Winter is the perfect time to experiment with a slow cooker. Why? Picture this: you take just 20 minutes to prep ingredients in the morning, turn the slow cooker on, go to work, and voila!...smells of a home-cooked masterpiece permeating the house when you walk in.

Slow cookers not only provide the perfect medium for creating cozy comfort food, but are also easy to sneak lots of good nutrition into- veggies, beans, lentils, lean meats, you name it. Test a new recipe or convert an old family favorite using today’s tips.

First things first:

• Many slow cooker recipes call for chicken, beef, or pork and the slow cooker is one place where it is okay to sacrifice quality. A seemingly tougher cut of meat softens right up after hours in a slow cooker.

• First, if you’re using it, meat should be completely thawed. Next, employ fat-cutting strategies by removing skin and trimming visible fat.

• Increase the surface area of meats to ensure food safe temperatures by cutting them into smaller pieces. Hearty bite-sized chunks work well for most recipes.

• Next, season and brown your meat in a skillet for just a few minutes. This will enhance flavor and eye appeal and decrease clumping of ground meats. If you’re short on time, meat will cook to temperature without pre-browning, but this one extra step is so worth it.

• Fill power is important so choose your bowl size accordingly. The rule of thumb is to fill the slow cooker no less than half  full and no more than three-quarters full.

• Finally, there is a method to the madness in terms of what goes where. Typically, recipes instruct you to put the veggies and spices in first to coat the bottom, and then the meat will rest on top.

• Now, check the clock and determine how much time you have. You can turn up the heat (from low to high) and cut the cook time in half without sacrificing flavor. For example, if the chili calls for seven hours on low but you’re short on time, then kick it up to high for four hours and call it dinner. There is so much moisture and even heat distribution that burning is a very minimal risk.

• Once the heat is on and the timer is set, walk away! Avoid the urge to lift the lid — every time you do adds more than 20 minutes to the timer.

The final hours:

• Spice it up! Bold flavors left in the pot too long (bay leaf, for example) can be overpowering, while others like dried oregano or basil tend to lose their edge (both flavor and color) over time. Find the happy medium by adding spices for just the last 2-3 hours.

• Stay curdle free by adding heat-sensitive dairy products (lowfat cheeses or sour cream) in the last hour or two of cooking.

• Check the consistency. If you’ve got too much liquid, go ahead and take the lid off to let some evaporate off.

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a best selling author and the creator of "The F-Factor Diet", an innovative nutritional program she has used for over a decade to provide thousands with the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, and improved health and well-being. In January 2011 Tanya launched the F-Factor food line with the largest natural foods company in the US, the Hain Celestial group. She is thrilled to be able to offer the highest fiber products on the market to date. Become a fan of Tanya on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian in New York City and the author of two bestselling diet books: The F-Factor Diet and The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear – with Fiber.

Subscribe to Tanya’s FREE Weekly Newsletter and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. To learn more about Tanya’s private nutrition counseling services visit www.ffactor.com.