My little lady is a huge fan of pasta and so am I. Both of us love the taste and texture of pasta and we will happily eat it any time. As a busy mom I rely on pasta to assist me in getting a quick and healthy dinner onto the table that pleases everybody in the family. Pasta is such a kid-friendly starch that Eliana will try anything that is accompanied by this magic ingredient. It is easy to mix with many pantry staples I already have on hand or want to experiment with when playing around in the kitchen. I like to use whole-wheat pasta as the base ingredient upon which to build a nourishing, veggie-packed meal. In my experience, mixing vegetables, an ingredient many kids shy away from, with more agreeable components such as cheese and pasta makes the veggies harder to resist. For as much as a “good eater” my daughter is, she has her moments of total toddler-ness and claims not to like a dish before she’s even tasted it, much less seen it. Everybody wins with a dish like this Baked Veggie Shells. We all enjoy a delicious dish and I get the extra satisfaction of knowing my family is gobbling up a healthy meal packed with nutritious ingredients like vegetables and whole grains.
Recently, I decided to give the traditional recipe for stuffed shells a healthy recipe redux. I wanted to make the dish colorful and visually appealing since we eat with our eyes before we take our first bites. By adding shredded carrots and chopped spinach, the dish became vibrant and eye-catching. To add even more of a nutritional punch, I used whole-wheat pasta since whole durum wheat contains more fiber, protein and iron than “regular” durum wheat. Lastly, I wanted to cut down on prep time so I could get this delicious meal onto the table even faster! By mixing the ingredients together in a baking dish instead of individually stuffing the shells, I saved tons of prep time without sacrificing any flavor of this comforting baked pasta.
You can freeze this recipe really easily. After you cook it, wrap each individual piece in plastic wrap and store in the freezer in an air-tight container for up to 4 months.
- Baked Veggie Shells
- Yields 8 servings
- -1 pound whole-wheat pasta shells
- -3 cups marinara sauce, homemade or store bought
- -1¼ cup ricotta cheese
- -¾ pound fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes (around 1¼ cups)
- -1 carrot, peeled and grated (around 1 cup)
- -1½ cups raw baby spinach, rinsed, dried and chopped
- -2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, grated or shredded
- -2 teaspoons olive oil
- -1 teaspoon plus 2 pinches salt
- -1 teaspoon garlic powder
- -½ teaspoon pepper
- -1 pinch red pepper flakes, optional
- -Butter or cooking spray to grease a 9×13-inch baking dish
Heat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9×13-inch baking dish.
Cook the shells:
Bring a large, lidded pot of water to a boil and add a pinch of salt plus 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Cook the shells according to the directions on the package minus 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, and drain. Place shells back into the pasta pot and pour remaining olive oil over the top. Stir and set aside.
Prepare the filling:
Into a large bowl, place the ricotta cheese, 1 tablespoon of the parmesan cheese, ¾ of the cubed mozzarella cheese (around 1 cup), the grated carrot, sliced spinach, remaining salt, ground pepper, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes, if using. Mix together. Add the marinara sauce and stir until it is all combined. Taste and adjust spices as desired. Pour the filling over the pasta and stir together well.
Prepare the baking dish:
Pour the pasta and filling mixture into the greased baking dish. Top the pasta with the remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. Cover with tin foil and bake for 25-28 minutes. Uncover and broil on low for 5 minutes, until browned.
Let cool for 5 minutes before slicing and enjoying.
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