Healthy pasta sounds a little suspicious, right? And healthy mac and cheese sounds like a total oxymoron. Our classic mac and cheese recipe contains a full quart of whole milk, a stick of butter, and three glorious cups of cheese. It’s comfort food for sure, and probably not something you’d want to eat every week. But if you do want to, there are lots of ways to make it better for you, without missing out on the delicious savory, salty, tangy flavor and rich, creamy texture of the original.
We’re not anti-indulgence at all—we did publish that aforementioned mac and cheese recipe (and many more, for that matter). It’s just that, sometimes, you want to lighten up an old favorite. Maybe you have a kid who won’t eat anything but macaroni and you want to boost their nutritional intake at least a little, or maybe you know when faced with a pot of creamy pasta, you’re gonna eat until you’re stuffed, so you want to make it at least marginally better for you.
Whatever your reasons, you’re in luck, because mac and cheese happens to be pretty easy to tweak to be more nutritious without losing the very qualities that make us love it in the first pace. Call them “tricks” if you will, but don’t think they won’t also be a treat!
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No matter what kind of pasta you make, a pot with a built-in strainer makes draining it easy.
How to Make Healthier Mac and Cheese
Here are eight ideas to try alone or in combination:
Blend Vegetables into the Sauce
Pureeing steamed or roasted butternut squash or cauliflower to replace some of the dairy is a great way to achieve a creamy sauce without as much fat, while also adding nutrients (and great flavor, especially if you go with roasting). This happens to be an equally great hack for healthy queso too.
Use Lower-Fat Dairy
Of course, you can use low-fat cheese, but if you’re not sold on the flavor of it, consider at least using lower fat milk. You don’t have to go with skim if you don’t want to, but cutting back to 1 percent (or even just 2 percent) will make a difference, and all those little things add up.
Make a Non-Dairy Sauce
Even if you don’t follow a vegan diet, you may find yourself surprisingly pleased by a sauce based on dairy alternatives, from coconut milk to pureed white beans to cashew cream. And it may seem odd to mash a vegan sauce up with regular cheese, but if your primary goal is to scale back the calories, why not give it a try?
Use Whole Wheat, High-Fiber Pasta
This is an easy change to make, and even suspicious eaters won’t hesitate to chow down on healthier, heartier pasta when it’s blanketed in a creamy sauce. If gluten is an issue, there’s a whole world of gluten-free pasta options too.
Replace Some of the Noodles with Vegetables
Whether instead of or in addition to choosing healthier pasta, you can cut back on the total amount of elbows or shells you cook and bulk it up with similarly sized chunks of roasted veggies like broccoli and peppers (or just add some vegetables to the most caloric bowl of mac and cheese you can devise, and you can still feel a little better about inhaling it).
Replace Some of the Cheese and/or Cream with Greek Yogurt
Like melted cheddar, it’s tangy and creamy, but it packs both protein and probiotic goodness with far fewer calories.
Add Bolder Flavors to Compensate for Less Fat
In many cases, that old adage is true: fat is flavor, but it’s not the only thing that tastes good. Adding more assertive seasonings can do a lot to offset any richness you might lose by using less cheese and/or cream and butter. This one might not work so well for kids, but if you like chipotle, jalapenos, horseradish, roasted garlic, or slow-roasted tomatoes, try adding them to your mac and cutting back on the dairy.
Swap Out the Breadcrumbs for Almond Meal
Even if you’re not gluten intolerant, sprinkling almond meal on top of your creamy casserole gives you the same crisp crust as breadcrumbs (or Cheez-Its, a personal favorite), but with way fewer carbs and more fiber. You can season them as you would breadcrumbs, if you like.
Play around with one or more of these ideas in combination with your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe next time you’re craving a bowl of comfort without wanting to get too indulgent.
Healthy Mac and Cheese Recipes
Try one of these healthier takes on mac and cheese.
Our vegan mac and cheese relies on coconut milk blended with toasted walnuts for a creamy base with more depth than many vegan versions, plus nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor without any actual dairy. The roasted broccoli and cauliflower pieces (and the caramelized onions) make it even more delicious, but can be left out if necessary to please kids. Get our Vegan Macaroni and Cheese recipe.
If your aim is just to cut back on the dairy, this mac and cheese only has one tablespoon of butter and less than a cup of milk; the bulk of the creamy sauce comes from pureed butternut squash, caramelized onions, and chicken broth. Since the onions are pureed too, there are no suspicious pieces hanging around to put off picky eaters. Get the Healthy Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese recipe.
Whole wheat macaroni and broccoli (mac and cheese’s best veggie pal) mingle in a sauce made from non-fat milk thickened via the slurry method (as opposed to the usual buttery roux), so you can add a little extra cheese sans guilt. Get the Healthy Baked Broccoli Mac and Cheese recipe.
This one is more about simply sneaking in extra veggies, rather than reducing calories. Specifically, steamed cauliflower is pureed with half and half, which meets the usual butter-and-flour roux to thicken it, plus whole milk and plenty of gooey cheese. (If you want, you can make it without cream, and can also make it in your Instant Pot.) Get the Hidden Cauliflower Mac and Cheese recipe.
This vegan mac’s smooth, creamy sauce is made from coconut milk blended with cashews—plus carrots, onions, and potatoes, and nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor. Get the Vegan Cashew Mac and Cheese recipe.
If you can’t eat nuts, try creamy pureed white beans as a base for a vegan “cheese” sauce. If you’re keeping it dairy free, you can use either vegan cheese shreds or a combo of nutritional yeast and apple cider vinegar—but the bean trick can be tried with your standard pot of pasta too. Get the White Bean Mac and Cheese recipe.
Chicken broth, lower-fat 1 percent milk, and whole wheat pasta make for a healthier mac and cheese that doesn’t stray too far from the original—unless you want to try that almond meal topping in place of the panko breadcrumbs. Get the Healthier Baked Mac and Cheese recipe.
Greek yogurt stirred into shredded cheese and pasta makes for a super-quick mac and cheese that also gets a protein boost while being lower in fat than ones crammed with heavy cream and butter. Stir in spinach or any other veggies you like to round it out. Get the Creamy Greek Yogurt Mac and Cheese recipe.
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