This is one of the first dinners in a LONG time that I can happily say was toddler approved. I've come to the conclusion my 2 1/2 year old is a vegetarian and also Italian. Or her food choices would indicate she is. She seems to consistently like pasta dishes with a marinara sauce, and otherwise almost always skips meat in every shape or form. She will eat Burger King's chicken fries, and sometimes a few pieces of hot dogs. And shrimp, she does like shrimp. Other than that, she's probably not going to even try it if it looks like meat, or she'll spit it back out if she does get curious enough to taste test. Such is the joy of feeding a 2 year old! We always offer her whatever we're eating, and give her lots of fruits and vegetables to choose from, but she is definitely picky and her choices vary from one day to the next depending on her mood, and the way the sun is hanging in the sky. (This is why I'm very grateful she still sucks down her homemade "juice" that is packed with fruits and veggies!)
In any event, I was pretty excited when she ate a good sized helping of this dish which is loaded with vegetables, and I used whole wheat pasta. Not only was the toddler happy, but the rest of us were too! The cream cheese gives this dish a wonderfully creamy and smooth texture and there was lots of great flavor in the sauce, and the cheese tied it all together. I think you could even add more veggies to this one - grate in a zucchini or add in a good handful of fresh diced mushrooms. Lots of mix and match options for your personal taste and preferences.
Baked Creamy Spaghetti Casserole adapted from Just A Pinch
12 oz spaghetti
36 oz jar prepared spaghetti sauce
1 lb ground lean beef
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 large onion, finely diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and grated
Salt and pepper (to taste)
1 tsp Italian seasoning (more to taste)
1 TBS minced garlic
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 1/2 - 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9x13 baking dish with nonstick baking spray and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook spaghetti noodles to al dente, per package instructions. When noodles are cooked, drain, return to pot and add in the brick of cream cheese and gently stir it into the hot noodles.
- Meanwhile combine ground beef, onion, bell pepper, and carrots in a large nonstick skillet and cook for 15 - 20 minutes until vegetables are tender, meat is cooked through, and most of the grease has cooked off. Season meet with salt and pepper, Italian seasoning, and minced garlic (I also added about 1/4 tsp garlic powder).
- Stir in the spaghetti sauce to the meat mixture (taste test, adjust if needed).
- Spread the cream cheese noodles in the baking dish and pour meat sauce over top. Gently stir until it's fairly well and evenly combined. Level out and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and top with the mozzarella.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until heated through, cheese is melted and casserole is bubbly.
- Serve hot with garlic cheese bread and green beans if desired.