Everyday Food Blog

Fast-Forward, The Art of Prepping Ahead: Spinach Manicotti in Creamy Tomato Sauce

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Learn to prep your favorite time-consuming dishes in advance to get them on the table quickly.Though I have never been a Boy Scout, I've always been fond of their motto: "Be prepared." Nearly everything goes faster if I've thought about my plan in advance. A shopping list organized by aisle makes it easy to zip through the store. A weekly meal calendar with lunches plotted out means no one stands in front of the fridge wondering what to take (and leftovers actually get eaten). And preparing ingredients ahead of time gets dinner on the table in a flash when I get home from work.

In our recipes, we often include storage information, but what may not be immediately obvious is that lots of our recipes have "holding points" -- prep that can be done in advance -- and with a little critical thinking, you can break everything down into smaller, make-ahead chunks. With Fast-Forward, I hope to share with you some of my favorite Everyday Food recipes while providing some tips on how to use your time effectively, so you'll be eating sooner rather than later.

First up is this delicious Spinach Manicotti in Creamy Tomato Sauce. I've made this on the weekend and I love it, but when I get home around 7 (or later) on a weeknight, an hour-plus gap before we eat is not ideal. Rather than relegate this recipe to the weekends-only file, I wake up a few minutes earlier and do some prep before I even get dressed. Here's how I tackle this one:


  1. Transfer frozen spinach to the fridge to thaw.


  1. Put a pot of water on to boil; salt it and cook the pasta. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on a rimmed baking sheet and spray it with cooking spray. Drain and rinse pasta with cool water, then spread in an even layer on sheet. Cover with another layer of plastic wrap, pressing edges to loosely seal, and refrigerate.
  2. Meanwhile, shred the Parmesan and store half in an airtight container.
  3. Stir together sauce ingredients and store in an airtight container in the fridge.
  4. Make the filling (using the rest of that Parm) and store in an airtight container in the fridge. (Bonus points if you store it in the zip-top bag you'll use for piping later tonight.)

All that should take no more than 30 minutes, and you can probably squeeze in a little sandwich-making or breakfast prep if you're good at multitasking. Now, when you come home, what was once a three-step recipe now looks like this:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Fill shells, arrange in pan, and cover with sauce and Parmesan. Bake 30 minutes. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.

By taking half an hour to prep before your day really begins, you cut your kitchen time almost in half in the evening. Further, while the pasta dish is baking, you can wash the rest of your dishes, whip up a quick salad, or just kick back and relax.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to wake up half an hour early in order to get a lush dinner on the table in a snap, or would you rather do prep the night before (or just eat late)?

PS - I can tell you from experience that this particular dish makes great leftovers!

Comments (4)

  • avatar

    This column is a GREAT idea. I hope to see more of these fast-forward posts in the future!

  • avatar

    I would prefer do the prep the night before. Mornings are busy enough. But I love coming home and having things ready to go and being half-way thr
    ough a recipe!

  • avatar

    I love a good hearty oven baked meal when it gets round to Fall and anything with spinach is a plus! I love this recipe here


  • avatar Author Comment:

    Donna, I also do prep the night before, so don't worry: Recipes like that will be coming soon! For this one, you could definitely do a fair amount of the prep the night before. You can microwave the spinach at half power in one-minute increments until thawed, then let it cool a bit before you squeeze out the water. Then stir together the sauce and make the filling. I think you could probably prep the pasta the night before, too, though I've not tested it. You'd need to make sure they were well-wrapped and not touching, lest they stick together during their long chill. One trick some restaurants and caterers use is to precook pasta a few minutes shy of package instructions, drain it, and chill it. When a pasta order is requested, they dunk the cold, mostly cooked noodles in rapidly boiling water to finish the cooking; this also helps the noodles separate (they'll definitely chill into a clump). I would imagine that you could do this with the manicotti, too -- do most of the boiling the night before, then finish the cooking day-of -- though I admit I've never tried it AND I don't think it'll save you that much time (five minutes, I suppose). Besides, you'll be bringing your water to boil while you're oven is preheating, so you're not losing much time, and getting that sauce and filling out of the way will help!

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