Children start eating pasta around their first birthdays, and for many, it's a favorite meal right from the start. Many pasta meals can come together in 30 minutes or less, making them an ideal choice for feeding your family on busy evenings. The wide assortment of pasta shapes and flavors, as well as the possible variations in sauces and ingredients, add up to countless pasta meal possibilities.
When most people think of pasta, the classic tomato-based sauce usually comes to mind. This has the advantage of packing a vegetable into the meal without having to serve it on the side. Picky eaters who don't like vegetables, but won't refuse pasta, end up eating at least a little sauce as well. Tomato sauce goes well on any type of pasta -- add ground beef, sausage or chicken for protein to create a fully balanced meal. For nights when you're at home but busy right before dinner, pull out a lasagna or ziti casserole that you made ahead of time and put it in the oven an hour before you're ready to eat.
Creamy sauces tend to be high in fat but provide an alternative for kids who absolutely refuse to eat tomato sauce -- plus, they're the base for the ever-popular macaroni and cheese. Because jarred cream sauces are usually not very healthy, make your own by cooking flour with a little butter and adding low-fat milk. Stir in Parmesan cheese to make Alfredo sauce, or add cheddar cheese to make sauce for homemade macaroni and cheese. Broccoli, spinach or asparagus pair well with the cream sauce as a side dish or mix-in. Serve the veggies on the side with a creamy ranch dressing for the dippers in the family.
When you don't have the time or ingredients to make a proper sauce, use olive oil to bring together a light pasta dish full of fresh vegetables. While the pasta cooks, chop your family's favorite vegetables into appropriate-sized pieces. Try halved cherry tomatoes, sliced snap peas, zucchini or carrot ribbons, chopped fresh spinach or arugula, cooked frozen peas and roasted red pepper strips. A sprinkle of feta or Parmesan cheese packs a lot of flavor, and fresh herbs also enhance the dish. For protein, shrimp, chicken strips and sliced steak all work well, or use leftover meat for an easy addition.
Branch out by experimenting with less conventional types of sauce for pasta. Put together an Asian-inspired pasta dish by mixing creamy peanut butter, soy sauce and a little milk to make a peanut sauce. Add carrots, bean sprouts and broccoli for extra nutrition. If you have a garden, have the kids help you pick and wash basil and chop it in the food processor with garlic and pine nuts to make homemade pesto sauce. In the winter, make a soup that features ravioli, tortellini or orzo with a tomato-flavored broth and some of your family's favorite chopped vegetables.