Macaroni and cheese is a warm, gooey pasta dish, the stuff of comfort food dreams. The word “healthy” is probably the last thing that comes to mind when you think of mac and cheese. And for good reason, as your typical boxed varieties are chock full of calories, fat, and sodium, with very few beneficial nutrients. Not to fear, with a few small tweaks you can makeover your unhealthy mac and cheese recipes to create a comfort food meal that you feel good about eating.
Elevate Boxed Mac and Cheese
Boxed mac and cheese doesn’t have to be all bad. Try these substitutions and additions to lower the saturated fat, while adding fiber, protein, and nutrients.
- Swap out half the butter for plain Greek yogurt. This makes for a creamy sauce without the extra calories or saturated fat.
- Replace the milk with ½ cup small curd cottage cheese + 2 tablespoons of milk. This bumps up the protein without extra calories.
- Toss in one to two cups of vegetables. Try cherry tomatoes, steamed broccoli, baby spinach, or roasted and diced asparagus.
Making Homemade Mac and Cheese Healthier
Cooking mac and cheese from scratch is one of the easiest one-pot meals you can make. Try these swaps next time you cook up a batch.
- Use whole wheat or brown rice pasta. Explore other pasta shapes outside of macaroni, like farfalle or penne.
- Swap out pasta and use quinoa or farro instead. These heart whole grains will add different nutrients, with more fiber and protein compared to regular pasta.
- Reduce the amount of cheese and milk by adding creamy cooked vegetables like pumpkin or sweet potato.
- Substitute plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese in place of some of the shredded cheese.
- Add in vegetables to bulk up the dish with fiber and potassium, while lowering calories, fat and sodium.
The three recipes below give your typical unhealthy mac and cheese a makeover, removing some of the high-calorie, high-fat ingredients, while adding more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Each of these recipes is made of whole, real foods. Next time you’re in need of some comfort food, put down that boxed mac and cheese and whip of one of these simple meals instead.
Sweet potato & Kale Mac N’ Cheese from Kara Lydon, The Foodie Dietitian
This lightened-up version features the sweet taste of sweet potato with savory kale and sage. The veggies add fiber and a dose of vitamins A and C to the mix, leaving you with a balanced pasta dish. Bonus: it works great as leftovers.
Cauliflower Mac N’ Cheese from Dawn Jackson Blatner
This mac n’ cheese uses cauliflower to boost the fiber while adding an entire serving of vegetables. Cauliflower is a versatile vegetable that takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with, so much so that you won’t even notice the difference in taste!
Vegan Mac & Cheese with Spicy Collard Greens and Crispy Cauliflower Crumbles
A dairy-free take on classic mac n’ cheese, this recipe gets its flavor from nutritional yeast, cashew cream, fresh garlic and dried spices. Collard greens and cauliflower breadcrumbs round out the dish with a serving of veggies. Great for vegans and non-vegans alike!
- 1 medium white onion, diced
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 and ½ cups whole wheat macaroni pasta
- 1 cup cashews soaked in hot water for 1 hour
- 1 cup nutritional yeast
- ¼ cup warm water
- 2 cups collard greens
- 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
- 1 small jalapeno pepper
- 1 teaspoon dry oregano
- 1 handful parsley
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small head of cauliflower, roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the onion and garlic in a large pot with some olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook until fragrant and onion is translucent. Remove from heat.
- Grab another large pot with plenty of water and some salt, bring to a boil, and cook the pasta until al dente (make sure not to overcook it). Once cooked, drain, and rinse. Set aside.
- Put the cashews, nutritional yeast, and warm water in a blender and blend until completely smooth, about 3 minutes on high speed. Add pepper for seasoning, blend for a few seconds, taste and adjust if needed (you may add more nutritional yeast if you like it a bit more “cheesy”). If it’s too thick, add an extra splash of water to it.
- Grab the collard greens, trim the end part (the rough stalk), put them in a food processor with the jalapeno pepper, mustard, oregano, parsley, apple cider vinegar, and olive oil and pulse until it resembles a pesto (it’s ok to leave it a bit chunky).
- Rinse the food processor, add the cauliflower in it (you may need to do it in batches) and season with salt and pepper. Pulse until cauliflower breaks down into small “breadcrumbs”. Don’t puree though!
- To assemble the dish: heat up the oven to 375F. Bring back the pot of sauteed onions and garlic to the stove on medium heat, add the pasta, “cheese sauce” (pureed cashews), and collard green pesto. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes. If it’s too thick you can add a bit of stock or water. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed (keep in mind nutritional years is salty already). Once done, transfer mix to a baking dish. Top with the cauliflower crumbs and bake for 15 minutes or until cauliflower crumbs start to brown (you can finish it for a couple minutes under the broiler if needed).
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