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Too Tired to Meal Prep? Make Dinner in Your Rice Cooker.

With this countertop appliance, a delicious, one-pot dinner is never far from reach

A person pours soy sauce into their rice cooker pot as they prepare to cook dinner.
When it comes to rice cooker meals, the sky — and your imagination — is the limit.

This post originally appeared in the August 14, 2023 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

I actually loathe most dump-focused cooking. If you’re unfamiliar with that genre of food preparation, the most obvious example of its strengths and many weaknesses would be dump cakes. To me, the horror is in the name: It’s a genre of “non-recipe” cooking, popularized in mid-century America, wherein you take canned fruit or pie filling and, yes, dump it with some store-bought cake mix and, I don’t know... serve a texturally questionable dish to people you love or something. At its best, it can be a simple, efficient route to an unadorned dessert.

The problem is the approach: When people apply this technique of dumping whatever ingredients they have on hand without much thought, more often than not the act results in an inelegant, unsightly mess, bereft of technique and precision. In many ways it feels like the spiritual precursor to the viral videos of people cooking weird shit on TikTok, like Spaghetti-O pie or doing something carnal to a block of Velveeta.

However — and it pains me to say it — there can be some virtue in cooking like this.

When I don’t want to feed the exhausted meat suit that is my body, I dump whatever I have in the fridge into my rice cooker and hope for the best.

At this point, I’ve been doing it for years. I grew up with a rice cooker and have continued to use one as an adult. In the age of single-use appliances, the rice cooker is anything but. Its ability to transform a variety of grains into multiple different rice dishes (thanks to my particular rice cooker’s settings) has made it my go-to for meal prep, as I regularly batch up some rice for the week. Now I’m always ready for fried rice, stir fries, grain bowls, you name it.

One day, I felt like changing things up. If adding an onion or aromatics helps flavor a pot of beans, why not rice, too? After washing the rice and measuring out the water (with the time-tested two-finger method), I added half an onion and some smashed cloves of garlic. They provided a subtle flavor and were softened by the machine’s cooking cycle. The first few times I tried this I removed the spent veg, but eventually I just ate it up rather than creating unnecessary waste. Oniony and delicious!

As I grew more confident in making and flavoring rice this way, I experimented with some garlic, spices, a can of tomatoes, a dollop of tomato paste, and a canned chipotle. The result was a flavorful (albeit underseasoned) take on tomatoey Spanish rice, minus a few extra steps including sauteing or toasting the rice in a separate pot beforehand. Adding salt at the end absolved me of my sins of underseasoning. Ever since that success, one-pot rice cooker meals have been my infinitely riffable back-pocket move.

Adding some lap cheong (Chinese sausage), edamame, frozen corn, precooked or canned beans, or other vegetables to your rice gently cooks everything in one go, which is perfect for nights when you don’t have the energy to make anything more elaborate. Lap cheong is a great ingredient, as the heat and steam soften up the sturdier meat beautifully, and it contributes a sweet, chewy bite to the meal. Adding soy sauce, sesame oil, gochujang, vinegar, hoisin, sambal — I believe in my heart any sauce or condiment will do — before you top off with water takes the finished rice to another level. Or swap water for your preferred stock to amplify the flavor. (I make a weekly chicken stock from store-bought rotisserie chicken just for this purpose.)

And your additions don’t have to stop at aromatics or premade stocks. When it comes to rice cooker riffs, your only limitations are your own imagination, the size of your pot, and how tenuous your relationship with food safety is. I’ve even seen some TikTok creators nestle raw chicken into their rice to cook, too; I’m too nervous about contamination, but godspeed to them. I also have garnishes on deck at all times to jazz up these rice bowls. Whenever I need to boost my flavor, bring in more color, or vary the textures of a meal, I turn to pickled shallots, scallions, cucumbers, nori, you name it. Ultimately, it all feels extra luscious, extra cozy. If I have leftover proteins like steak, tofu, or chicken, I just throw one on top. Even when the resulting dish might not be magazine cover-worthy, it’s still alluring enough to stoke my appetite, a delicious, reliable canvas for low-effort cooking.

The difference between this approach and other dump-based preparations lies in the results: In this style of one-pot cooking, each of the ingredients is balanced in each bite — the resulting meal feels nourishing, wholesome, and unrushed. I can’t help but extol its chief virtue: As a gentle cooking technique, it never fails to provide high-yield nourishment on days when putting on the figurative oxygen mask feels like a monumental task.

Of course, I don’t claim to have discovered anything new with this method. I’ve seen social media creators embrace similar methods by steaming salmon, using tinned sardines, and even forgoing rice altogether to make dumpling noodle soup. With this style of cooking, as long as you have the right approach, the sky’s the limit.