Let me tell you about a very special pasta that I recently introduced into my life and has somehow managed to become one of our all-time favorite dinners to whip up. It’s full of gorgeous shell pasta, tender chicken breast, sweet caramelized onions, and nutritious spinach that somehow melts perfectly into a creamy, yet light parmesan cheese sauce.
Yes, you absolutely must meet my forever bff: this one pot incredible caramelized onion spinach chicken pasta bake. Also known as heaven on earth.
Some of my best recipes come to me when I’m peeking around in my fridge, trying to figure out what to make to use up ingredients without going to the store. This healthy chicken pasta bake is no different and is made with simple ingredients that you might already have on-hand.
It’s creamy, slightly sweet thanks to those juicy caramelized browned onions, packed with protein, and has some pretty awesome lick-your-plate-clean kinda magic flavors happening. I swear I could bathe in the parmesan cheese sauce that soaks up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan from the caramelized onions and chicken.
Just trust your friendly neighborhood blogger and put this one on your menu ASAP.
Ingredients in this creamy chicken pasta bake
Admittedly I was feeling seriously inspired by the parmesan sauce in my healthier tuna noodle casserole, and when I found two bags of spinach that needed to be used up, an onion lurking in the pantry and some parmesan, I knew magic was about to be made. Trust me, you’re going to fall in LOVE with this pasta and be amazed at how easy and delicious it was. Here are the ingredients you need:
- Pasta: I love shells in this recipe but you can use any pasta you’d like — including gluten free! I think penne pasta or fusilli would be so fun.
- Chicken: I like to use boneless skinless chicken breast, but chicken thighs will also work.
- Seasonings: the only seasonings you’ll need to give this recipe the perfect flavor are garlic powder, salt & pepper. You could also add a kick of heat with red pepper flakes if you’re feeling a little wild!
- Veggies: we’re using TWO full bags of spinach, which will seem like it’s a lot, but it cooks down a ton and is perfect mixed in with the pasta and sauce. You’ll also be caramelizing some onions!
- For the sauce: that creamy parmesan sauce is made with butter, flour, milk, and parmesan cheese. Feel free to use any milk you’d like, as well as all purpose. whole wheat, or gluten free flour. That’s right, there’s no cream involved, but it tastes like a better alfredo sauce!
- Breadcrumbs: for the toasty breadcrumb topping. Feel free to use gluten free breadcrumbs!
Customize this healthy chicken pasta bake
Feel free to make this healthy chicken pasta bake your own! Here’s what I can recommend for substitutions and/or additions:
- Choose your veggies: I think this recipe would be delicious with mushrooms, peas, broccoli and even sun dried or regular tomatoes.
- Make it vegetarian: feel free to throw in some chickpeas instead of the chicken.
- Go gluten free: simply use your fav gluten free noodles, gluten free all purpose flour in the sauce, and gluten free breadcrumbs on top. You could also substitute crushed up gluten free tortilla chips, potato chips or crackers for the topping!
- Try it dairy free: I suggest using vegan butter, a dairy free milk of choice (like the almond milk listed) and dairy free parmesan cheese.
Looking for a quick protein option?
You could easily throw in some shredded rotisserie chicken instead of cooking the chicken for this pasta casserole! It’s a great way to use up leftover chicken, too.
If you prefer, you can skip the bread crumbs and the baking of the pasta. We do this often when we want to eat quickly and it’s still just as delicious! Feel free to crumble crackers on top if you’d still like a little buttery crunch.
How to caramelize onions
I know caramelizing onions can feel intimidating, but it’s easier to do than you think!
- Add in ½ tablespoon olive oil or butter, sliced onions and salt and pepper to a large pot and place over medium heat; stir to coat.
- Cook onions, stirring occasionally; check your onions every 5-10 minutes until they have completely caramelized and turned golden brown.
- If the onions appear to be getting too dark or sticking too much to the bottom of the pan, then simply reduce the heat a bit. You can also add a teaspoon or two of water.
Make it ahead of time
- Prep it ahead of time: feel free to make this chicken pasta bake ahead of time and bake it a day or two later! Simply make the recipe as directed, except do not add the breadcrumbs. Instead, cover with foil and place in fridge until ready to bake. Once ready to bake, add the breadcrumbs as directed and bake. You make need to add 5-10 minutes of extra baking time.
- Freezer-friendly option: if you want to make this chicken pasta bake ahead of time, simply make the recipe as directed, except do not bake it with the breadcrumbs on top. Instead, put it in a freezer-safe container pan like these, cover and place it in a freezer safe bag until you’re ready to bake. Once ready to bake, thaw out the chicken pasta bake in the refrigerator overnight. Once thawed, bake as directed!
Store any leftover chicken pasta bake in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. Simply reheat leftovers in the microwave until warm. Otherwise, follow the freezing instructions above!
More easy pasta recipes to try
Get all of my delicious pasta recipes here!
I know you’re going to LOVE this spinach chicken pasta bake! Be sure to leave a comment and rate the recipe below if you make it. Thanks for being here — I appreciate you! xo.
Incredible Caramelized Onion Spinach Chicken Pasta Bake
Total Time 1 hour 15 minutes
Incredible caramelized onion spinach chicken pasta bake made with two full bags of spinach for extra veggies and a creamy, lightened up parmesan cheese sauce. This protein-packed, healthy chicken pasta bake is the perfect weeknight dinner when you’re craving something warm and comforting!
- For the pasta:
dry pasta shells (or use rotini, fusilli, or whatever pasta you’d like — even gluten free!)
- For the chicken:
boneless skinless chicken breast, diced into ½ inch cubes
- Freshly ground salt and pepper
- For the caramelized onions & spinach:
olive oil (or butter)
very large (or 2 medium) yellow onions, sliced
- Freshly ground salt and pepper
- For the parmesan cheese sauce:
all purpose flour (or whole wheat flour or all purpose gluten free flour)
unsweetened almond milk (or cashew milk or regular milk)
grated parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For the topping:
breadcrumbs, gluten free if desired
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Spray a 2-quart baking dish or 9×9 inch or 11×7 inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, or grease with olive oil or butter.
Boil the noodles until al dente, according to the directions on the package. Once done cooking, drain and set aside.
Cook your chicken: add ½ tablespoon olive oil to a large pot and place over medium high heat. Add in diced chicken, season with garlic powder and salt and pepper; cook for 5-7 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink. Transfer chicken to a large bowl once done cooking.
In the same pot you cooked chicken, you can caramelize your onions: add in ½ tablespoon olive oil or butter, onions and salt and pepper; stir to coat. Cook onions, stirring occasionally; check your onions every 5-10 minutes until they have completely caramelized and turned golden brown. If the onions appear to be getting too dark or sticking too much to the bottom of the pan, then simply reduce the heat a bit. You can also add in a few teaspoons of water to help deglaze the pan. Once the onions have caramelized, reduce heat to low and stir in spinach with the onions; cook until spinach wilts. Remove from heat and transfer to the bowl with the chicken.
In the same pot, add in 2 tablespoons of butter and place over medium heat. Once butter is melted, whisk in a little bit of the flour and then slowly add in milk, a little bit at a time, alternating with the flour and vigorously whisking away any lumps. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and stir every so often, until the sauce thickens up.
Once sauce has thickened up a bit, turn off the heat and stir in garlic powder, parmesan cheese. salt and LOTS of freshly ground black pepper.
Next stir in cooked noodles, spinach and caramelized onions and chicken. Season again with salt and pepper, to taste. Pour mixture into your prepared baking pan and spread out.
In a small bowl, mix breadcrumbs with melted butter. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture on top of casserole and bake for 25 minutes or until breadcrumbs are golden brown. Serves 6.
If you prefer, you can skip the breadcrumbs and the baking of the pasta. We do this often when we want to eat quicker and it’s still just as delicious! Feel free to crumble crackers on top if you’d still like a little buttery crunch.
Freezer friendly option: simply make the recipe as directed, except do not bake it with the breadcrumbs on top. Instead, put it in a freezer-safe container pan like these, cover and place in a freezer safe bag until you’re ready to bake. Once ready to bake, thaw out the chicken pasta bake in the refrigerator overnight. Once thawed, bake as directed!
Servings: 6 servings
Serving size: 1 serving (based on 6)
Saturated fat: 6g
Recipe by: Monique Volz // Ambitious Kitchen | Photography by: Eat Love Eats
This post was originally published on March 19th, 2020, and republished on February 26th, 2023.