This easy weeknight pasta bake is a kid-friendly family favorite! Quick and simple, it can be made ahead of time and it makes a great freezer meal!

Bring on the easy weeknight dinners! Especially the ones that please the entire family.

No grumbling about dinner? Hello. Sign me up. This cheesy pasta bake checks all the boxes. And it makes a stellar make-ahead meal.

scooping serving of weeknight pasta bake out of white 9X13-inch pan

Sauce, Pasta and Cheese

To maximize your time, while the pasta cooks (just until al dente!), start on the quick, homemade meat sauce.

Once the tomatoes are added to the cooked ground beef, the sauce only needs a few minutes of simmering action.

It’s amazing how simple ingredients can still promise depth of flavor!

wooden spoon scooping red sauce with ground beef in stainless pan

Toss the cooked and drained noodles with the sauce.

And then stir together the ricotta and parmesan cheese.

Pro Tip: if you don’t have ricotta and/or don’t like the sometimes grainy texture of ricotta, you can blend up cottage cheese to sub in for the ricotta cheese.

penne noodles in pan with red sauce and ground beef

Assembling the Pasta Bake

Pending a totally unanticipated distraction (kids? pets? an impromptu nap in between layers?), this assembling step shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes.

  1. Half the noodles and sauce
  2. All of the ricotta + parm
  3. Half of the mozzarella cheese
  4. Rest of the noodles
  5. Mozzarella cheese to finish
assembling pasta bake with noodles, red sauce, ricotta cheese and mozzarella cheese

Make-Ahead Freezer Meal

After assembly is complete, you have a couple of options.

  • Bake immediately
  • Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours
  • Cover with a double layer of greased foil and freeze

The pasta can be baked directly from the refrigerator or from the freezer. {I’ve included notes in the recipe below with baking instructions for those options.}

It makes a fantastic take-in meal as a hot and bubbling eat-it-now pasta bake OR as a freezer meal for the recipient to bake and eat later.

serving of cheesy pasta bake on white plate with focaccia bread

It may not win any awards for Fanciest Dinner on the Planet, but it wins all the awards in my book for a meal that makes the whole family happy.

Also: hi, fancy pants dinners are highly overrated when you’re a real person with a real family living in a real world on an average Tuesday night when life is, trust me, anything but glamorous. I count it a success if most of us can find matching socks 56% of the time. 😉

I’m a sucker for any situation that involves extra cheesy pasta, and this easy weeknight pasta bake is 100% fantastic! Hope you love it.

fork taking a bite of penne noodles with red sauce on white plate

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scooping serving of easy cheesy weeknight pasta bake out of white 9X13-inch pan

Easy Cheesy Weeknight Pasta Bake

4.91 stars (10 ratings)

Ingredients

  • 16 ounces penne pasta (see note)
  • 1 pound ground beef or ground turkey
  • ½ cup chopped onion or 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • pinch black pepper
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese (see note)
  • ½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Instructions 

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9X13-inch baking dish. Set aside.
  • Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente, according to package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  • While the pasta is cooking, cook the ground beef, onion, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper, in a skillet set over medium heat, breaking the meat into small pieces as it cooks. Cook until the meat is no longer pink. Off the heat, drain the grease.
  • Return the pot to medium heat and add the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, brown sugar, basil, oregano, garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 5-7 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if needed.
  • Remove the skillet from the heat and add the cooked and drained noodles and stir to coat evenly with the sauce (if the skillet is too small, combine the noodles in sauce in the now-empty pasta pot).
  • In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta cheese and Parmesan cheese.
  • To assemble, spread half of the noodles in the bottom of the prepared pan. Dollop the ricotta mixture over the top and spread into a mostly even layer. Sprinkle with half of the mozzarella cheese. Layer the remaining noodles over the top followed by the rest of the mozzarella cheese.
  • Place the pasta bake on a foil-lined half sheet pan to catch any spillovers and bake for 30-35 minutes until bubbling and heated through. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Notes

Pasta: any tube-shaped pasta should sub well for the penne. 
Sauce: you could easily sub in a 32-ounce jar of your favorite marinara sauce in place of the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and seasonings.
Ricotta Substitution: a lot of times if I don’t have ricotta, I blend cottage cheese and it works brilliantly well as a sub for the ricotta (and it has a creamier, less grainy texture).
Make-Ahead/Freezable: this pasta bake can be made ahead of time, assembled, covered with foil and refrigerated for up to 24 hours before baking. Add 15-20 minutes onto the baking time if baking straight from the refrigerator. To freeze, assemble the pasta bake. Cover with a double layer of greased aluminum foil (so the cheese doesn’t stick). Bake, covered, straight from the freezer at 350 degrees F. for 90 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30-45 minutes until hot and bubbling.
Serving: 1 serving, Calories: 1181kcal, Carbohydrates: 190g, Protein: 65g, Fat: 29g, Saturated Fat: 12g, Cholesterol: 88mg, Sodium: 6028mg, Fiber: 39g, Sugar: 92g
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