By the end of the school day, it's helpful to have some standbys in your back pocket, easy dinner recipes that will nourish the whole family — and satisfy any especially picky eaters. Here are 10 recipes for casseroles or bakes that will allow you to think less about dinner during the school year (or any busy time). You might need the brainpower to help with algebra homework.
Michelle Stark, Times food editor
Macaroni and Beef Casserole
Make this casserole at the end of a hard week when you're looking to a warm plate of food to make life bearable. It'll do the trick. Start by cooking 1 pound elbow macaroni according to package directions, then drain well and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a splash of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 finely chopped onion and 1 diced green bell pepper, and cook for about 5 minutes until softened. Then add 2 pounds ground beef, 2 teaspoons ground cumin and cook for another 8 to 10 minutes, until meat is browned. Add 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and keep stirring and cooking until you can't see the flour anymore. Add 1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes and ½ cup chicken stock and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer until thick, stirring well to get any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. After about 4 minutes, remove from heat and stir in the macaroni, ¼ cup heavy cream, ¼ cup chopped parsley and about 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then transfer to a large casserole dish and sprinkle with another cup of cheddar and ⅓ cup panko bread crumbs. Bake for about 15 minutes, until bubbling. Let rest for a couple of minutes before serving. Recipe adapted from Food and Wine.
Savory Bread Strata
Garlic and fresh herbs give flavor to this strata, a layered casserole that commonly involves eggs. Start with about half a loaf of white, sourdough or whole wheat bread. It actually works best if it's a day or two old, so this is a good chance to use up any bread that's about to go bad. Heat your oven to 350 degrees, then heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 2 seeded and thinly sliced red bell peppers and 1 medium thinly sliced yellow onion, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 ½ teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Cook for another minute, then remove from heat and set aside. Then, butter or oil a 2-quart casserole dish and place bread slices in the dish, overlapping slightly. Place dish on a foil-lined baking sheet. Spoon the pepper mixture over the bread, then sprinkle with ½ cup of Gruyere cheese. In a separate bowl, lightly beat 4 large eggs and 2 cups milk. Pour that over the casserole, then sprinkle with another ½ cup cheese. Bake until strata is browned, 30 to 40 minutes. Recipe adapted from Real Simple.
Penne Meatball Casserole
Frozen meatballs make this a cinch to put together. If you prefer to make your own, do so on the weekend and freeze, then thaw the morning you're preparing this dinner. The night of, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add ½ pound penne; cook according to package directions. Drain the pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Meanwhile, thaw 1 pound frozen meatballs, or prepare your own from scratch. Add the meatballs and 1 cup marinara sauce to the bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss, then transfer to a casserole dish. Dollop 1 cup total ricotta cheese on top. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. After that time is up, remove foil, sprinkle with ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese and cook uncovered for another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with fresh basil to taste. Recipe adapted from sheknows.com.
Slow Cooker Buffalo Casserole
Another way to make sure dinner is on the table quickly: Make it in advance then let a slow cooker do the work while you're not home. To make, heat a splash of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add 1 pound ground chicken and cook until no longer pink. Sprinkle chicken with ¼ cup flour and stir. Slowly add 1 ½ cups chicken broth, then turn the heat up a bit until the liquid boils and the sauce starts to thicken. Cook for about 3 minutes, then stir in ¼ cream or buttermilk. Add 1 teaspoon each dried parsley, onion powder, garlic powder, dried dill, dried chives, salt and pepper. Stir, then cook for another 3 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a microwave, then add ½ cup buffalo wing sauce and stir. To your slow cooker, add 16 ounces frozen tater tots, drizzle with half of the butter mixture, then add meat mixture. Top with 1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese and the rest of the butter mixture, and cook for 5 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high. Recipe adapted from slowcookergourmet.net.
Cajun Shrimp Quinoa Casserole
You could sub chicken in this casserole — or leave the protein out entirely — if shrimp isn't popular in your household. To make, start with ¾ pound peeled and deveined shrimp, toss with 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning and set aside. Cut about 4 medium tomatoes into chunks, then toss them with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning. Add the shrimp to a hot cast iron skillet coated with a splash of olive oil, and cook about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add more olive oil to the pan, then add 1 chopped and seeded jalapeno, ½ cup chopped sweet onion and 2 cloves minced garlic. Cook until the onion is tender, stirring often. Mix in tomato chunks, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, ½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning and 2 ½ cups cooked quinoa. Stir, then add in shrimp and sprinkle with 1 cup shredded fontina cheese. Cook for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven; turn on the broiler for the last 2 minutes so the cheese can melt and brown slightly. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Recipe adapted from thisgalcooks.com.
Spaghetti Squash Ricotta Casserole
If the kids can't get behind spaghetti squash, you could sub in regular spaghetti in this recipe. But don't fear the veggie. Any overwhelming squash flavor is drowned out by the ooey goodness of ricotta and mozzarella. To make, start with a 3-pound spaghetti squash, cut in half and seeded. Place on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper to taste and roast in a 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes. You can do this a couple of hours in advance if needed. Remove from oven when tender and set aside. In a large bowl, combine 1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese, 1 large egg, 4 cups chopped baby spinach, 1 chopped garlic clove and ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg. Mix well. When the squash is cool enough to handle, gently scrape at it with a fork to create strands, like spaghetti. Scoop out all of the strands and place in the bowl with the cheese mixture. Mix gently until squash is coated, then place in a baking dish. (An 8- by 8-inch one works best.) Sprinkle with 2 cups mozzarella cheese and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until cheese has melted and is bubbling. Recipe adapted from Real Simple.
White Chicken Enchilada Casserole
Enchiladas are a fun diversion from the typical casserole but require similar amounts of effort. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray and set aside. Heat 3 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, then add 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour and whisk. Cook for about a minute until lightly browned and thick, then add 1 cup chicken stock. Whisk to combine, and then add another cup of stock, 1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chiles and ½ teaspoon ground cumin. Stir to combine, then let the mixture come to a boil and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Once it has thickened, add 1 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream and whisk. Remove from heat. Now, assemble the enchiladas. Place 8 soft flour tortillas in the prepared baking pan, enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Spread about ⅓ of the sauce evenly on top of the tortillas, then sprinkle with about 1 cup shredded cooked chicken. Top with 1 (14-ounce) can rinsed and drained White Northern beans and 1 cup shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese. Repeat with a second layer of tortillas, sauce, chicken, beans and cheese, then add a third layer of just tortillas, sauce and cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes uncovered. Serve warm with avocado and fresh cilantro. Recipe adapted from gimmesomeoven.com.
This is a classic and simple casserole, modified just a tad to make it a little more healthful. Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. Melt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a large pot over medium-high heat, then add 1 cup finely chopped onion, ⅔ cup finely chopped celery, salt and pepper to taste and 24 ounces sliced mushrooms. Cook for about 4 minutes until mushrooms are tender, then add ½ cup dry sherry and cook for another minute. Gradually add ⅔ cup all-purpose flour and cook for 3 minutes, whisking until the mixture is thick. Add 3 (14.5-ounce) cans chicken broth slowly, and stir constantly to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add 1 ¾ cups fresh grated Parmesan cheese and ½ cup 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, stirring until cheese melts. Add 7 cups hot cooked vermicelli pasta and 4 cups chopped cooked chicken breast and stir gently to combine. Add mixture to a glass baking dish — either two 8- by 8-inch dishes or one 9- by 13-inch dish — then top with ¼ cup bread crumbs and ½ cup Parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbly. Recipe adapted from Cooking Light.
California Avocado Breakfast Casserole
Allow a little breakfast for dinner to liven up the school-year doldrums. To make, preheat oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9- by 13-inch glass pan with cooking spray. In the pan, layer 10 slices of cooked bacon, 1 cup shredded frozen hash browns that have been thawed, 1 diced avocado and 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes. In a separate bowl, mix 5 eggs and ¼ cup milk, then pour over the mixture in the casserole dish. Sprinkle with 1 cup cheddar cheese, season with salt and pepper to taste, then bake for about 30 minutes. Recipe adapted from dineanddish.net.
Sweet Onion Casserole
Here is a vegetarian option that gets its heft from rice and two kinds of cheese. To make, preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. When oil is hot, add 4 cups chopped sweet onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft. Remove from heat, add onion to a bowl and set aside. Cook ½ cup long-grain rice in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Add rice and ⅔ cup reduced-fat milk, ½ cup shredded Gruyere cheese, ⅛ teaspoon allspice and salt and pepper to taste to the onions, and mix well. Transfer mixture to a glass baking dish and sprinkle with ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake for about 40 minutes. Uncover, bake for another 5 minutes or so, then top with 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley. Recipe adapted from Cooking Light.