Start with a Jar of Pasta Sauce

Use its rich, slow-simmered herb-and-tomato goodness as a starting point for dinner, be it chili, braised lamb, poached eggs, or baked pasta.

Of all the shortcut ingredients for the healthy cook, a good marinara is one of the finest because it delivers the pleasures of slow-cooking-in a jar. If you've ever put up your own sauce, you know the work involved. A good factory marinara (and please see the buying notes on the next slide, because there are a few things to look for) is thick, packed with flavor from herbs and garlic, and, above all, tastes like concentrated summery-tomatoey goodness. Think about what those qualities can do for your everyday cooking: add body to stew or chili; make a tangy braising liquid for meaty lamb shanks; and turn out hearty, gooey baked pasta.

See More: New Uses for Everyday Ingredients

Marinara Buying Notes

We sorted through the billion pasta sauce choices now on supermarket shelves, focused on marinara (the most basic and most versatile), and evaluated using two criteria: sodium and flavor. Sodium can be particularly high, as much as 540mg per half-cup serving. Generally, we recommend seeking out sauces with less than 350mg sodium per half-cup serving. Some sauces also contain a lot of added sugar, which means you'll want to add salt to rebalance. Others have a too-pronounced dried herb flavor. Our favorites from the marinara tasting: McCutcheon's Marinara Pasta Sauce and Amy's Light in Sodium Family Marinara Pasta Sauce.

McCutcheon's Marinara Pasta Sauce

Not labeled as lower-sodium, but it is-only 185mg in a half cup. No added sugar, so it's decidedly savory, with just the right amount of herby-garlicky kick. The unanimous favorite, it has become our default pasta sauce. (We buy ours at Whole Foods.)

See More: Top 10 Healthy Convenience Foods

Amy's Light in Sodium Family Marinara Pasta Sauce

Sweeter than McCutcheon's (it contains "organic evaporated cane juice," which is basically sugar), but it's nicely balanced by savory onions and garlic. A half-cup serving has 290mg sodium.

Chicken and Sausage Stew

The cooked flour and oil mixture, known as roux, thickens this gumbo-inspired stew. Marinara sauce adds body, enriches the color and taste, and provides slightly tangy notes for a more rounded flavor.

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
4 ounces diced chicken andouille sausage
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups lower-sodium marinara sauce (such as McCutcheon's)
1 1/2 cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup chopped green onions
3 cups hot cooked white rice

Heat flour and oil in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat; cook for 5 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring frequently with a whisk. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, thyme, sausage, and garlic; increase heat to medium-high, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring mixture frequently. Add ground red pepper and chicken; cook for 1 minute. Stir in marinara sauce and chicken broth; bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until chicken is tender. Remove from heat; stir in green onions. Serve over rice.

View Recipe: Chicken and Sausage Stew

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Cheesy Pasta Bake

This recipe utilizes the classic formula of pasta plus sauce plus sausage plus cheese. Tasty!

View Recipe: Cheesy Pasta Bake

Slow-Braised Lamb Shanks

A long, gentle simmer produces buttery, fork-tender meat. This is a definite sure-to-please option for your next dinner party.

View Recipe: Slow-Braised Lamb Shanks

See More: Shortcut: Jarred Sauce

Chicken Cacciatore

Serve on a bed of spaghetti or with a short pasta like penne or cavatappi for a complete meal.

View Recipe: Chicken Cacciatore

Read More: Start with a Jar of Pasta Sauce

Don't Miss:
Taste Test: Store-Bought Pasta Sauce
Store-Bought Dinner Shortcuts
5-Ingredient Pantry Recipes