I wake up early because the baby is sick and can’t sleep. After cleaning up one mess after another (all before 8 a.m.), we hustle out the door, running late (of course), to get him to grandma’s before I head to work. After putting out one fire after another all day, having consumed only an apple and a cup of coffee over the last nine hours, I swing by to pick up my wife and my son before heading home for the evening. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m cranky, and I have to feed the family. Ugggghhhhhh!

Does this sound familiar? If so, I’m sorry. But there’s hope! Cooking does not need to be complex, involved, or over-complicated to be good—especially on a weekday night. Sure, it would be great to have elegant, gourmet, farm-fresh meals every night. But if we’re talking like this, it’d also be nice to have a live-in chef or a driver to cart us from one restaurant to another, where we’d indulge in prix fixe menus in private dining rooms. These things aren’t realistic, though, so on an average Tuesday night, it’s okay to simply put food on the table that fills the belly and goes down easy.

When my day looks like the one I described above, I’m looking for a couple things: 1) What’s quick and easy; 2) What’s inexpensive; and 3) What do I have around the house? Looking through my cupboards, it’s a pretty safe bet I’ll have tomato soup and pasta, and looking through my fridge/freezer, I’ll likely have some sort of meat. Luckily, that’s all I need to make a great, simple, quick, and inexpensive meal at home.

The Origins of This Dish

Before I move on, I have to give credit where credit is due. My mom, and her mom before her, made the meal I’m about to outline on a regular basis. So, this is a decades-tested dish made generation after generation that I recommend adding to your repertoire. They called it Creamettes and ground meat.

Can you guess what was in it? Pretty obvious, huh? They used Creamette-brand elbow pasta, and ground meat, of course! But there’s one essential non-named ingredient that turns this pasta dish from bland and dry to tasty. So tasty that it was a favorite meal of my sister during our childhood. Guess what it is. That’s right, tomato soup. Impossible, you say? Very possible. One can of condensed tomato soup is all you need. It’s so easy, so cost effective, and so good you’ll be wondering why you haven’t been doing this for years!

1. Take one pound of your favorite ground meat and brown it in a pan. For more flavor (but higher fat content), use ground chuck. For a leaner (though less flavorful) option, use ground sirloin or ground turkey.

2. Cook 8 ounces of your pasta of choice in a larger pot.

3. Combine the browned ground meat and the cooked pasta in the larger pot.

4. Add 10.75 ounces (one can) of condensed tomato soup to your pasta and meat over heat. Do not add water. The consistency of the condensed soup is perfect.

5. Mix until warm and evenly distributed. Salt to taste.

6. Serve with parmesan cheese (if you have it) on the side (alternative: bake or microwave with your cheese of choice on top).

You’ll get 3-4 servings from this recipe, depending on portion size. Still skeptical? Try it out. If you’re looking for something with a bit more pizazz from time to time, give these things a try:

  • Add some sautéed onion to the mix. I prefer yellow or red. The flavor complements the meat and sweetness of the tomato soup.
  • Mix in some cayenne pepper to taste. This will add some extra spice—that is, of course, if you think spice is nice.
  • Stew some cherry tomatoes and add with the soup. This will give the sauce some tomatoey (spell check recognizes this as a word, so I’m going with it) texture.
  • Add sauteed zucchini, peas, or even asparagus for some veggie content. Be aware that the water content of a vegetable like zucchini, or even the cherry tomatoes mentioned above, might change the consistency of the sauce. You may also want to adjust down your meat or pasta content or adjust up your soup content to account for the added ingredient(s).
  • Mix in some parmesan cheese with the tomato soup and let it melt as the soup is warming. This will give your sauce a richer, saltier flavor and a thicker texture.
  • Warm the tomato soup with some milk or half-and-half prior to adding it to the pasta and meat. This will give your sauce a creamier texture and taste. However, it will also thin out the sauce. If you like it, great! If not, you can work around this in a couple ways. You can reduce the sauce, letting some liquid evaporate, or mix up a cornstarch or flour slurry to thicken it up prior to adding it to the pasta and meat.

There you go! The next time you have one of those days, don’t worry. This pasta dish, using regular-old-condensed-tomato soup as sauce, is something you can whip up without breaking a sweat, your spirit, or the bank. And if you have kids, there’s a solid chance they’ll like it too!