Creamy, cheesy, and comforting dishes don’t have to be guilty pleasures and this healthy chicken and brown rice casserole is a perfect example. Packed with vegetables, mushrooms, lean chicken, and healthy brown rice, it’s a great dinner option the whole family will love.
Casseroles are fall and winter staple. When it gets cold, everyone wants some comforting dishes to warm them up. Loaded with carbohydrates and gooey cheese or cream, casseroles are prefect for satisfying our winter cravings.
But casseroles don’t have to be unhealthy dishes with lots of calories and simple carbohydrates. Pasta bakes are a great way to incorporate more vegetables during the winter or if you have picky eaters. They do well with frozen and preserved vegetables, or as a use for all those winter greens, like spinach.
While this casserole has plenty of cream and cheese, it is also packed with vegetables, lean chicken, and healthy brown rice. Plus, there are no sodium filled, canned soups called for here. This satisfying meal is completely from scratch, without any condensed or cream of whatever ingredients. Embrace the simple, comforting flavors of a cheesy casserole from scratch.
What makes something a casserole?
Since I was introduced to the term (there isn’t exactly a direct translation in Lithuanian), I have always considered casseroles to be a dish where all the ingredients are combined all in one pan and most of the cooking is completed in the oven. I’m sure there is a more technical definition, but that’s the trend I’ve seen.
Another common element I find defines a casserole is some form of cheesy or creamy sauce element. I think this is why pastas lend themselves so well to casseroles and similar all-in-one bakes, like a chicken and vegetable lasagna. And while I do a lot of pasta bakes and casseroles, sometimes I want something with more nutrients.
Using whole grains
When you are looking for healthy choices in cooking, a really easy substitution to make is to pick the low processed grain over one that goes through a lot of processing. Which is to say: pick the whole grains! Brown rice versus white or whole wheat versus white wheat are easy changes to make in your diet. Or you can go a step further and try wild rice – this creamy salmon rice casserole is really delicious and healthy.
To get “white” flours and rice, the outer coating or bran of the grain is removed during processing. But the bran contains most of the nutrients in the grain – where most of the vitamins, proteins, and fiber are. So, when you use brown rice rather than white rice, you are getting all those extra nutrients without having to change anything else about the dish.
Brown rice brings some extra flavor and texture to the dish as well. It is all too easy to overcook white rice, or lose the flavor to everything else that is going on in the casserole. Chicken! Cheese! Vegetables! Cream! White rice would just disappear in all that. Brown rice adds complexity to the dish with its nutty flavor and chewy texture. More nutrients and extra flavor sounds like a double win to me.
Freeze for later
Casseroles are perfect to store for later. They freeze well and turn into great leftovers. Or if you need to prepare food ahead of time that can just be taken out of the freezer and put straight in the oven, various kinds of casseroles are the best choice for easy meals.
If you are freezing leftovers in single portions, storage is going to depend on how you are reheating it. The best choice for reheating is always going to be in an oven to give you that crispy top. This casserole can also be reheated in a microwave, but you won’t get quite the same results. Either way, make sure you store your portions in an oven or microwave safe container, or transfer the casserole to one before reheating.
When storing a full casserole to be heated later, you always need to store it in an oven safe container so you can put it straight in the oven. If you are trying to stock your freezer with lots of meals – planning for a baby, or a major surgery – you probably aren’t going to have enough baking dishes. So, I recommend purchasing disposable baking trays with matching storage lids. Then you will be able to stack plenty in your freezer.
If you are making your casserole to freeze and eat later, you shouldn’t cook it all the way. Since all the components are partially cooked before being combined, you can add everything to the baking dish and store it without any baking. When baking later, cover the dish with foil and bake it until defrosted all the way through before removing the foil and getting it bubbling and crispy.
Rice casseroles are also great for cooking for gluten free meals. While this chicken and brown rice casserole does call for panko breadcrumbs, there are now several easily available gluten free replacements that you can use to add that extra crunch on top. It’s such an easy switch that can make everyone feel included if they have dietary restrictions.
But if you want a pasta version (maybe switch in some whole wheat pasta), try this chicken, broccoli, and cheese casserole. And while a lot of my recipes call for diced chicken, you can always mix it up. I like to stick to the low fat options, like chicken and ground turkey, but they are plenty of options with other meats – or even no meat!
Healthy Chicken and Brown Rice Casserole
- 4 cups low sodium chicken broth
- 2 cups uncooked long grain brown rice
- 3 cups broccoli florets , cut into bite sized pieces
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 lb (450g) boneless skinless chicken breasts , cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3/4 teaspoon salt , divided
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper , divided
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter , divided
- 1/2 lb (225g) white button mushrooms , finely chopped
- 1/2 red bell pepper , diced
- 1 onion , chopped
- 1 clove garlic , finely chopped
- 2 cups milk , divided
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/3 cup non-fat plain Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese , divided
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- chopped parsley , for garnish
- Bring chicken broth to a boil in a large pot. Add the rice, cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer. When the rice has about 5 minutes left to cook, add broccoli on top. Cover and let cook for the remaining 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add chicken. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder. Saute until chicken is no longer pink outside, about 5 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes, until tender. Add the onion and bell pepper, and saute for 3 minutes, then add the garlic and continue to saute for another minute. Reduce heat to medium. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch with 1/2 cup of milk, making sure it dissolves completely.
- Pour this mixture into the skillet, then stir in the remaining milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until starts to thicken, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Greek yogurt, Dijon mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, Parmesan cheese and 1 cup grated cheddar cheese.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly coat a large baking dish with cooking spray. Place the chicken and rice/broccoli mixture in a large mixing bowl. Pour in the prepared sauce and toss until thoroughly coated. Scoop mixture into a baking dish. In a small bowl, mix together the panko breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons melted butter and remaining 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese. Spread the mixture on top of casserole.
- Cover with the foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown on top and casserole is bubbling around edges. Let sit a few minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, if desired.