Easy Healthy Mac and Cheese swaps out copious amounts of heavy dairy for lightened up options – for a dish that is still creamy and comforting, but with a portion of the fat and calories! Even better, this stovetop version requires only one pot and 15 minutes to prepare.
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Healthy Mac and Cheese Recipe
When you’re craving mac and cheese, but not all the unhealthy saturated fats, calories, and heavy dairy that comes with it – this healthy mac and cheese recipe is the perfect answer.
Simply use whole wheat pasta, reduce the amount of butter and cheese, and use milk plus flavorful broth in place of heavy cream. It’s simple and still a super creamy and delicious low-calorie mac and cheese!
Perfect for busy families, one pan mac and cheese recipe is ready in just 15 minutes and can be customized in several ways. Like packing in extra veggies or protein!
Why Make Healthy Macaroni and Cheese?
- Only 8 ingredients: Requires just a handful of simple, wholesome ingredients- and no shelf stable cheese or powdered packets!
- Low-calorie mac and cheese: Restaurant-style versions- 600+ calories vs. my healthy macaroni and cheese only 400 cal per serving!
- One pot: For a fuss-free, simple mid-week meal!
- Uses no flour (or roux): Less calories, butter, and overall healthier macaroni and cheese!
- Only ¼ cup cheese needed: Adds decadent cheesy flavor.
- Kid approved: Healthy mac and cheese is a wonderful crowd-pleaser!
- Super versatile: Enjoy as is or bulk it up with veggies and protein – you can even prepare it dairy-free or gluten-free!
Ingredients for Stovetop Mac and Cheese
This healthy mac and cheese recipe requires just 8 simple ingredients (plus salt and pepper) – most of which are likely already in your kitchen, including:
- Pasta: Macaroni (elbow pasta) is our favorite- and traditional- shaped pasta for mac and cheese (healthy pasta salad and even minestrone, too). However, you can use any short pasta that can hold sauce; penne, fusilli, bow ties, etc. Feel free to use whole wheat, white, or gluten-free pasta (adjust the cooking time accordingly).
- Broth: Use low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth for extra flavor but barely any calories (just like I did for this healthy mushroom stroganoff).
- Milk: I recommend using whole milk for the creamiest results (or at-least 2%). Dairy-free will also work (read FAQs).
- Butter: All you need is two tablespoons of salted butter for this low-calorie mac and cheese recipe!
- Cheese: I use a combination of marble or cheddar cheese (I try to buy organic when possible) and parmesan. For vegetarian mac and cheese feel free to sub the parmesan for another sharp cheese. Make sure to use cheese blocks, not pre-shredded for the best melting.
- Seasonings: I used a combination of garlic powder, mustard (the condiment), and salt and pepper.
Keep reading below (after the recipe how-to) for more instructions on healthy macaroni and cheese add-ins and seasoning variations!
How to Make Healthy Mac and Cheese
- Grate the cheese: Avoid pre-shredded cheese with their anti-caking agents. Instead, use big blocks to shred yourself if you want the ooey-gooey melty low-calorie mac and cheese of your dreams!
- Prepare the creamy sauce: In a large pot, combine the broth, milk, butter, and all the seasonings. Then, bring to a boil – keeping an eye on it (as it can spill over as soon as it begins to boil).
- Cook the pasta: As soon as it starts to boil, reduce the heat to a medium heat simmer and add the macaroni (or your pasta of choice) to the saucepan. Cook for 8-10 minute, or until al dente. Stir occasionally, to stop the pasta sticking to the pan.
Keep in mind that gluten-free pasta usually only requires 3-5 minutes, so adjust the time accordingly.
- Add the cheese: Once the pasta is ready, remove the saucepan from the heat. Then gradually add in the cheese, stirring between each addition. Then serve as-is or with your favorite toppings (read add-in section for my top suggestions).
If you want to add a little ‘crisp’ texture, you could keep a sprinkling of cheese to one side, sprinkle it over the top of the dish (optionally along with a tiny sprinkling of bread crumbs), and broil until crisped up.
Optional Add-In’s and Variations
There are several ways you can bulk up this healthy macaroni and cheese, either as add-ins or toppings, including:
- Frozen green peas, sweet corn or edamame beans: Rinse under hot water and drain before adding.
- Finely chopped broccoli or cauliflower: That has been blanched or steamed, roasted, or some even like it raw.
- Caramelized onion: You can make a healthy version of this flavorful topping by reducing the amount of butter used.
- Spinach: Add a handful into the hot, ready healthy macaroni and cheese and stir until wilted.
- Other veggies: I also like adding chopped zucchini, asparagus, tomatoes, etc. You can saute them in a separate pan if you want them more browned, or add directly to this one pot macaroni and cheese.
- Butternut squash mac: Add in some cooked then pureed butternut mac and cheese for a seasonal twist.
- More heat: Drizzle the bowl with Frank’s red hot sauce, Cholula or Tabasco.
- Spices and seasonings: Everything bagel seasoning, Montreal steak spice, paprika, nutmeg, soy sauce and even honey or pesto can be added to the healthy mac and cheese.
- Bacon: Leftover chopped bacon will add extra ‘salty’ flavor. I like to bake mine at 425 degrees F for 20 minutes- it’s less mess and fuss-free!
- Protein: This low-calorie mac and cheese goes very well with sweet and sticky baked honey garlic chicken breast and other simple chicken or shrimp dishes.
There are also several ways to vary this easy stovetop mac and cheese recipe:
- Creamier: For creamier stovetop mac and cheese, you could swap out a few tbsp of the milk for heavy cream or half and half. It’ll have a lot of impact but not too much impact on the calories!
- Other cheese: Feel free to experiment with using a combination of cheese in the healthy cheese sauce. For example, gouda, a sharp cheddar cheese, cream cheese, etc. Use low-fat versions if preferred (though usually the less fat they have, the less they melt smoothly).
- Vegetarian mac and cheese: Unfortunately, parmesan isn’t vegetarian (it contains rennet). However, simply swap this out for another sharp cheese for a vegetarian version and/or some nutritional yeast.
Tips for Best Results
- Have all the ingredients prepped: Since this one-pot mac and cheese can come together in just 15 minutes, it’s a good idea to have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before starting – so you don’t slow the process down!
- To adjust the cheese sauce consistency: If you notice that the noodles are almost cooked but there’s still a lot of liquid, I recommend increasing the heat. Likewise, it the liquid seems to be running out – add an extra ¼ cup (or more) of broth.
- Use whole wheat pasta when possible: Unlike processed/refined white pasta (which many consider ‘empty calories’), whole wheat pasta is packed with nutrients including complex carbs, added protein, fiber, and several vitamins and minerals.
- Adjust the time for gluten–free: Gluten-free pasta usually only takes a few minutes to cook, so adjust the time accordingly.
Regular stovetop mac and cheese recipes often include tons of cheese, butter, and even sometimes cream. Luckily, you can make some easy ingredient swaps for a healthier dish without sacrificing too much on flavor or texture.
For example, swap out any cream for full-fat milk, reduce the amount of cheese until there’s ‘just enough’ to taste decadent without weighing you down (and the same goes for the butter).
You can also use whole wheat pasta in place of highly processed white pasta.
Yes. Use whatever milk you’d prefer, though the sauce likely won’t be as creamy. You could even use a dairy-free melty cheese if desired for a fully vegan mac n’ cheese!
You sure can. Whether you want to add veggies directly to the pan or serve as a side, there are several ways to boost the nutrients in this low-calorie mac and cheese recipe.
If adding directly to the pan, I like to use green peas, sweet corn, and spinach (which only take minutes to heat up (especially from frozen) and disperse. Alternatively, share the pasta with your veggie sides of choice.
Read above for several options on ways to bulk up this healthy mac and cheese.
Yes but I recommend you make 2 portions. That way, you get to enjoy leftovers for healthy lunch ideas! It’s also easiest to pair down the below recipe from 6 to 2 (3 cups of pasta becomes 1, etc.).
It’s easy to boost the protein content in this comforting pasta dish. You can use chicken (from scratch or leftovers) for a delicious meaty mac OR use chickpeas for plant-based sources of protein.
You can also increase the protein of this dish with your choice of sides (read the serving suggestions section).
If you’re not using macaroni (aka ‘elbow pasta’), I recommend short pasta like penne, fusilli, shells, farfalle, etc. I prefer using whole wheat pasta in healthy macaroni salad as it’s more nourishing and healthier than white pasta.
I don’t recommend it because the sauce will dry out as this was specifically designed as a stovetop mac and cheese. Baked versions need more cheese and sauce and seasonings, respectively, due to the longer baking time.
I often get asked ‘what to eat with mac and cheese’ – you can enjoy this healthy macaroni and cheese for healthy dinner sides, alone as-is, with additional ingredients (listed above) or with these meal ideas:
- Comfort food: Pair with ground turkey meatloaf or healthy fried chicken – kids love almond crusted chicken and air fryer chicken drumsticks!
- Meatballs: Like these Instant Pot meatballs, turkey meatballs, porcupine meatballs, or even Mexican meatballs.
- Coleslaw: Either a creamy healthy coleslaw or this vinegar based coleslaw
- A simple side salad: Leafy green salads like kale salad or lettuce salad recipe.
- Veggie salad: Like creamy cucumber salad or Mexican bean salad.
- Roasted Vegetables: Like roasted cauliflower or asparagus.
Making This Recipe in Advance
Storing: This healthy, low-calorie mac and cheese tastes best while fresh and super ‘saucy.’ As it sits, the noodles will soak up the sauce and cause the dish to dry out. For that reason, I recommend storing leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a day only.
The pasta won’t spoil after a day. It’s just that it will soak up the sauce and just won’t taste as good. However, feel free to store it for between 4-5 days if you want.
Do not freeze, as pasta and dairy don’t freeze well.
Reheating: It’s best to reheat the pasta gently on the stovetop with an extra splash of milk/broth to bring back the saucy consistency. Alternatively, you can use a microwave in 40-second increments (with an extra splash of liquid, – milk or broth, as needed).
More Healthy Dinner Recipes
Healthy Mac and Cheese
- In a medium pot, add broth, milk, butter, garlic powder, mustard, salt, ground black pepper and bring to a boil.
- Add elbow macaroni and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente or desired firmness and adding more milk or broth if you wish.
- Turn off heat. Add marble cheese and Parmesan cheese in portions and stir between each until melted. That’s it.
- Serve immediately as mac and cheese tastes best fresh. Saucy, creamy and so comforting!
- Top with your favorite hot sauce, everything bagel, Montreal steak spice, paprika, nutmeg, soy sauce and even honey. Or with leftover chopped bacon. I like to bake mine at 425 degrees F for 20 minutes. Way less mess.
- Store: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 1 day. Reheat gently on the stovetop with an extra splash of milk/broth to bring back the saucy consistency. Alternatively, you can use a microwave in 40-second increments.
- Freeze: Do not freeze as pasta and dairy do not freeze well.
- Pasta: Any short pasta, white or gluten free works. Cook gluten free pasta for shorter amount of time.
- Cheese: You can use marble cheese, white or yellow cheddar cheese. It is best to buy a block of cheese and grate yourself because it will melt better.
- Milk and butter: I recommend to use whole milk 3.25% for maximum creaminess. 2% will work as well but less creamy.
- Too much or little broth: If you notice your pasta is almost ready and there is still a lot of liquid, turn up the heat. Likewise, if you see pasta is not done and you are running out of liquid, add 1/4 cup at a time.
- Can I bake it? I don’t recommend it because sauce will dry out. Baked versions need more cheese and sauce and seasonings respectively.