cheesy baked penne with spinach and italian sausage

I think everyone has a different definition of what comfort food is. Some people feel cozy after a giant order of Chinese food. Others might want their Mom’s pot roast. And still others might prefer a sundae from their favorite ice cream shop. I get it, we all have our own thang, and that’s cool. But that all being said, I have to believe that there is a large chunk of us that want the exact same thing out of our comfort food—warm, cheesy, gooey pasta. Ya with me?

I just, can’t imagine food more comforting than a big bowl of gooey, warm carb-a-licious pasta. I’ve heard there are people out there that don’t like pasta, but I’ve never met one in real life, and I’m not sure I actually want to, either.

Does. Not. Compute.

I do think that, pretty universally, comfort food solidly falls into the “not-so-healthy” category. There is something about the decadence of a splurge meal that makes the whole world seem shinier and happier. I know emotional eating gets a bad rap, but if a reasonable-sized serving of macaroni and cheese can make a crappy day feel better? I’m all for it.

And the truth is, as varied and drastic as folks’ comfort food of choice is, I highly doubt anyone will ever say, “Oh my gosh, I had the worst day ever, I really wish I could have a big garden salad, that’d make me feel so much better.”

And if they do, they’re lying. No one has ever comforted by bowlfull of romaine.

But I think there is a way to make comfort food healthier. Take this cheesy, gooey pasta bake for instance. Whole wheat pasta mixed with four cups of fresh spinach is slathered in a silky parmesan cream-less cream sauce. To add more flavor (and still keep it light and healthy), I used lower calorie and fat Italian chicken sausages and sundried tomatoes. This is how you do comfort food healthy!

Next time you find yourself in need of some comfort, maybe skip the ice cream sundae and try your hand at this cheesy bake instead. You’ll get your comfort food without setting your healthy lifestyle onto the back burner.

Cheesy Baked Penne with Spinach and Italian Sausage

by Cassie Johnston

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

Cheesy, creamy and full-of-flavor, this pasta casserole bake is classic comfort food turned healthy! 


  • 1 pound whole wheat penne
  • 4 cups fresh baby spinach
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 small green pepper, diced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 3 cups skim milk
  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 1 cup sundried tomatoes, diced
  • 1-12 ounce package Italian chicken or turkey sausage, cut into thin coins


  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Cook penne according to package directions in a large stock pot, drain and return to stock pot. Mix in spinach and set aside. The steam from the pasta will begin to wilt the spinach.
  3. In the mean time, in a dutch oven or large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add in red pepper flakes and garlic and cook for 3-4 minutes until fragrant. Add in onion and green pepper and cook for 7-8 minutes or until tender.
  4. Add in butter, oregano, salt and pepper. Once butter is melted, whisk in flour and cook for 2-3 minutes. Then whisk in milk until well-combined. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, until sauce has thickened. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan and 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese. Add in sundried tomatoes and sausage coins.
  5. Mix together the sauce mixture with the pasta and spinach mixture. Pour into a 9 x 13 casserole dish. Sprinkle top with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until cheese is brown and sauce is bubbly.
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What’s your favorite comfort food?


  1. says

    This looks like something I would come up with on my own! By that, I mean it looks like we both have great taste. :) I added this recipe to my pinterest board and hope to make it very soon.

  2. Zoe says

    See, I have this romaine salad, with radishes and sweet orange segments and a honey-orange-chile dressing that gets served with black bean tostadas that is pretty comforting! But it may be that it is the tostadas and not the salad that is comforting, considering the cheese and chopped avocado…

    I must know where you got your fantastic kelly green baking dish! I LOVE it!

  3. Olivia says

    Yay another trader joes junkie!!! I’ll be heading there after work to pick up some ingredients for this. It looks delicious!

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