Unleash Your Inner Chef: Dump & Bake Casserole Secrets

If you ever grew up in a household where cooking was a chore and any meal needed to last a couple of days, then casseroles were the pinnacle of your culinary identity. Casseroles used to be something I would frown about when I was a child, but as an adult, I find them comforting. Also, as an adult who works full-time, you finally understand why mom or dad made casseroles the default weeknight meal. That is why the trend of “dump and bake” casseroles (and even desserts), are so receptive. The notion of opening packages of food and dumping it in a casserole dish is surprisingly satisfying. They’re easy, quick, and create less dishes in the sink. You may try to quickly find a recipe out there that does just that, but actually, you don’t need one.


Remember the MyPlate icon? The one that teaches you the major food groups? Well let’s use jump back to health class for a second. The five food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains, protein, and dairy) create a whole meal, and guess what, they also make up the building blocks of a casserole. As a former food and nutrition educator in public schools, I have reiterated the importance of food groups till the cows come home. Every single casserole contains those five food groups. This is why making your own without a recipe is easily done with these basic five components.

1. Grains

The grains are the bulk of any casserole. Not only does it provide structure, but it also can fill you up and a good source of fiber. Pasta, rice, quinoa, and even farro are great choices. To make this a true dump-and-bake casserole, toss the uncooked grains in the pan and just add more liquid so they’ll cook as the casserole bakes. But, if you have leftover rice or pasta sitting in your fridge, or even a bag of frozen tater tots, those are all fair game here as well. For one 9×13 casserole, toss in about 2 cups uncooked grains (or about 4 cups, cooked).

2. Protein

Whether it’s tuna noodle casserole, chicken casserole, or even a sausage and pasta bake, they all have some form of protein in them. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, plant based proteins like canned beans or a pack of tofu can be used. If you have leftover cooked chicken (a rotisserie chicken also works well here), ground beef, or even cans of tuna, a dump and bake casserole can be a great vessel to use them. The rule of thumb is at least one pound of protein per 9×13 casserole.

3. Vegetables

Including a vegetable (or a few) is a great way to add not only nutrients, but also flavor. Skip sauteéing vegetables and stick to the dump and bake philosophy by opening up some cans of corn or mixed veggies. I mean, the classic green bean casserole uses canned beans and it’s the OG dump and bake casserole. But frozen vegetables are also great here—you can add a bag of frozen chopped spinach or any veggie mix you like. You always want to have as much vegetables as you can—so aim to get at least 2 cups in there.

4. Sauce

Now no casserole is worth eating without sauce. Have you tried to eat grains, vegetables, and protein without a sauce and not had to take drink after every bite? I didn’t think so. Plus, the sauce is going to provide the moisture needed to cook the grains.

Keep it simple and reach for a can or a jar for this portion. Options include Alfredo sauce, tomato sauce, or a white garlic sauce. Cans of condensed soup like cream of chicken or cream of mushroom are always great choices. Just twist, pour, done. Depending on how saucy you enjoy your casseroles, you always want to add at least 1 to 2 cups of the sauce for one 9×13 casserole. But if you have uncooked grains in there you’ll need to go up to about 4 cups. An easy way to do this is by adding some water or broth to hit that 4 cups so the grains have plenty of moisture to absorb.

5. Cheese

Now, don’t forget about the cheese. I think every casserole needs cheese. Cheddar, mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, fontina, gouda, blue, Colby Jack, even Velvetta are all great choices. It’s up to you how cheesy you like your casseroles, but I would say adding a 1/2 to 1 cup of shredded cheese on the top of a 9×13 inch casserole dish is just fine.