This creamy Chicken Pasta Bake recipe is easy weeknight comfort food! It’s made from cheesy pasta that’s loaded with juicy chicken pieces in zesty tomato sauce and baked until delicious and bubbly.
Cheesy Chicken Pasta Bake Recipe
This Chicken Pasta Bake ticks all the boxes: Is it cheesy? Yes. Packed with protein? Yes. Easy to make on weeknights, when dinner inspiration is running low? YES! This casserole is made with creamy penne pasta topped with juicy chicken coated in zesty tomatoes with spinach, and three kinds of melted cheese. Picture a rich and gooey baked mac and cheese topped with zesty mozzarella chicken in tomato sauce, baked until everything is bubbly and golden. It’s the best. If the viral baked feta pasta is anything to go off of, pasta bakes aim to please. And this low-effort, big-flavor chicken pasta bake does not disappoint.
Why You’ll Love This Baked Chicken Pasta Recipe
- Flavor-packed. Creamy pasta, tender chicken in tomato sauce, and plenty of cheese fill this pasta bake with all sorts of comforting, Italian-inspired flavors.
- Quick. Have this chicken pasta bake oven-ready in 15 minutes or less. Who doesn’t love an easy-peasy, cheesy pasta on a busy weeknight?
- Casserole-style. Baking pasta like a casserole makes it super make-ahead-friendly. You can assemble or bake the pasta ahead of time and store or freeze it for easy reheating. Hello, last-minute dinners!
- Customizable. Like any good casserole recipe, this chicken pasta bake is totally DIY-able. Change up the flavors and ingredients any way that you’d like.
How to Make a Chicken Pasta Bake
Simple ingredients and big flavor is the name of the game with this chicken pasta bake. Below is a quick overview of the ingredients and steps involved.
- Pasta: Uncooked penne pasta or another short tubular pasta works best for a pasta bake. Other good options are ziti or rigatoni. These varieties really cling to all that delicious sauce!
- Cheese: Freshly grated cheddar cheese melts down perfectly to create a deliciously ooey-gooey sauce. Meanwhile, you’ll need shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese to add over top of the pasta before baking.
- Butter and Milk: Unsalted butter and any milk of your choice, to combine with the cheese for the sauce.
- Chicken: You can use boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into even-sized cubes.
- Spinach and Garlic: Fresh or frozen baby spinach brings a pop of green along with some extra nutrition, while minced garlic boosts the flavors of the sauce.
- Tomato Sauce: Choose your favorite jarred tomato sauce from the store, or you can use homemade tomato sauce.
- Olive Oil, Salt, and Pepper
Should You Pre-cook Pasta for a Pasta Bake?
Yes! Boiling the pasta before combining it with the sauce ensures that it’s tender and cooked through before baking. This way, all the pasta needs to focus on is becoming extra-hot and cheesy in the oven! One thing to keep in mind when pre-cooking the pasta for a pasta bake is, don’t overcook the pasta at first. Boil it until it’s al dente or just under so that it doesn’t become too soft and mushy after baking. Check out the section further on for more recipe tips.
- Prepare the pasta. Begin by cooking your pasta al dente according to the package directions. Combine the drained pasta in a pot with shredded cheddar, butter, and milk, and then transfer the pasta and cheese sauce to a greased casserole dish.
- Cook the chicken. Saute the chicken pieces in a skillet with olive oil until cooked through and tender.
- Combine. Next, wilt the spinach in a pan with garlic, add the cooked chicken, and then pour over the tomato sauce. Stir everything together as it heats through, then spoon the chicken over the prepared pasta.
- Add cheese and bake. Sprinkle over grated mozzarella and parmesan, then bake the chicken pasta at 375ºF for 15-20 minutes. The casserole should be bubbling at the edges. Afterward, let the pasta bake stand on the counter for a few minutes before digging in.
Tips for the Best Chicken Pasta Bake
A pasta bake is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? You don’t have to put in a whole lot of time or effort for this recipe to turn out delicious. The following are some quick tips that I picked up while recipe testing, in case you find them helpful.
- Use freshly grated cheese whenever possible. Grating the cheddar, mozzarella, and parmesan fresh from the block yields the silkiest sauce and meltiest results. Pre-grated packaged cheese contains anti-caking agents that prevent the cheese from melting as smoothly.
- Cook the pasta al dente. Make sure that you don’t boil the pasta for too long before you assemble your casserole (see above). Overcooked pasta will continue to cook in the oven and risks the pasta bake becoming mushy.
- Let the pasta bake rest. Not only does it let the piping hot insides cool down a little, but resting also helps the casserole set up so that it’s easier to scoop and serve.
Why Is My Pasta Bake Watery?
There are a few reasons why your chicken pasta bake may be a bit runny or watery. One could be that the tomato sauce you’re using was cold from the fridge and became thinner as it warmed in the oven. Another reason could be that the chicken wasn’t completely cooked through in the pan before it was added to the pasta and leaked some juices into the baked dish. In any case, letting your pasta bake rest after it’s out of the oven gives the casserole a chance to thicken up a little. Don’t skip that step!
Pasta bakes are wonderful for customizing, so you can really adapt this recipe however you’d like! For extra crunch, we love sprinkling the top of this chicken pasta bake with seasoned breadcrumbs. Or, you can try one or more of these easy ideas:
- Different cheeses. Play around with different cheeses in the sauce. In place of or in addition to regular cheddar, try Pepper Jack for some heat, Monterrey Jack for a milder flavor, or Gruyere if you’re feeling a lil’ fancy.
- Seasoning. To give your chicken bites even more flavor, season them with the best chicken seasoning before you cook them.
- Spicy. Stir chilies or crushed red pepper flakes into the tomato sauce for a spicer, arrabbiata vibe.
- Meat sauce. Feel free to use your preferred meat sauce or bolognese sauce in place of the tomato sauce in this recipe for an even heartier dish.
- More veggies. You can load up your pasta bake with even more veggies and greens. Try diced sauteed carrots and zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and kale.
- Shredded chicken. Use shredded chicken in place of the chicken pieces. You can even use a rotisserie chicken from the store and shred it!
- Vegetarian. Making this recipe vegetarian is as easy as trading out the chicken with your choice of plant-based alternative! Try meaty oyster mushrooms, cubed butternut squash, or sauteed broccolini.
This creamy pasta bake is an all-in-one dinner, but you can absolutely round out your meal with your favorite sides. Here are some easy recipes to serve alongside a baked chicken pasta:
- Salad. This comforting pasta bake pairs great with a crispy crunchy tomato and cucumber salad or a leafy lemon kale Caesar salad.
- Vegetables. Serve with easy veggie sides like crispy roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, glazed air fryer carrots, and roasted mushrooms with parmesan and pine nuts.
- Bread. Bulk up your pasta dinner with a side of fluffy homemade focaccia or glazed dinner rolls.
- Dessert. Looking for an easy dessert to follow a cozy family dinner? Try a slice of no-bake Turtle pie or pineapple upside-down cake.
Make-Ahead, Storage, and Reheating
- Make ahead. Wondering if you can cook this pasta bake from frozen? The answer is yes! To make ahead and freeze, wrap the baked and cooled pasta tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap and freeze it for up to 1 month. Whenever you’re ready, unwrap the pasta casserole, cover it with foil, and cook it right from frozen at 375ºF for about 1 hour. Alternatively, you can defrost the pasta bake in the fridge overnight and bake it for about 45 minutes.
- Fridge. Store any leftovers of this chicken pasta bake airtight in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. To reheat, warm portions in the microwave or in the oven. You may want to sprinkle over a bit of water when reheating to help loosen the pasta up again.
- Freezer. Freeze leftovers airtight in a freezer-safe container for up to 1 month. Reheat in the oven or in the microwave until hot throughout.
More Easy Chicken Pasta Recipes
- Chicken Broccoli Pasta
- Chicken Bruschetta Pasta
- Lemon Chicken Fettuccine
- One Pot Italian Chicken Tortellini
- Cheesy Chicken Orzo
Chicken Pasta Bake
- 3 to 4 cups penne pasta, uncooked
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 tablespoons butter
- ¼ to ½ cup milk, add more if needed, for a creamier texture
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
- 2 cups baby spinach
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups tomato sauce, you can also use your favorite pasta sauce
- ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- ½ cup shredded parmesan cheese
- Preheat oven to 375ºF. Grease a casserole dish with baking spray, set aside.
- Cook pasta according to the directions on the box.
- Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Stir in cheese, butter, and 1/4 cup milk (add more milk if needed). Continue to stir until smooth and well combined.
- Transfer the cheesy pasta to the baking dish and set aside.
- Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a skillet and cook over medium heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add the chicken to the skillet; cook until done, about 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set chicken aside.
- Return the skillet over medium heat and heat up the remaining olive oil. Add spinach and minced garlic and season with salt and pepper; cook 2 minutes or until spinach is wilted, stirring frequently.
- Add cooked chicken to the spinach and stir in the tomato sauce; cook over medium-high heat for a minute or until heated through.
- Spoon the chicken mixture over the pasta inside the baking dish and mix it all together. Top with shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese.
- Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until bubbly.
- Remove from oven. Let stand 5 to 8 minutes before serving.
- Cheese: If possible, use freshly grated cheese for a smoother, meltier texture, as pre-grated versions contain anti-caking agents. You can also try the pasta with different cheeses like Pepper Jack, Monterrey Jack, or Gruyere.
- Milk: You can add more or less milk, depending on how creamy you’d like it to be. Also, you can use heavy cream, half & half, or even cream cheese (at room temperature) instead of milk.
- Pasta Preparation: Cook pasta al dente – about 6 to 7 minutes – to avoid mushiness as it continues cooking in the oven.
- Resting Time: Allow the pasta bake to rest after baking for easier serving and better consistency.
- Watery Issues: A runny pasta bake could result from cold tomato sauce or partially cooked chicken; letting the pasta bake rest after baking can help with this issue.
- Seasoning Boost: Enhance the chicken’s flavor with your favorite seasonings before cooking it.
- Spice It Up: Add chilies or red pepper flakes to the sauce for a spicy kick.
- Meat Sauce Option: Substitute tomato sauce with meat or bolognese sauce for a heartier meal.
- Veggie Additions: Sauté extra vegetables like sliced carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, or kale.
- Chicken Alternatives: Replace the chicken pieces with shredded chicken or use store-bought rotisserie chicken.
- Vegetarian Version: For a plant-based option, substitute chicken with oyster mushrooms, butternut squash, or broccolini.
- To Make Ahead and Freeze: Make the pasta bake, let it cool to room temperature, wrap it in plastic wrap plus a layer of aluminum foil, and freeze it for up to a month. Cook from frozen at 375ºF for an hour, or defrost overnight and bake for 45 minutes.
- Storing Leftovers: Transfer it to an airtight container and keep it in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. Reheat as needed, adding a sprinkle of water to refresh the pasta.
Nutritional info is an estimate and provided as courtesy. Values may vary according to the ingredients and tools used. Please use your preferred nutritional calculator for more detailed info.