by Olena

Healthy Mac and Cheese

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Olena Osipov
5 from 57 votes

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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.

If you’re healthy macaroni and cheese obsessed like me, you might also enjoy Instant Pot mac and cheese, spaghetti squash mac and cheese, and cauliflower mac and cheese!

Healthy Mac and Cheese

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. This fuss-free recipe will teach you that you don’t have to drench the dish in full-fat dairy and butter for it to be wholesome, comforting, and cozy- same goes with healthy chicken Alfredo!

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!
Healthy Mac and Cheese in a blue bowl with golden spoon

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 (and makes it into my 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. I make veggie mac and cheese muffins this way and kids love anything in a muffin form!
  • 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 honey garlic chicken 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 glutenfree: Gluten-free pasta usually only takes a few minutes to cook, so adjust the time accordingly.

FAQs

Is mac and cheese healthy?

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.

Can I use dairy-free milk for mac and cheese?

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!

Can I make healthy mac and cheese with veggies?

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.

Can I make healthy mac and cheese for one?

Yes – but I recommend you make 2 portions – that way, you get to enjoy leftovers! It’s also easiest to pair down the below recipe from 6 to 2 (3 cups of pasta becomes 1, etc.).

How do I add protein to mac and cheese?

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 tofu or 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).

What is the best pasta for mac and cheese?

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 as it’s more nourishing and healthier than white pasta.

Can I bake the healthy mac and cheese?

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.

macaroni and cheese sprinkled with seasoning with a spoon dipped into it for serving

Serving Recommendations

I often get asked ‘what to eat with mac and cheese’ – you can enjoy this healthy macaroni and cheese as a side, alone as-is, with additional ingredients (listed above) or with sides, including:

Looking for more easy one-pot pasta comfort food recipes? You might also enjoy this Instant pot lasagna, crockpot chicken spaghetti, one-pot chili mac, and parmesan chicken pasta!

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. Do not freeze, as pasta and dairy don’t freeze well.

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.

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 Pasta Recipes

healthy mac and cheese recipe
Healthy Mac and Cheese

Healthy Mac and Cheese {One Pot – 15 Minutes}

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.
4.95 from 57 votes
Print Save Rate
Course: Dinner
Cuisine: North American
Prep Time: 2 minutes
Cook Time: 12 minutes
Total Time: 14 minutes
Servings: 6 servings
Calories: 405kcal
Author: Olena Osipov

Ingredients

  • 3 cups whole wheat elbow macaroni uncooked
  • 3 cups vegetable or chicken broth low sodium
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 tbsp butter salted
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp mustard condiment
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup marble or cheddar cheese shredded
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese shredded

Instructions

  • In a medium pot, add broth, milk, butter, garlic powder, mustard, salt, ground black pepper and bring to a boil.
    Healthy Mac and Cheese
  • 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.
    Healthy Mac and Cheese
  • Turn off heat. Add marble cheese and Parmesan cheese in portions and stir between each until melted. That’s it.
    Healthy Mac and Cheese
  • Serve immediately as mac and cheese tastes best fresh. Saucy, creamy and so comforting!
    Healthy Mac and Cheese
  • 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. Do not freeze as pasta and dairy do not freeze well. Do not freeze, as pasta and dairy don't freeze well.

    Reheat: 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 (with an extra splash of liquid, – milk or broth, as needed).

      Video

      Notes

      • 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.
      • Prep before beginning to cook: This easy recipe comes together quick in one pot for. So, I recommend to have all ingredients prepped and ready to go before starting.
      • 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.
      • Flavor boost: Top with your favorite hot sauce, everything bagel, Montreal steak spice, paprika, nutmeg, soy sauce and even honey. Or with leftover chopped bacon. For bacon: I like to bake mine at 425 degrees F for 20 minutes. Way less mess.
      See recipe post for more tips and FAQs.

      Nutrition

      Serving: 1cup | Calories: 405kcal | Carbohydrates: 55g | Protein: 18g | Fat: 14g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Cholesterol: 38mg | Sodium: 549mg | Potassium: 230mg | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 433IU | Calcium: 273mg | Iron: 3mg
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      olena osipov in the studio

      Hello and welcome to iFOODreal.

      My name is Olena Osipov. I'm a mom to 2 boys, a wife to Alex and we reside on magical Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. This is our healthy family recipes blog. Originally from Ukraine, I grew up on real food. As an adult, I struggled with diets for years because none worked long-term. Now for over 10 years, I cook easy healthy meals for my family. I can help you with “What’s for dinner?” too.

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