Cooking for mother-in-law is enough to make anybody desperate. Even with an arsenal (or an entire newspaper food section) of terrific recipes, entertaining her can be intimidating. Debbie Moose, food editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., found herself in that very position when faced with preparing her mother-in-law's birthday dinner one night after work.

She needed a meal for eight people, and one that didn't need a lot of fussing and stirring. Before her guests arrived, Debbie had assembled the ingredients for a vegetarian lasagna in less than 20 min-utes.

Using frozen spinach and grated carrots eliminated the need for cooking a meat sauce. To economically stretch her favorite jarred spaghetti sauce, which costs more than $2 a jar, Debbie used plain tomato sauce that costs less than 50 cents a can.

But her real secret? She didn't cook the noodles.

"I didn't have time to boil the noodles, and I had read that as long as you cover the noodles with plenty of sauce and filling, you won't end up with any crunchy parts," she said.

While the lasagna was baking (45 minutes covered and 15 minutes uncovered), Debbie was able to spend time with her family. While the lasagna rested out of the oven for a final 15 minutes, she threw together a quick salad and heated the bread. Dinner was served.

Debbie's guests couldn't believe this low-calorie, vegetable-packed casserole could be put together so quickly. But best of all no one felt a bit guilty about indulging in the chocolate birthday cake.

Menu: Mother-in-Law's Birthday Lasagna, garden salad, purchased Italian mini-loaves

MOTHER-IN-LAW'S BIRTHDAY LASAGNA

1 bag (1 pound) frozen chopped spinach

1 jar (26 ounces or larger) spag-hetti sauce, such as Classico

2 small cans (8 ounces each) tomato sauce

1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

8 ounces dried lasagna noodles

1 cup already-shredded carrots

1 cup fat-free ricotta cheese

1 1/2 cups already-shredded part-skim mozzarella or Italian blend cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch by 11-inch casserole dish or pan with cooking-oil spray.

Place the spinach in a shallow bowl and microwave, uncovered on high, 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour the spaghetti sauce and both cans of tomato sauce into a 2-quart or larger bowl. Add the Italian seasoning and garlic powder and stir to mix. Pour 1 cup of the sauce into the prepared baking dish. Place 3 uncooked noodles on top of the sauce.

Pour the spinach into a colander and squeeze out excess moisture. Spread half the spinach over the noodles. Sprinkle half the carrots over the spinach. Crumble on 1/2 cup of the ricotta cheese and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the mozzarella cheese.

Pour 1 1/2 cups sauce over the cheese. Place 3 more noodles over the sauce. Sprinkle on the remaining spinach and carrots, the remaining 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese, and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella.

Place 3 more noodles on top of the cheese. Pour on the rest of the sauce and spread it to cover the noodles well. Sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella cheese and the Parmesan cheese.

Cover tightly with foil and bake 45 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes more. Let the casserole stand 15 minutes to firm up before serving. Serves 8.

Cook's note: Be aware that the lasagna noodles expand as the dish cooks, so leave a little space between them when layering. Spreading the sauce to cover the noodles well eliminates any crunchy spots. Leftovers can be frozen or refrigerated for several days.

- Approximate Values Per Serving (Using Nutritionist IV software): 295 calories (28 percent from fat), 10 g fat (4 g saturated), 31 mg cholesterol, 17 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 5 g dietary fiber, 1,086 mg sodium.