3 Super Fast Pasta Sauces Kids Love


Impress your family with a delicious home-made meal, with ridiculously little effort on your part. Each of these pasta sauces requires no chopping, has no more than three ingredients and costs less than $1.25 per serving.

Not only are they easy, they are authentic.  My husband is Italian, and these recipes have also been tried by his friends and family and given the tummy rub of approval.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

(adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking)

This recipe wins first place for its combination of ease and yumminess.  For the most intense and sweet tomato taste, canned whole tomatoes in juice work best (crushed by hand or in a food processor).  But in the interest of “fast,” Redpack crushed tomatoes are a good substitute.

Serves 4-6

  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes (Redpack — see “Canned Tomatoes” below)
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • salt

Cook all ingredients in an uncovered saucepan at a very slow simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomato.  Stir from time to time.  Taste and correct for salt.  Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with 1 lb. cooked pasta.

Serve with grated parmesan.

Cost:  $5.30 or $1.06 per serving.

Tuna Pasta

Keep pasta and tuna on hand and you’ll never have to order pizza again.  We like to use spaghetti with this recipe, but any shape pasta works.

Serves 4-6

  • 2 5-oz. cans of tuna in olive oil (Genova, Cento, or Progresso brand — see below)
  • 2 tablespoons capers (optional)

Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water before draining the pasta.  Toss the tuna (with its oil) and capers with 1 lb. cooked pasta.  If the pasta seems dry, add a bit of the pasta water.

CentoTunaPackedOliveOilA note on the tuna:  In comparison to the rich, savory tuna you find in Europe, canned tuna in the U.S. tastes washed out and woody.  It pays to use Italian-style tuna packed in olive oil like Genova Tonno (by Chicken of the Sea), Cento, or Progresso tuna in olive oil.  If you can’t find any of these brands at your supermarket, you can usually buy them by the case on Amazon.

Cost:  $4.97 or $1.24 per serving.

True Fettuccine Alfredo

(adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynn Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift)

This recipe wins the prize for its mild and rich* ingredients:  have you ever heard a kid say she didn’t like white pasta?

Serves 4

  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh-grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and fresh-ground pepper

Boil 1 lb. of fettuccine in salted water until pasta is slightly undercooked.  Drain quickly and return to the pot.  Turn heat to medium.  Add the butter and the cream and toss (2-3 minutes) to permeate the noodles.  There should be very little cream left in the pan.

Sprinkle in the cheese, mix throughly, and season with salt and pepper.  Serve immediately.

Cost: $5.79 or $1.16 per serving.

What Brand of Canned Tomatoes Tastes Best?

Cooks Illustrated, a cooking magazine and website that does not accept advertisements, does some excellent unbiased taste tests and equipment reviews.  For tomato sauces they recommend tomatoes packed in juice not puree, which is long-cooked and ruins the bright, fresh taste of the uncooked tomatoes.  While some canned tomatoes can have a bitter, metallic taste, they liked Muir Glen, S&W, and Redpack diced tomatoes, and Hunt’s whole tomatoes.

Because the recipe above should have more of a velvety texture, I listed Cook’s recommendation for crushed tomatoes — even though it includes puree — because the focus here is on fast.  Crushing whole or diced tomatoes in a food processor would mean an extra step, but if you can manage, the pure and sweet tomato taste is worth it.

Can You Save Money on Pasta?

Yes!  Who would have thought that American pasta would have won a Cooks Illustrated blind taste test?  Good news for budget-minded cooks:  the lower-cost Ronzoni brand won over tasters for its firm texture and its “nutty,” “buttery,” “classic” flavor and Mueller’s for it’s firm texture and “clean” and “wheaty” flavor.

You also can’t go wrong with the Italian Barilla (but it doesn’t make sense to pay for De Cecco and other pricey imported brands).

How Much Water and How Much Salt?

Pasta needs a lot of water around it or else the starches released during cooking will make it stick together and the water will become a slushy mess.  Recipes say 6 quarts, but who wants to measure that?  I fill up my medium sized pot 3/4 full of water, and my large stock pot 1/2 full.  Regarding salt:  2 teaspoons is about right for one box of pasta.

What is Al Dente?

Al dente (or “to the tooth”) means pasta that has just passed the point where you can feel a crunchy hardness inside.  If you cook it much longer, you get soggy, floppy pasta that falls apart.  Pasta should be firm, but not crunchy.  Check the package for a time estimate – I’m always surprised that different-shaped pasta has quite different cooking times.  Start tasting the pasta 5 minutes before it’s supposed to be done.

Don’t Pour: Toss

When I went to Italy for the first time, I looked on in disbelief to see that Italians do not serve pasta with the sauce in a dollop on top.  Instead, before serving, they toss the pasta and sauce together in the pot until the pasta is entirely coated.  Whoa, that was a revelation!

* But These Sauces are Too Fattening!

I’m no expert on diet but I do know that when I married an Italian and learned how to cook in Italy, I forgot all about “low-fat” this and “fat-free” that.  I cooked with all sorts of oil, butter, and cream.  Ironically I found it was easier to stay thin – in fact the effort disappeared.

I’m not saying the diet was the only thing, because you need to look at the whole picture – having a husband to cook for and eat with was huge.  But I still believe that delicious home-made food with a healthy proportion of fat gives you a sense of well-being and satisfaction – and does not make you gain weight.  (Just as carbohydrates like pasta don’t make you fat.)

Italians eat (moderate portions of) this stuff all the time and they don’t have the problems with obesity that we have in the U.S.  A great book to read more on nutrition, whole food, and eating like Italians is In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.  For an excellent summary, see this article in the New York Times called Unhappy Meals.

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  • Jo@simplybeingmum October 29, 2011, 3:24 am

    Amy – I’m loving this – I totally agree with you on the ‘low fat’ this and ‘fat free’ that. If you eat proper balanced meals and cut the unhealthy snacking you don’t need to make those food choices. It isn’t sensible portioned balanced family meals that are to blame for the rise in obesity – in my opinion it’s convenience food, and having an abundance of it everywhere you look. I’m in the UK and the amount of food we now have available 24/7 is scary. Tuna pasta is also a favourite here, it’s just so easy, frugal and healthy. Our take on it is that the kids have straight up double concentrate tomato puree as there tom sauce on wholewheat pasta, with cooked veggies added after such as sweetcorn, peas, broccoli. I tend to have mine with cucumber, black pepper and balsamic vinegar no tom puree.
    As an aside in July I did a cooking from scratch experiment over 5 days and documented the results on my blog and as a guest on another- I came in 42% cheaper than the supermarket equivalents! Just seen your 45% stat below need to check that out!

    • Amy November 1, 2011, 9:33 pm

      Hi Jo,

      I’m so glad you agree on the fat-free food deal. I know it makes a lot of people nervous to eat nuts and cream, but they are so wholesome and satisfying. I find I overeat when I try to trick myself with “fake” lowfat food, and then need to make up for it with more calories and fat.

      So cool that you eat tuna pasta too! I love hearing the figure of 42% for cooking from scratch. I noticed that on your blog, and I was interested since I’ve never heard someone quantify it like that.

      Thanks Jo!


  • sgbigfive June 21, 2011, 12:29 pm

    When I want a little more zest in the sauce I add one 8 ounce can of Pastorelli pizza sauce, but it make the sauce a littlr more red

    • Amy June 22, 2011, 10:39 am

      Interesting — never heard of Pastorelli! Thanks for sharing your tip.


  • Jeanne Stock November 5, 2009, 2:52 pm

    I am going to try 2 of these this weekend!!!! For some reason I can’t get my 3 to like tuna. I have always loved it since I was small and craved it during my last pregnancy. Maybe I’ll give it another try.

  • Cara October 27, 2009, 3:45 pm

    Thanks for these great recipes, Amy. As a working mom with two little ones, I am always looking for simple, crowd-pleasing dinners. Thanks, as well, for making me feel less guilty about eating such yummy pasta!

  • Nancy October 26, 2009, 1:14 pm

    When my kids were little, they would eat any vegetable if it were cooked in a little olive oil and garlic with freshly grated Parmiggiano cheese and served with pasta. That includes: tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, peas, beans of any color, spinach and other greens like collard greens, even brussel sprouts! Veggies they wouldn’t touch if served by themselves. The cheese is a must

    • Amy October 26, 2009, 9:49 pm

      Wow Nancy! I love that long list of vegetables that your kids would gobble up if it was coupled with pasta and cheese. I fully agree – pasta makes everything better.

  • Jamie October 26, 2009, 10:48 am

    Such great recipes and tips! Even though I don’t have kids, I’m still going to steal these ideas. Great job Amy!

  • Paola October 26, 2009, 9:02 am

    I second the pasta with tuna. It is often a good last minute meal if you keep your pantry stocked. The tuna I like the most is Cento in olive oil. I found it at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
    As for the tomatoes for the sauce, being Italian I still tend to use items I know… and I buy the POMI’ tomatoes (either diced or crushed) from Parmalat that come in a brick sized Tetrapak package.
    Extra Virgin Olive Oil is our choice for cooking. To save money I usually buy a gallon can at our local Greek Deli.

    • Amy October 26, 2009, 10:00 pm

      Paola: I love hearing about your choices for Italian products. I will check out Cento and the POMI tomatoes. I’m not thrilled about how Muir Glen diced tomatoes don’t break down and keep their chunky state even after cooking at length.

  • Ben October 26, 2009, 12:13 am

    Wow, that’s fascinating about the superior taste of European tuna! I’m going to hit Trader Joe’s this week to find some.

  • M October 25, 2009, 11:02 pm

    Jenny asks for a comparison between whole and diced canned tomatoes. I agree that diced tomatoes are better for sauce, in part because they quickly turn to mush. But for other recipes I prefer whole tomatoes because they hold their shape, have better texture and seem more like fresh ones.

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:23 pm

      Good question about canned whole tomatoes vs. canned diced tomatoes. I have used both and I think it’s a question of texture and unfortunately each brand differs.

      Whole tomatoes have to be broken down — either before cooking them or with the back of the spoon or a knife while they’re in the pot. To avoid this step, I’ve been using diced tomatoes. (Crushed tomatoes often come packed in puree, which Cooks Illustrated notes adds a stale cooked taste.) However, I’ve found that the recommended Muir Glen brand of diced tomatoes don’t break down and so I’m still left with tomato chunks in my sauces.

      I’ll experiment in search of a more sauce-like quality and let you all know!

      • sgbigfive June 21, 2011, 12:34 pm

        When I use whole or stewed tomatoes I use a stick blender and blend it far a few seconds.
        the sauce will be smooth and thick

        • Amy June 22, 2011, 10:43 am

          Hey there,

          That’s a great idea. I often do that too — it’s so quick and then all you have to do is rinse off the immersion blender and put it away. Another method is to pour the tomatoes into a plastic bag. Close the bag around your arm with one hand, then crush the tomatoes with your other hand.

          Thanks for sharing your tips!


  • Jenny October 25, 2009, 9:12 pm

    I love Cooks Illustrated’s taste tests as well, and thanks for the tip on how much salt is needed for the water – I had always wondered about that. Do you ever get whole tomatoes in a can or do you always buy diced? They would be the same, right? And by the way I tried the Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter recipe and loved it. How can something be so simple and so fantastic!

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:28 pm

      I agree about the simplicity: I was amazed at how rarely Italians use spices in their pasta sauces. Sometimes less is more!

  • BJ October 25, 2009, 3:48 pm

    Amy, you write with such authority. I must try these sauces – if Jack ever lets me in the kitchen. Lots and lots of good tips here.

  • Madeleine October 25, 2009, 11:21 am

    This was a great post. I might add that I have found in the US that you can save money and get good quality olive oil (for cooking) in the Mexican food section; Goya costs less than imported Italian brands that in Italy are only second rate.

    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:47 pm

      Good point Madeleine! The taste of the more pricey extra virgin olive oil matters more in salad dressings, but I often cook with plain olive oil and you can definitely save that way. Good to know Goya is a good choice.