It took me the longest time to come around to enjoying pasta salad. It’s at every summer cookout, every salad bar, and it’s always the same. With dry, mushy pasta and a bland, yet overly acidic dressing, it always felt like I was eating a bunch of old leftovers tossed into a bowl. If prepared correctly, however, pasta salad is the perfect dish to make for meal prep. This Caprese chicken pasta salad contains perfectly cooked rigatoni pasta, a lemony pesto vinaigrette, fresh mozzarella pearls, cherry tomatoes, seared chicken, and sweet balsamic glaze. Your fears of under-salted, mushy pasta salad can now be laid to rest, my friends.
What Pasta Should I Use For Pasta Salad?
The best kind of pasta to use for pasta salad meal prep are the short cut varieties, such as penne, rigatoni, shells, bowties, etc. Save your spaghetti and fettuccine for bolognese and alfredo. The larger the pasta, the limper it will get sitting in an acidic dressing over time. Also, smaller pasta shapes cook more evenly and are easier to eat with chunkier salad ingredients, like tomatoes and chunks of cheese. When meal prepping pasta salad, you can also use things like cheese-filled tortellini for a fun twist, but be sure to use the dried kind. Any fresh pasta will become soft and mushy if left sitting for too long. For this Caprese chicken pasta salad meal prep, I use rigatoni, which I find to be the perfect size and shape.
Should I Rinse My Pasta?
Resist the urge to rinse! Any Italian grandmother will disown you if you clean your pasta, and for a good reason. Yes, this pasta salad is for meal prep and pasta clumps as it cools, but listen. The exterior starch on cooked pasta is pure gold. That’s what allows the sauce/dressing to stick to the pasta. Remember all those bland pasta salads you’ve had over the years? It’s probably because the pasta was rinsed, and the dressing slipped off.
What Kind of Dressing Should I Use?
When making pasta salad for fresh meal prep, I tend to use chunkier vinaigrettes, like pesto. If the sauce is too runny, it will just slip off the pasta. The grated parmesan and bits of basil work wonders with helping the sauce cling to the pasta. I add a bit of lemon juice to loosen it up just a bit and add a little bit of acidity, but not too much. The other important thing about pasta salad meal prep is to add the dressing while the pasta is still warm. This way, the pasta won’t clump up and will absorb the dressing as it cools. For this reason, I always make some extra dressing in case I need to add more later.
What Kind of Fix-Ins Should I Use?
One of my biggest beefs with pasta salad is that it often contains a lot of raw vegetables that can make it soggy. For example, cucumbers and bell peppers have high water contents, and when they sit in an acidic dressing for too long, they can become soft and limp. In this Caprese chicken pasta salad meal prep, I use halved fresh and healthy cherry tomatoes, baby arugula, and fresh mozzarella pearls. These ingredients are classic in Caprese salad, and the tomatoes give a nice pop of texture and flavor. I also meal prep some sautéed chicken breast for some protein, but this is optional.
Caprese Chicken Pasta Salad Meal Prep
For the dressing:
2/3 cup basil pesto
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
For the pasta salad:
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
8 ounces rigatoni or penne pasta
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
4 ounces fresh mozzarella pearls
2 handfuls baby arugula leaves
2 tablespoons prepared balsamic glaze
Make the dressing:
In a small jar, add the basil pesto, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Seal the lid, and shake vigorously until well combined. Set aside while you make the chicken and pasta.
Cook the chicken:
Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Rub the chicken with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and sprinkle on a pinch of salt and pepper, and the garlic powder, dried basil, and dried oregano.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken in a single layer, and cook the chicken for 5-7 minutes per side, or until the internal temperature reaches 165° F.
Transfer the chicken to a plate and allow to cool. Slice the chicken, and set aside while you make the pasta.
Cook the pasta:
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until al dente. Allow to boil for another 1-2 minutes, or until the pasta is just a bit softer.
Drain the pasta well and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add most of the dressing, toss, and allow the pasta too cool to room temperature. Add the remaining dressing, and fold in the cherry tomatoes, mozzarella pearls, and arugula leaves. Taste and add additional salt, if necessary.
For meal prep, transfer the pasta to containers and top with sliced chicken. Drizzle on some balsamic glaze, and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
I love meal prepping fresh and healthy pasta salad. When done right, the pasta retains some chew, with a well-seasoned dressing that sticks to the pasta. This Caprese chicken pasta salad meal prep is anything but bland, and all of the ingredients add flavor and texture. Juicy cherry tomatoes, creamy fresh mozzarella, and peppery baby arugula are the perfect add-ins, and the chicken adds protein. This is a great recipe to start with if your new to meal prepping. Once you get these tips and tricks down, your healthy pasta salad meal prep will be next-level. Imagine the pasta-bilities!
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