By: Anjelika Temple Read Time: 4 minutes

I’ll admit it, I have created a family of pesto addicts. It is JUST. SO. GOOD. On everything! On pasta (dubbed “Confetti Spaghetti” by my kids), on eggs, in a quesadilla – I even throw a dollop on greek yogurt with cucumber and crispy chickpeas when I’m craving a savory protein-rich breakfast. That’s why when I found out Former White House Chef and nutrition expert Sam Kass swears by homemade pesto in his signature “Lucky Pasta” recipe, I had to know more. 

First, let’s meet the chef behind this delicious, family-friendly dish. Food entrepreneur Sam Kass is a former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition. During his White House tenure, he took on several additional roles including Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. As one of the First Lady’s longest-serving advisors, he helped Mrs. Obama create the first major vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. Now, about this pasta!

We have to ask, what makes this pasta so lucky?

SK: I was on food duty throughout the debate season of President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. On the way to the second debate (where, following a less-than-perfect first debate against Sen. Mitt Romney in Denver, the pressure to perform was on), I made the President this dish. That night, after dominating the debate, he wrote me one line before heading to bed: “It was the pasta!”. From then on, this dish has been known as “Lucky Pasta” and fueled President Obama through the final debate and on Election Day. 

What makes this dish great for the whole family?

SK: This dish is relatively quick and easy to whip up and saves well in the fridge to keep your family fed for days. It builds upon a classic food, pasta, that everyone, including some of the pickiest eaters among us, tends to enjoy but packs a nutritional punch to keep everyone satiated and fueled throughout the day. 

Can you suggest any substitutes for folks who want to swap the chicken for something else?

SK: Of course! For an extra veggie, I love subbing cauliflower or mushrooms for chicken in this recipe. Tofu or chickpeas also offer an added serving of protein but keep this dish vegetarian-friendly. 

What do you recommend serving alongside this dish?

SK: I love pairing this dish with a side salad or vegetable serving to give the meal an added nutritional boost! Some of my go-tos are a caprese salad and roasted broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, or brussels sprouts.


  • 1 pound mini penne or any pasta shape you like
  • Kosher salt
  • ½ garlic clove
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • ¼ cup toasted pine nuts or pecans
  • ⅓ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to finish
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cooked chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces, warm or room temperature
  • ½ pound baby spinach


  1. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water before draining. 
  2. While the pasta cooks, drop the garlic into a food processor that’s already running and process until the garlic is finely chopped. Add the basil, nuts, cheese, half the oil, and ½ teaspoon of salt and pulse to a coarse puree. While the food processor is running, add the remaining oil in a slow stream and keep processing until smooth.
  3. Toss the hot pasta with pesto, chicken, spinach, and ⅓ cup of the reserved pasta water. Gradually add more pasta water if the dish seems dry. Season with salt to taste and top with additional grated or shaved Parmesan.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the ingredients list for Sam’s Lucky Pasta – it’s not just a crowd-pleaser, it’s a dish packed with nutritional benefits. 

  • Chicken Breasts: Chicken provides a mighty source of lean protein, which can help support healthier muscles and bones.
  • Mini Penne: Try using whole grain penne for an extra benefit since it has fiber which supports healthy digestion and helps us feel fuller longer.
  • Garlic Cloves: A nutrient powerhouse, garlic can help to boost the immune system, reduce blood pressure, and improve cholesterol.
  • Fresh Basil Leaves: Basil leaves are not just aromatic; they are filled with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Toasted Pine Nuts or Pecans: These nutty nuggets of goodness are packed with healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Parmesan Cheese: Parmesan cheese provides a dose of calcium and protein.
  • Extra-virgin Olive Oil: This hearty oil is loaded with healthy fats that can help lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation, and promote good cholesterol.
  • Baby Spinach: Popeye had it right when he chose spinach for his super strength! Spinach is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate and iron.

We will definitely be adding this to our list of meals this week. This is also a great to dish to make *with* your kids! They can measure out each ingredient for the homemade pesto and, under adult supervision, can add ingredients to the food processor and watch it all come together. You can even make extra and keep it jarred for a few days to add to eggs, salad, pizza, and, of course, more pasta! 

How do you mix up pasta night at your house? Any lucky dishes that you serve time and time again? Share your stories and recipes with us on IG @plezinutrition – we love to hear from you. And be sure to follow Sam Kass @samkassdc for more tips on family-friendly meals straight from a chef, dad, and nutrition expert.