Vegetarian Pesto PastaThis post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Please read my disclosure.
This healthy vegetarian pesto pasta recipe is easy to make and perfect for a fuss-free weeknight meal. Ricotta gives this sauce a creamy texture, fresh basil provides a bold flavor, and the added pine nuts gives it a nice crunch! Tossed with frozen spinach, this pesto veg pasta is ready in just 30 minutes, and makes a quick dinner recipe for the whole family!
I love homemade Italian pesto: there is something so satisfying about the fresh herbs and luscious mouthfeel of pesto when compared to marinara sauce. But, I consider it more of a guilty pleasure because normally pesto is loaded with tons of oil, cheese, and fat – which makes it a less healthy alternative to marinara sauce.
While you can sometimes substitute other greens (kale, spinach, etc.) for some of the fat, I’ve never quite found a recipe that tastes perfect. However, I’ve finally done it!
This creamy vegetarian pesto pasta recipe tastes just like the original pesto, but with more nutrition, and less than half the calories of the original.
The sauce is thick, almost an emerald green, and still has that richness of a traditional pesto. It coats the penne so that every bite is super tasty. Making your own pesto is so easy, and much healthier than store bought. It’s a great way to enjoy this summery herbal pasta sauce guilt-free!
This is a wonderful healthy recipe to enjoy anytime of the year. The basil pesto pasta is lightened up with the addition of spinach, pine nuts and a bunch of fresh herbs. In addition it is served with whole wheat penne adding fiber to this dish too! Much healthier than regular pasta, you can also choose to serve it with lentil or chickpea pasta to amp up the protein.
It also happens to be super kid-friendly! Paired with penne it makes for a meal that kids will love. My kids both gobbled this up and asked for seconds. The great thing is: picky eaters won’t realize they’re getting a healthy helping of spinach with their meal!
The herbs were so aromatic, they filled up our house with the most wonderful smell! You will love this healthy vegetarian Italian recipe!
👩🏽🍳 Why This Recipe Works
- Easy recipe
- Toss in your favorite summer veggies
- Best way to use up basil
- Vegan option
- Super creamy pesto pasta
- Gluten-free option
- Fresh and seasonal
- Family friendly
- Best basil pesto pasta ever!
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This simple dish requires just a few ingredients easily found at your local grocery store or farmer’s market! For details on ingredient quantities, see the recipe card at the bottom of this post.
- Spinach: This leafy green vegetable brings fiber, vitamins and minerals to this recipe, but also lends to its flavor and bright green color. I used frozen spinach to save time, but you can use fresh spinach if you prefer!
- Basil: It wouldn’t be classic pesto recipe without basil, this fresh and fragrant herb is in season during the summer months. One tip: buy a bunch of fresh basil leaves during the summer when it’s in season, and freeze it in individual portions (in zip-top freezer bags), so you can use it all year round!
- Pine Nuts: For a little crunch, and as a classic pairing with the fresh basil for this pesto sauce recipe. If you can’t find pine nuts, silvered almonds or walnuts would also work well! Both almond and walnut pesto have nice nutty flavors that work well in this recipe.
- Spices: A combination of spices such as fresh garlic cloves, sea salt and black pepper enhance the flavor of the sauce. Feel free to add any of your favorite Italian spices for extra flavor, a squeeze of lemon juice for acidity, and add red pepper flakes for more heat.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Using a little olive oil combined with vegetable broth gives the low calorie pesto enough liquid to help all of the ingredients combine, and still have a creamy finish, while also reducing the total amount of oil used to decrease the calories and fat.
- Ricotta Cheese: Adds necessary creaminess to this vegetarian pesto pasta recipe! To make this dish vegan, use a dairy free ricotta cheese (Kite Hill makes a great option).
- Parmesan Cheese: This healthy pesto pasta recipe calls for fresh parmesan cheese, not the grated type you find in the aisle with the pasta. Half will go in your sauce, and the other half on top of your pasta for serving. For a vegan version, leave the parmesan out or use vegan parmesan.
- Whole Wheat Penne: High in fiber, using whole wheat penne increases the nutritional value of this dish! When it comes to the best pasta for basil pesto, I like pastas with a hearty shape so they absorb the sauce well (like penne). Other pastas that work best with pesto include rotini pasta, linguine, bucatini, capellini, spaghetti and fettuccine! But you really can use any kind of noodle you like!
This recipe is super easy and is ready in less than 30 minutes! Here’s how to make low calorie pesto pasta:
Make The Homemade Basil Pesto Sauce: Combine basil, ricotta, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper into a food processor or blender and blend until smooth.
Cook Pasta: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Drain pasta and reserve 1-2 ladle fulls of pasta water (about a half cup of pasta water) to mix with the homemade pesto if needed to thin it out.
Cook The Spinach: In a large pan, heated over medium heat, defrost the frozen spinach for 2-3 min.
Combine With Drained Pasta: Add in the cooked pasta and creamy sauce, stir until blended. Add the pasta water a little at a time until you like the consistency and taste.
Serve Warm! Serve this pesto and veggie pasta topped with 1-2 tsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt, and a small sprinkling of extra pine nuts!
💭 Expert Tips
- Don’t rinse your pasta once it’s cooked. For best results, cook the pasta al dente, and drain it, but don’t rinse it to retain some of that starchiness. Toss it immediately with the sauce once it’s cooked.
- If you have any leftover pesto, keep in in a sealable glass jar and top it up with olive oil to keep it fresh.
- Make sure to choose a vegetable-rennet based cheese to keep this vegetarian friendly
- Feel free to toss this easy pesto pasta with any extra veggies you have on hand – zucchini, carrots, squashes, bell peppers and broccoli would all work well. If you choose to add more veggies (in addition to, or instead of, spinach) to this dish, keep each vegetable’s cooking time in mind. Harder veggies like carrots or sweet potatoes will take longer to cook while softer veggies, especially summer vegetables, like zucchini will cook quickly. You’ll want to cook the veggies separately in a skillet (and add them to the skillet in the order it takes them to cook) before adding them to your pasta.
❄️ How To Store Pesto
For The Pesto Vegetable Pasta All Together
Let the veggie pasta cool completely, and store in an air tight container in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Reheat in the microwave for 1 minute or until cooked through. I don’t recommend freezing the pesto sauce pasta once it’s been mixed with the sauce – it will get a little mushy once it’s defrosted. I recommend preparing the pasta fresh if making the sauce in advance.
For Just The Leftover Pesto Sauce
This homemade vegetarian pesto sauce will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 5 days. It actually tastes even better the next day because the flavors have more time to meld together!
Pesto freezes really well, and it’s a good idea to freeze fresh pesto in the spring and summer (when herbs are the most aromatic) so you can have it on hand all year long. You can make a big batch of this basil pesto and store it in individual portions to make defrosting super easy!
To freeze small amounts of pesto, put spoonfuls into ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer the pesto cubes to freezer bags. Feel free to use it any time to make pasta with pesto sauce, but they’re also perfect to use as flavor-enhancers in salad dressings, soups, or even to mix into a bowl of rice. To freeze large batches of pesto, transfer to a freezer storage container, cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil, then seal. Having larger batches on hand works perfectly for those times when you want to throw dinner together quickly.
- Vegan Pesto Sauce: Turn this into a vegan pesto pasta recipe by using vegan parmesan cheese and vegan ricotta cheese. You can also substitute the parmesan cheese with nutritional yeast. Use 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast in the pesto sauce, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons on top of the pasta before serving.
- Make It Gluten-Free: Use a gluten-free pasta such as lentil, chickpea based pasta, or brown rice pasta instead of the whole wheat penne. To add in even more veggies and reduce the carbs, you can use zucchini noodles instead of pasta itself!
- Veggie Pesto Pasta Recipe: For more of a pasta primavera feel, add some of your favorite fresh vegetables such as yellow squash, green beans, zucchini, bell peppers, red onion, broccoli, eggplant, or cherry tomatoes. Use vegetables that are in season. You can saute the veggies in a large skillet, or roast them on a baking sheet in the oven before adding them to this pasta with pesto.
- Broccoli Pesto Pasta: Add 1 cup of broccoli florets to the food processor with the basil and other pesto ingredients! Blend to combine and then toss with this healthy pesto pasta recipe!
- Add More Protein: Feel free to toss in some white beans, cannelini beans, or chickpeas with your vegetarian pesto pasta for more protein! Be sure to adjust the seasoning/amount of sauce if you do!
Traditionally, veggie pesto pasta isn’t often thought of as a healthy meal because it’s high in calories and refined grains. But in moderation, pesto can actually be quite healthy as it includes healthy fats, vitamins and nutrients.
This vegetarian pesto recipe is especially healthy because it is packed with whole grains, fiber, and each serving only has about 320 calories! If you want to make this recipe even healthier and gluten-free, you can use a lentil or chickpea based pasta. You can also make this a vegan dish by omitting the cheese or using a vegan cheese.
Not all pesto is vegetarian, because some pesto recipes and most store-bought pesto sauces will include animal-rennet-based parmesan (and animal rennet is taken from calves’ stomachs).
But I was able to find rennet free parmesan and ricotta at the grocery store, so this recipe is completely veggie-friendly! (Just look at the ingredients list of the cheese to find an animal-rennet-free cheese for this recipe!)
You can also find some vegetarian friendly store bought (pre made) pesto – Trader Joe’s and Sprouts Organic grocery stores both carry a veggie-friendly and vegan pesto.
There are so many serving options when it comes to this vegetarian pesto pasta recipe.
Some of our favorites include:
** A garden salad with spring vegetables or this keto Greek salad
** Homemade vegan garlic bread or these garlic bread grilled cheese sandwiches
** Sauteed seasonal vegetables
** Make pesto pasta with roasted veggies or add roasted vegetables as a side like these roasted broccoli and potatoes
** Alongside a bigger spread with this vegetable polenta and white bean soup
** Alternative toppings like: Roasted grape or cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, different cheeses, chickpeas, cannellini beans, more greens like arugula, spinach or kale!
Pretty much any veggies will taste great with vegetarian basil pesto pasta, but some of the best veggies to pair with pesto include: green veggies like leafy greens, spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus, green beans, peas; sweet veggies like bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers; and root veggies like carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes!
🍝 More Healthy Pasta Dishes!
- High Protein Pasta Salad
- Red Lentil Pasta Recipe
- Healthy Macaroni and Cheese
- Pesto Without Pine Nuts
- Healthy Garlic Pasta
- Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto and Feta
Love this plant based pasta recipe? Please leave a 5-star rating 🌟 in the recipe below and/or a review in the comments section further down the page!
📋 Recipe Card
🎥 Watch How to Make It
Vegetarian Pesto Pasta
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves
- ¼ cup part skim ricotta cheese
- 2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese make sure your parmesan has vegetarian rennet, not animal rennet
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp chopped garlic
- ¼ tsp salt or more to taste
- ¼ tsp black pepper or more to taste
- 1 16oz bag Frozen Spinach
- Freshly grated Parmesan to top your pasta dish
- 8 oz Whole wheat penne pasta or any whole wheat pasta you like!
- Pasta water save about 1-2 ladle-fulls after cooking the pasta – it helps to make the sauce even creamier!
- To make the pesto sauce, put all ingredients (basil through black pepper in the list above) into a food processor and blend until smooth.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions, reserve 1-2 ladle fulls of pasta water to mix with the sauce.
- In a large pan, heated over medium heat, defrost the frozen spinach for 2-3 min. Add in the cooked pasta and pesto sauce, stir until blended. Add the pasta water a little at a time until you like the consistency and taste.
- Serve topped with 1-2 tsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a small sprinkling of pine nuts!
- Cook the pasta al dente and don’t rinse it after you drain it.
- If you have any left over pesto, keep in in a sealable glass jar and top it up with olive oil to keep it fresh.
- Pesto freezes really well! Just portion it in ice cubes!
- If you don’t have pine nuts, you can use walnuts or almonds instead. Both almond and walnut pesto have nice nutty flavors that work well in this recipe!
- Make sure to choose a vegetable-rennet based cheese to keep this vegetarian friendly
- Feel free to toss this pasta with any extra veggies you have on hand – zucchini, carrots, squashes, bell peppers and broccoli would all work well.
- Swap the penne for a gluten-free chickpea based pasta (to make this recipe gluten-free), or any other whole wheat pasta of your choice. To add in even more veggies and reduce the carbs, you can use zucchini noodles instead of pasta itself!
- For some extra protein, feel free to throw in some cannelini beans or chickpeas as you toss the pasta! Be sure to adjust the seasoning/amount of sauce if you do!