Give tweens and teens the pasta tongs and let the dinner magic happen
Let your tweens and teens throw a bunch of ingredients into pasta and see which combinations become their new favorite. Here’s how to get started.
We all have a soft spot for butter noodles, but that won’t be enough for a regular family dinner.
Fortunately, pasta is a quick meal that almost always tastes more refined than it actually does – and it’s easy for teens and tweens to cook for themselves.
Instead of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, let your kids throw a bunch of ingredients into pasta and see which combinations become their new favorite. Just grab a pan and whip up a quick meal with pantry, fridge and freezer essentials.
Whether it’s a cheat sheet of ideas for simple dinners (plus leftovers) that can be built around a base of pasta.
Mix and match two or three items from the following categories, and you will have hundreds of meal plan ideas.
It all starts with pasta and sauce
Let your kids experiment with different types and shapes of pasta to change the feel of the meal every time.
There’s a world of noodles on the shelves, including high fiber, whole grain and protein boosted options; pasta with chickpeas, lentils, black beans and other legumes; and gluten-free options made with rice and corn.
Frozen or fresh options such as gnocchi and tortellini and ravioli stuffed with cheese or meat can also be part of the rotation. For those hectic days, keep a few packets of pre-cooked pasta on hand to speed up meal prep.
For the sauce, you can certainly make a homemade marinara, but there’s no shame in keeping a variety of refrigerated potted and pre-made options on hand. And sometimes, a simple olive oil is enough to prepare the meal.
Start by heating some olive oil or sauce in a saucepan while the pasta is boiling, then add the ingredients to reheat. When the pasta is cooked, toss it and serve.
Canned or jarred beans and vegetables
For pasta, favor varieties of beans that are naturally creamy and tender, such as cannellini beans, butter beans or Great Northern beans. Or add chickpeas (also called chickpeas), for a slightly firmer texture contrast and a nutty taste. Drain and rinse canned beans before using to reduce sodium content.
Vegetables in jars, packed in water or pickled, such as roasted red pepper slices, artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes, can give pasta a Mediterranean touch. No need to rinse here – the marinade will add more flavor.
Add frozen vegetables
The fresh vegetables are always fantastic. Frozen vegetables contain as many nutrients as their fresh counterparts, so you don’t lose out on keeping the freezer stocked with as many options as possible. How much? What would you say:
• green vegetables like kale and spinach
• vegetable noodles made from zucchini or squash, which can be mixed with pasta noodles for more variety
• chopped or whole vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus and peas
• sliced wild mushrooms.
It’s also helpful to have a few packets of vegetable mixes on hand, such as Italian or Mediterranean style combinations, for nights when no one has the bandwidth to make decisions.
Pre-cooked meat options or plant-based meat substitutes add more protein and flavor to pasta meals without the extra work. Well, maybe a little extra work: if you pick frozen meatballs, thaw them first to avoid cold centers. You might want to try:
• meatballs (made from beef or poultry)
• leftover roast chicken
• sliced and fully cooked sausages
• chopped or sliced salami or ham.
Quick-cooking frozen seafood such as shrimp or scallops can also be tossed into the pasta water during the last few minutes of cooking.
Feta may be the most popular pasta cheese on TikTok, but it’s not the only cheese that enhances a pasta meal.
Instead of cooking cheese in your pasta, add it at the last moment and let the residual heat melt the cheese slightly. To try:
• crumbled feta, gorgonzola or fresh goat cheese
• sliced or cubed soft cheeses such as brie and camembert
• small balls of mozzarella such as pearls or bocconcini
• cubed smoked soft cheeses such as mozzarella or gouda.
For creamy curds like fresh ricotta or burrata, place or slice cheese on pasta just before serving.
Don’t forget the toppings
Speaking of cheese, a classic dusting of aged cheese is never a bad idea. Parmesan, Pecorino, Asago, and Grana Padano are all hard, salty Italian cheeses traditionally used to garnish pasta.
If lactose isn’t your friend, add texture variety and crunch with panko breadcrumbs (regular or gluten-free) or chopped toasted nuts.
A final touch
After mixing the cooked noodles with your sauce and extras, add a little pasta water to the pot (up to 1/4 cup for 8 ounces of pasta). Rather than making the sauce too runny, the starch dissolved in the water actually helps thicken the sauce so that it adheres better to the pasta.