We can always rely on a bowl of pasta -- it's quick, delicious and comfort food at its best.
Although homemade pasta sauce is ideal, many of us rely on the convenience of ready-made supermarket pasta sauces. But not all pasta sauces are made equal.
"Bottled pasta sauce can be a convenient low-cost option to feed the family. However, many compromise on taste and nutrition," dietitian Kaitlyn Bruschi told The Huffington Post Australia.
"One of the biggest issues is that there are so many options out there and they all vary on taste, salt, sugar and energy content. It can be really difficult to find a product which suits your needs, within budget."
When shopping for pasta sauce, be wary of health claims or buzzwords like 'natural', 'nature', 'organic' or 'gluten free' on the packaging.
"Be aware of how marketing influences our buying decisions. A product labelled to look more 'natural' and to contain more vegetables is often misleading," Bruschi said.
"It is important to flip the bottle over and check the ingredients list."
Not sure how to read nutrition labels? Don't worry, it's easy.
"First step is to have a look at the ingredients list and find the products with the least ingredients," Bruschi said.
"In Australia, ingredients must be listed in order of their quantities in that product, with ingredients making up a larger portion of the product being listed first.
"This can be a really valuable tool when comparing products. It helps identify products that have the best nutrition, while also minimising our intake of preservatives and additives."
As a general rule, steer clear of products with sugar or sugar alternatives listed early on in the ingredients list.
"Same goes for salt and fats. These are three nutrients that creep into bottled pasta sauces," Bruschi said.
"If you have the time to look in a bit more detail, you can also check the nutrition information panel. For sugar, aim for less than five grams per 100 grams, for sodium aim for less than 400 milligrams per 100 grams, and for overall energy content aim for less than 300 kilojoules per serve."
According to Bruschi, the best supermarket pasta sauces are the tomato-based jars (without cheese or meat) which meet or fall below the sugar, fat and salt targets. Examples include most tomato varieties by Dolmio 'Extra', Barilla and Leggo's.
But the healthiest pasta sauce? One that is fresh and homemade.
"Passata is one of my all-time favourite ingredients, which I always have in the pantry. It's basically puréed tomatoes which you can use in soups, stews, and of course in your own pasta sauces. It's also a lot cheaper than conventional bottled pasta sauces," Bruschi said.
"Simply sauté some diced onion and garlic in Aussie extra virgin olive oil, add lean mince, brown, then add your passata. I also add a tin of diced tomatoes, a splash of red wine and some Italian herbs.
"Serve your spag bol with a side salad and you have a quick, nutritious and delicious meal."
If you don't have the time to use passata to cook your own pasta sauce, then dressing up a bottled product is a great idea.
"Consider adding grated carrot, celery or even diced eggplant to your pasta sauce, add some extra herbs such as fresh basil to dress it up, use lean cuts of meat or mince, and add a side salad to boost your veggie intake," Bruschi said.
"Instead of lashings of cheese, try a good quality Parmesan. It has a stronger flavour so you use less, while also being a good source of calcium. As in most situations, it's about how much you're having and what you're having with it which makes the difference at the end of the day."
As for the least healthy supermarket pasta sauce options, well, they are those that stray from a tomato base.
"Cream-based sauces or those with a lot of added flavour send off red flags for me," Bruschi told HuffPost Australia.
"Although the creamy, cheesy sauces sound delicious, they can also be the options with the highest energy, fat, sugar and salt content. Pasta bake sauces are renowned for this.
"Cream-based sauces are going to increase the fat content and typically this is saturated fats which we want to limit in the diet. Highly flavoured sauces can also often contain a lot more artificial colours, flavourings and additives, which I prefer to avoid."
Regardless of which pasta sauce you use, portion size of the meal itself is also important.
"With all food, it often comes back to portion size. Pasta is a slow release carbohydrate (low GI), giving us sustained energy and keeping us fuller for longer. However, you can have too much of a good thing," Bruschi said.
"Excessive portions can raise your blood glucose levels considerably, increasing your risk of type two diabetes, as well as a whole range of other long term health conditions.
"Choose tomato-based sauces and check the ingredients list."
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