind in a slow cooker is not a great idea. Besides feeling unnatural, these items tend to either overcook and get soggy or undercook and stay crunchy in areas. On the other hand, I’ve had great success in preparing almost any cut of meat (a slow cooker is an especially great tool to help tenderize less expensive cuts), dense root vegetables, beans, chickpeas, rich curries, soothing soups, and infused drinks like spiced or mulled cider.

Not surprisingly, the quality of ingredients matters. A slow cooker filled with canned soups and frozen vegetables is going to be much less exciting and nutritionally dense than one packed with fresh, seasonal vegetables, high-quality meat, and aromatic spices. Much of what is growing outside right now is perfect for a slow-cooked meal – beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, fennel, kale, leeks, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, and squash can all be worked into stews, ragus, and roasts.

I encourage you to skip the recipes that suggest sautéing onions, browning meat, or doing any other time-consuming steps before filling the slow-cooker pot. I think the beauty of a slow-cooked meal is the ease of preparation without having to do much (okay, any) cooking on the stovetop. Simple toppings pulled from the fridge and pantry help too – things like fresh herbs, lemon wedges, yogurt, salsa, toasted nuts, sliced avocado, and shredded cheese improve almost any plate.

On average, a new slow cooker costs around $40, with some less expensive (mostly smaller) options and some big, fancy models offering a lot of bells and whistles. I use a ten-year-old basic machine my mother-in-law gave me years ago after a very specific birthday request. If you don’t want to buy one brand new, I often see perfectly good slow cookers available at Island thrift stores and yard sales. In any case, I am willing to bet that any amount you spend on a slow cooker will be quickly saved by cooking more at home and avoiding the dreaded take-out trap.

Start here with my recipe for Moroccan Chicken Thighs with Sweet Potato, serve it to friends, drop some off with a neighbor, and wait for the flurry of compliments to arrive. This dinner tastes and looks like it took blood, sweat, and tears, but your slow-cooker secret is safe with me.