Updated on 09.07.14

Summer Meal Series #7: Tuna, Vegetable, and Cheese Stuffed Manicotti

Trent Hamm

What’s on the table this summer?

Stuffed Manicotti

I love tuna. It’s a wonderfully light fish with a distinctive flavor that works well in summer meals. It’s also a component of a tuna noodle casserole that my mother used to make that remains one of my comfort foods.

Sarah and I wanted to build on that “comfort” tuna noodle casserole, making it a bit healthier and a bit lighter. After riffing on some recipes from various cookbooks, we came up with tuna-stuffed manicotti with a cheese sauce, served with a spinach salad and a really simple fruity side dish that goes great with a summer meal (which I’ll mention at the end):

Manicotti with spinach salad

This meal used what looks like a small mountain of ingredients, but they actually came together pretty well:


What You’ll Need

16 manicotti shells
2/3 cup finely chopped green pepper (about a bell pepper’s worth)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion (about a third or so of a medium onion)
5 tablespoons butter or margarine
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups cottage cheese
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese (I usually like to grate this myself, but we didn’t have a chunk of Parmesan on hand)
1 teaspoon marjoram
2 cups cooked vegetables (peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower – any of those will work)
2 small cans of tuna (about 12 ounces total)
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (your choice – we used American because of how well it melts)

Our total cost for all of these ingredients was $9.62. Our end product served the four of us for dinner and for lunch the next day, bringing the cost per meal down to $1.20.

What to Do Next: Step by Step

1. Cook the manicotti according to package directions, leaving you with some big pasta tubes to stuff.

2. While that’s boiling, put two tablespoons of butter or margarine in a skillet over medium heat until it’s melted

3. Cook the green pepper and onion until it’s a little tender (but not brown)

Cooking the vegetables

4. Mix together the eggs, cottage cheese, half of the Parmesan cheese, marjoram, the peppers and onions, the tuna, and the vegetables you choose to use (we used peas). Stir this up until it’s consistent. It’ll be moist but not watery.

Manicotti stuffing

5. Stuff the manicotti shells with this mixture and lay them in a lightly greased 9″ by 13″ pan.
You’ll have plenty to fill up each manicotti tube.

When we finished stuffing, our pan looked like this:

Stuffed manicotti in 9" by 13" pan

6. Make the cheese sauce to put on top:

Melt three tablespoons of butter or margarine over medium heat, then mixed in the flour, salt, and a dash of pepper until it became thick and almost doughy. We then poured in all of the milk and stirred it until it was evenly thick, like a thick soup. We then added the cheese and kept stirring the sauce until it was all melted, looking something like this:

Cheese sauce

Once it’s melted, we just poured it over the manicotti, sprinkled the remaining Parmesan on top, covered the pan with aluminum foil, and stuck it in the oven for about 40 minutes at 350 F (180 C).

Our pan looked wonderful when we pulled it out of the oven:


On the Side: Spinach Salad with Frozen Fruit Salad

We chose to serve it with a spinach salad and with a simple frozen fruit salad on the side. The fruit salad was really easy – we just mixed together some miscellaneous fruits we had laying around (quartered grapes, coconut, and some celery were the key ones) along with some peach-flavored yogurt. We poured this mixture into cupcake shells and froze them, popping them out just before the meal. It was a wonderful summery side.

Manicotti with spinach salad

Our family loved this. My four year old son actually ate more manicotti than I did (he ate one and a half pieces to my single one). When we pulled it out again to have for leftovers the next day, the kids actually started cheering (and I did, too – it was delicious).

This is just all-around a wonderful dish – it’s priced right, is quite flavorful, and is easy to make (you can do all of it the night before, stick it in the fridge, and just bake it the next day if you want).

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  1. just me says:

    Mmm, I LOVE tuna casserole, it’s one of my favorite comfort foods. This is a fun adaptation….it’s just…that “cheese”. Can you even call that cheese? Yikes.

  2. Russ says:

    I like the meal posts but it would be nice if you listed what the cost per serving and nutritional value per serving was. That might be something to include in future posts like these…

  3. Courtney says:

    Russ, cost per serving is right under the ingredients list. In this case, $1.20.

  4. youareloved says:

    hi..nice recipe..

    Trent your portion sizes look really small. I eat thrice as much and weight 75 kilos at 6 feet 1. How do you survive on this?

    I would change 3 things in this recipe:

    I believe cheese singles are soooo bad..wud have real cheddar.., that vegetable oil fake butter…awful..get real butter…will use whole spelt flour pasta…

  5. Deb J says:

    Great recipe. Looks and sounds yummy.

  6. Russ says:

    Thanks Courtney, I see it now

  7. Annie says:

    Just a thought. Jumbo shells are easier to stuff and would be a riff on the fish. Ingredients are going on my shopping list right now. THANKS!

  8. Alice says:

    If you’d be interested in an alternative to the preservatives and transfats in American cheese , jack cheese is one that melts really nicely. Colby (or Colby-Jack) also melts well, and a lot of mild cheddars also make great cheese sauce. They may not be as cheap up front as American cheese singles, but the investment in health saves money in the long run, eh?

  9. moxiemaxey says:

    This sounds really good. I love the peas in the recipe. Reminds me of my mom’s tuna noodle casserole that she’d serve with peas on the side.

  10. valleycat1 says:

    This sounds pretty good, but your premise is that you “wanted to build on that “comfort” tuna noodle casserole, making it a bit healthier and a bit lighter.”

    If you’re talking about the standard tuna casserole – (the one I grew up on was just mushroom soup & tuna mixed into cooked egg noodles, maybe with green peas) – I don’t see how putting all this cheese+butter in the dish makes it lighter or healthier, even with the other added veggies. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the nutritional values of the old & your version per serving.

    My updated version of the casserole is to use higher quality tuna with either a homemade white sauce w/fresh mushrooms sauteed in broth, or the low-sodium version of the canned soup. I also just prepare it all on top of the stove instead of adding a baking step, so the time involved is boiling the noodles plus a few minutes to warm it up once everything else is dumped in (preparing the sauce while the noodles cook).

  11. Gretchen says:

    Ditto above- not sure how this is healthier.

    I’m also not sure how what looks like American singles is cheaper than a block of cheese. It’s certainly more packaging.

  12. Kevin says:

    Ditto valleycat: I applaud your creativity, but this hardly strikes me as healthy.

    Also, forgive me, but when was celery designated a fruit?

    Finally, that’s hardly a “spinach salad;” it’s spinach leaves with some dressing. Why not apply a bit of creativity to creating an interesting salad?

  13. Adam says:

    This looks very yummy, I have to say. I would make a few changes however if cooking for myself without fussy kids to please. Namely, whole wheat pasta shells, whole wheat flour, more veggies (spinach on the inside might work well with the cottage cheese filling), and real cheese instead of the processed kind.

    Trent, do you worry about the mercury in canned tuna for your kids? I only eat tuna from a can about once every other week because of the news about it, but I’m sure there are brands you can get that have no or minimal mercury content too.

  14. Adam says:

    Also, I wouldn’t add salt to the dish. I’m sure it has plenty already included between the cheese and pasta.

  15. Keri says:

    This looks really good; I never would have thought to make these. Thanks for sharing!

  16. sarah says:

    uh, yeah, i have to go with valleycat1. three cheeses (even if one is cottage) is not lighter then tuna noodle casserole.

    you cut down on the pasta a bit, but jeez–the amount of cheese in this is blowing my mind.

    anyways, i’m glad it was tasty and affordable.

    fyi: whole grain pasta, low fat real cheese and replacing the cottage cheese with mashed cauliflower would really make it “light.” :)

  17. mshell says:

    Yeah, I definitely don’t think this is healthy (take that with a grain of salt because I’m kind of a food purist).

    Trent does have kids that he needs to feed, and kids do tend to be pickier about foods that contain bacteria. I know when I was younger the only cheese I’d eat was american.

    I’d substitute a lower fat cheese like mozzarella or provolone and I’d use the spinach in the actual manicotti. I’d also use olive oil instead of butter. I don’t mind having a less cheesy/creamy texture, plus it tastes good. Whole wheat ingredients would have made it more fiber rich.

    In trent’s defense, he did use smart balance instead of butter. You can’t get much better as far as health goes if you’re going to use butter or oil. And the filling was almost completely vegetables–getting kids to eat vegetables is not easy.

  18. Michele says:

    HI Trent, if you put your recipes into the new recipe feature of calorie counter dot com you can get a nutritional analysis in about 2 seconds!
    By the way, this sounds great- I’ll just leave out the tuna. My husband won’t eat it warm or in tuna casserole …I’ll probably just make it with the veggies for a great Lent dinner!

  19. Jules says:

    I couldn’t care less whether this is any more healthy than anything else floating around out there. I’m of the opinion that “everything in moderation”, including eggs and whole milk-based yogurt, is the way to go – and for the record, I do eat lots of fruits and veggies. This recipe looks delicious, though a bit much for two people. But I do second the opinion that nutritional information would be nice to see.

  20. moom says:

    Side dish = dessert?

  21. Mardi says:

    Is there a way to print these recipes without the pictures? I’m saving my faves in a 3×5 card file, so I need to condense them. This particular recipe looks great–my husband would love it.

  22. slf says:

    Do the leftovers freeze well?

  23. GayleRN says:

    The can of tuna your mother used in her receipes was 7 ounces. Cans of tuna these days are only 5 ounces. So if you are wondering why a recipe isn’t quite working any more, the packaging may have changed and not in your favor. The package shrinks but the price doesn’t.

  24. WendyH says:

    Looks good, I’ve made something similar (spinach & turkey sausage) and froze them individually (without sauce), then top with jar/homemade pasta sauce and throw it in the oven. It works well because I can pull out what I need for 2 people and cook from frozen, but should have some binder other than raw eggs if it’s getting microwaved as final cooking.

    For those of you suggesting whole wheat pasta, where are you finding WW manicotti or shells? I’ve never seen any where I shop.

  25. Mary says:

    Love the receipe for the side dish, healthy, fruit and yogurt frozen sounds yummy, great of you have just a hand full of berries or other fruit to use up.
    We grew up on tuna casserole and I haven’t made it in years, might try this updated version for my husband.
    Thanks for the dinner idea.

  26. Amy B. says:

    Love the frozen salad idea – a throwback to my youth, for sure…

  27. DeeBee says:

    I usually prefer only cold tuna but will give this a try with some modifications. I buy no-salt-added tuna to reduce the sodium content. I love the frozen fruit salad idea and will definitely try it.


  28. AliceH says:

    I am making it with canned chicken today (allergic to fish). I rinse my chicken in running water and drain to lower the sodium content, but plan on using american cheese also. This may not be the lowest calorie dish or have the most amount of nutrient values, but it looks good and my family is sure to enjoy it. Keep the delicious and low cost meals coming our way!

  29. Leah W. says:

    I was on board with the fajitas. The pasta sauce didn’t look half bad, although it could’ve used some mushrooms and about 1/2 cup of red wine. But this? Well, I draw the line here. This reminds me of a school cafeteria meal circa 1989. Not good.

  30. Lodolfo says:

    I’d just like to ask people to avoid bluefin tuna as much as possible. It’s on the verge of extintion and fishing companies aren’t caring. They seem to want to fish it into oblivion, so the only thing that can save it is if people stop buying it. I think there was an article published recently on the New York Times about that subject. Here’s a quick explanation but more info can easily be found on the net.


  31. Systemizer says:


    “everything in moderation”

    I used to feel the same way about tobacco.

  32. sarah says:

    @Jules Agreed, but Trent said they were purposefully looking for something “lighter than tuna noodle casserole” and most posters are reacting to _that_. If he had just said, “hey we made this”, the debate wouldn’t necessarily have focused on less fattening, lower sodium, higher fiber versions.

  33. Brittany says:

    I second Leah.

    Normally, i enjoy your cooking posts, Trent, but this series of them has been rather lack luster.

  34. Amanda says:

    Looks fantastic…I’m sure there is far less preservatives in this than the boxed Tuna-Helper they sell up here.

    To those of you complaining about the American cheese…why not just buy some low fat cheddar? I’m not surprised he used American…even though I have decent cooking skill I always find my cheese sauce grainy when I use traditional cheddar cheese.

    Think I’ll try this, I’ve never thought up anything different with manicotti other than spinach and ricotta filling.

    P.S. Some breadcrumbs on top would add some great crunch I’m sure.

  35. Systemizer says:

    Either everything’s gigantic, or that’s a dessert fork.

  36. Ashby says:

    Started this recipe and discovered that the can I thought was tuna, was actually chicken. Used it anyway, and the result was delicious. I’ll try it again and use tuna next time, but for those who don’t like tuna (or have kids or spouses that don’t) the canned chicken was great.

  37. Peggy says:

    Hi Trent, I think this is a great recipe, and I love the pictures to go along with it. These make it seem like this is easy, I can do this.
    As for the other ingrates here that are doing nothing but complaining, I would recommend they just remove themselves from your mailing list, and they won’t have to be bothered with it anymore.

    Keep up the good work.

  38. Cheri says:

    @Brittany I have to agree with you. I too usually enjoy these posts but I’m not feeling this series either..I also don’t want to eat celery (since when is it a fruit) frozen with peach yogurt either! Yuck! Trent I really do enjoy reading “The Simple Dollar” but honestly, this recipe and many others you post could be a whole hella lot healthier by using low-fat, low-sodium, skim/soy milk, whole wheat pasta, etc..

  39. Michelle says:

    Not really related to this post, but Trent, i’m thinking of making my own yoghurt. Have you ever tried this?

  40. John says:

    This looks fantastic. I can taste it through the computer. My wife is not a tuna fan so I am going to have to make this for myself.

  41. Meg says:

    This recipe looks great.
    Do you bake alot in the Summer?
    I try NOT to use the oven in the Summer to help conserve energy.
    We use the crockpot alot, and if I decide to bake, it is early morning while it’s still cool outside with the windows wide open.

  42. Michelle says:

    If your sauce is grainy, you didn’t stir it long enough. Keep stirring it until it’s really smooth, it takes a couple minutes for it to smooth out.

    Ug, American “cheese”? No thanks. Colby has a similar taste, melts nicely, and actually comes from an animal product.

  43. Julie says:

    I am blessed (cursed?) with a husband who’s a great cook, so I rarely have to cook for our family myself, but last night I took a chance on this recipe because it looked so good. The verdict? I loved it – and so did my husband and my two-year-old son. Two thumbs up – and SO CHEAP TO MAKE! Love it. Thanks again.

  44. DOTTIE says:

    A “secret” my mother taught be with cheese sauce is that you when you use cheddar cheese add just one slice of American to make it melt smoother. I do this every time and it is wonderful. I’m not a big fan of American cheese but just adding a slice is almost tasteless in the cheddar.

  45. Sonja B. says:

    I like the idea of adding mushrooms. We are using red pepper, onion and spinach tonight. My Dad has another chicken pasta, similar to this, that uses green olives and is quite (surprisingly) tasty.

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