When you crave a warm, comforting meal after a tough day or because you’re suffering from the winter blues, few things hit the spot more than digging into a bowl of macaroni and cheese. The ultimate carb-laden comfort food, mac and cheese has always been a guilty pleasure — but it turns out, you can hold the guilt.
While cheese gets a bad rap for its saturated fat and can be high in sodium, most cheeses are good sources of protein and calcium, reports the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. And some research has found that eating cheese may be associated with other benefits. Cheese was the food most strongly associated with a reduced risk of age-related cognitive problems, according to a study published in November 2020 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, with people who ate cheese daily scoring highest on intelligence tests over time. And surprisingly, intake of dairy fat like the kind found in cheese was actually associated with a slightly decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a meta-analysis of 18 studies published in September 2021 in the journal PLoS Medicine.
And what of the macaroni? Well, trading any refined white pasta for whole-grain varieties will net you more fiber, and there are plenty of alternative noodles on the market now as well. But that’s just the beginning.
“You can absolutely make mac and cheese a more nutritious, balanced meal without sacrificing taste,” says Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of The Healthy Epicurean. “The pasta, sauce, and mix-ins can all be optimized to provide more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, with less saturated fat and sodium.” The key is to look for easy ways to up the nutrition ante of this cozy dish while maintaining or even boosting all the cherished flavors. Use the following simple swaps and add-ins to make this a healthier, more satisfying meal — like the recipe below, which incorporates all of them. What could be more comforting than that?
1. First Things First: Think Outside the Box
It goes without saying that you’ll want to ditch packaged products, with their refined grains and ultra-processed cheese powder or sauce. While boxed mac and cheese requires very little brainpower or culinary savvy, the combo of refined flour macaroni, ultra-processed cheese sauce, and surprising amounts of sodium — more than 700 milligrams (mg) in a cup serving — that go into popular brands won’t ‘t leave you with much nutrition on your plate. “Making your own mac and cheese allows you to control what ingredients go into it or not,” says Andrews. In the end, she says, this leaves with you a more nutrient-dense and balanced meal. Our recipe below using better-for-you ingredients shows just how easy it can be to serve a delicious and nutritious DIY mac and cheese in under 30 minutes.
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2. Make Alt-Noodles Your Base
Looking for a meal with more staying power to keep you feeling full for longer? Then when a mac and cheese craving strikes, start by boiling up a pot of grain-free elbow or shell-shaped pasta made with legumes like chickpeas or lentils. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 2-ounce (oz) serving of regular wheat pasta has about 7 grams (g) of protein and 2 g of fiber, whereas the same amount of legume-based noodles goes the extra mile with up to 13 g of protein and 6 g of fiber.
A study presented at the Nutrition Live Online 2021 virtual meeting by researchers at Texas Woman’s University in Houston found that only 7.4 percent of American adults met the Institute of Medicine’s suggested daily fiber consumption, which is 14 g of fiber per 1,000 calories. So legume-based pasta can be a no-fuss way to make it easier for you to reach your daily fiber quota. Textures and flavors of these gluten-free kinds of pasta have improved greatly, so as long as you follow the package cooking instructions, nobody will be the wiser that you made this stealth swap.
One other way to boost the nutritional prowess of your mac and cheese (or any pasta dish for that matter) is to use pasta made with 100 percent whole grains like whole-wheat flour. “These options are higher in fiber, healthy fats, and other nutrients, as the germ and bran from the original grain are still there,” says Andrews. In contrast, Andrews explains, macaroni made from refined white flour has the bran and germ (where you’ll find most of the fiber and nutrients) stripped away, leaving behind the starchy endosperm. A 2020 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that replacing daily servings of refined grains with whole grains can reduce heart disease risk factors, including total and LDL cholesterol levels as well as blood triglyceride numbers. If your taste buds are not ready to go whole-grain full stop, you can ease into this by preparing half whole-grain and half regular pasta.
3. Replace a Portion of the Cheese With Yogurt
Cheese is undeniably a big reason why mac and cheese is so delicious and comforting. And, Andrews says, it can be a way to consume more of some important nutrients like protein, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12. “However, it’s a source of saturated fat, so you want to be mindful of how much you are using.” You should know that it is certainly possible to make healthier mac and cheese and still have it taste just as rich, creamy, and “cheesy” as the classic. How? Andrews says to start by using cheeses that have bolder flavors, like aged sharp cheddar and Gruyère, so you can get away with using smaller portions without feeling like you are skimping on taste. So please, no Velveeta. Including a small amount of grated Parmesan will deepen the umami flavor of the final dish.
Also experiment with swapping out some of the cheese with thick Greek yogurt. You’ll cut down on the fat calories and also add a little tang to your pasta dish. A 1-cup serving of plain 2 percent Greek yogurt contains about 179 calories and 3 g saturated fat, according to estimates from the USDA. A departure from the 461 calories and 22 g of saturated fat in the same serving amount of grated cheddar cheese. What’s more, there is the bonus of some gut-friendly probiotics. If your recipe calls for 2 1/2 cups of shredded cheese you can lighten things up by using 1 1/2 cups cheese and 1 cup fat-free or 2 percent plain Greek yogurt. Skyr, a brand of traditional Icelandic yogurt, is another substitution option that is just as thick as the Greek variety and less tangy. You may need to cut back on some of the milk (ie, from 1 1/2 cups to 1 cup) if you find the recipe becomes too runny.
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4. Try Milk Alternatives
The cheesy sauce often calls for whole milk or cream for the signature smooth finish. But don’t be afraid to experiment by replacing these with dairy-free options like cashew or almond milk. While they are often lower in protein than dairy milk, they are also significantly lower in calories and fat. Each cup of whole milk has 149 calories and 8 g of fat, while the equivalent volume of almond milk has 39 calories and 2.5 g of fat, per the USDA. You’ll still get a creamy sauce but now with a nice slightly nutty taste. And most brands these days are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Just make sure to use unsweetened plain versions, as vanilla- or chocolate-flavored mac and cheese is nobody’s wish list.
5. Add a Splash of Color With Veggies
Mac and cheese should not be so monochrome. The cheesy noodles are a great vehicle for a wide variety of colorful veggies. Adding vegetables to foods you already eat, like mac and cheese, is an easy way to sneak in another serving of the nutritional heavy hitters into your day and the day of your kids if need be. A study published in March 2021 in Circulation found that three daily servings of vegetables (and 2 servings of fruit) was associated with a reduced overall mortality risk and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory illness. “Add this step when making mac and cheese, and you’ll add more fibre, vitamins, and minerals that are needed daily to help our bodies function at their best and reduce chronic disease risk,” Andrews says.
Pump up the nutrition with very little effort by tossing in baby spinach, grated carrots, steamed broccoli florets or asparagus, slices of roasted red pepper, frozen peas, shredded Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes, or sautéed mushrooms. “You can also roast fresh vegetables and add these to your mac and cheese at the end,” suggests Andrews. This could include beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, or cauliflower. Andrews is also a big fan of steamer bags of frozen vegetables for use in mac and cheese. Or pick up a bag of riced frozen cauliflower or broccoli to add to your cheesy dish, which cuts down on prep work.
Want to get super sneaky? Andrews says you can cut down on some of the calories by swapping out a portion of the cheese for a creamy puree of a cooked vegetable like butternut, sweet potato, or canned pumpkin.
6. Sneak in Even More Protein (Lean, That Is)
Just as mac and cheese works well with many types of vegetables, it also welcomes a variety of lean proteins to make it more of a balanced meal. Protein is important for repairing and building bodily tissues, including muscle, and we should make sure to get enough at each of our meals, according to the USDA. Eating it with carbohydrates like pasta can help blunt the blood sugar spike of a meal because protein is more slowly digested than carbs. For this reason, protein can be particularly important for people with type 2 diabetes. According to a July 2021 study published in Nutrients, however, more than half of adults with diabetes failed to get the protein they need in a day, and that doing so is associated with overall lower diet quality and higher carbohydrate intake. Easy and healthy protein additions include canned tuna, smoked salmon, sliced grilled pork tenderloin, roasted chicken, canned beans, tinned smoked mussels, crumbled and sautéed tempeh, cooked ground turkey, and lentils.
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7. Make Use of Flavor Boosters Like Spices
To really go the distance on a new and improved mac and cheese, raid the spice drawer. For virtually no calories, items like smoked paprika, Italian seasoning, chili powder, mustard powder, and even curry powder can power up the flavor of your cheese sauce.
Even better, a December 2021 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that adults who seasoned foods with a little more than 1 teaspoon (tsp) of herbs and spices for four weeks had lower blood pressure compared to when they ate the same diet with fewer seasonings. (The study was partially funded by the McCormick Science Institute.)
Another trick is to blend roasted garlic into the sauce. If you’re a fan of the briny flavor of olives, go ahead and toss some of those in as well. Fresh herbs, including parsley and chervil, are a lively finishing touch.
A Healthy One-Pot Mac and Cheese Recipe
This bettered version of mac and cheese is the lighter — and more flavorful — equivalent of the classic comfort food.
- 8 oz elbow or shell-shaped pasta (legume-based or 100 percent whole grain)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp Italian seasoning
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 cup unsweetened plain almond or cashew milk
- 1 cup plain 2 percent Greek yogurt
- 1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan (optional)
- 4 cups baby spinach
- 1 cup sliced roasted red pepper
- 1 1/2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
- 1/3 cup sliced kalamata olives (optional)
- Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water according to package instructions. Drain and set aside.
- Return pot to heat, adjust heat to medium, and add butter. Once butter is melted, whisk in flour and whisk constantly for 30 seconds, or until mixture becomes light brown. Add spices and milk; whisk until ingredients are combined. Add Greek yogurt and whisk until the mixture is homogenous and smooth (do not boil).
- Turn heat to low and add cheddar cheese and Parmesan, if using. Stir until cheese is melted. Add cooked pasta and stir to coat. Add spinach and heat until greens are wilted. Stir in roasted red pepper, cherry tomatoes, and olives, if using.
Nutrition per serving: 373 calories, 17g total fat (9g saturated fat), 21g protein, 34g carbohydrates, 7g fiber, 4.5g sugar (0g added sugar), 565mg sodium