Italian Stuffed Shells: freezer friendly or table ready

or a make ahead meal to make you smile, a true comfort food delight

So, I have recently dived head first into the world of make ahead meals.  I decided after a particularly stressful week that resulted in one too many instant dinners or carry out meals that I needed some quick options for healthier meals, I can only take so much grease and powdered cheese base.  Not that I wasn't grateful, I truly appreciated all of the support my husband put in on the road and in the ready made meal realm, I just knew I couldn't take much more so I sought out an alternative solution that would ease things up on both of us.  The first thing that happened was that I fell in love with the Once a Month Mom website   The second thing that happened was that I found inspiration to convert some of my own favorite recipes into freezer meals.  And then here we are!

Freezer meals are an amazing stress reducer.  I spent 4 hours prepping 5 different dishes on Sunday afternoon and have effectively eased 4 weeks of my life knowing that I have at least one meal ready and waiting (and if I use three in one week no one will know, I won't tell if you won't...).  Add to that my weekly slow cooker meal and we are down to 3 meals a week that actually have to be prepared after work.  Not too shabby!  I feel significantly less guilty on days when I am exhausted after work and our healthy-ish eating habits are not harmed in the least.  Now, today's recipe is one of my all time favorites, large pasta shells stuffed with a delicious blend of Italian cheeses and herbs.  It works just as well the day of, two days later, or two weeks later (as long as you store it right) and the leftovers are always delicious.  It may seem like a bit of work at first, but once you find a rhythm it really is a breeze.  I make a full box of pasta with this because I like to be able to toss out the ones that don't fold the way I'd like but you can certainly get by with about half a box if you are more determined to make them work.  Give it a shot, if you love Italian comfort food as I do you won't be disappointed!

1 package jumbo pasta shells (about 16 oz of pasta)

1 (15 ounce) container low fat ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded reduced fat mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated reduced fat Parmesan cheese
1 tsp dried parsley
½ tsp dried basil
½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
ground black pepper
¼ cup egg beaters or 1 egg

1 jar pasta sauce, homemade or store bought
1 can diced tomatoes
1 lg can (12 oz) tomato paste
½ tsp each - basil, parsley, oregano
1 tsp minced garlic
2+ cups water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package for al dente, you want them to be a little firm still so it will be about 2/3 of the standard cooking time then drain.

2. While the pasta is cooking mix ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, filling spices, egg beaters, salt and pepper in a large bowl until well combined. Pour mixture into a freezer bag and press down towards one tip. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes to set.

3. Snip the tip off the one corner of the freezer bag and use to fill shells by gently pushing the mixture down from the other end. Then press the edges in to hug the filling and place seam side down in a baking dish.  You will have the urge to really stuff a lot of cheese in there, but you need to show a touch of restraint with this, it takes a bit less than you may think to fill  and still be able to seal the shells closed.  If the shells do not close, the cheese will escape, consider yourself warned.

4. If using pre-made sauce, pour over the prepared shells at this time. If not:, in a medium sauce pan stir together tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and sauce spices. Gradually add water until desired consistency. Heat until simmering, allow to cool to room temperature, and then pour over stuffed shells.

At this point the shells can be refrigerated or frozen as a make ahead meal*

5. Top with shredded mozzarella if desired. Bake in preheated oven 45 to 60 minutes, until edges are bubbly and shells are slightly set.

* If using within the next couple days refrigerating is fine, if reserving for a later date freezing is necessary. If freezing, remove the pasta from the freezer the night before and allow to defrost in the refrigerator.

Note: Be careful and follow manufacturer guidelines for freezer containers and reheating in the same container, you may need to transfer to a different dish depending on the product.

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