How to Make Healthier Mac and Cheese

Ramp up the Nutritional Value

Creamy, Easy Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese
The Spruce / Diana Rattray

Mac and cheese might be one of the most beloved dishes of all time, but no one has ever accused it of being health food. And maybe that's all right. After all, everyone deserves a splurge now and then.

Still, there are a number of ways you want make your homemade mac and cheese a little healthier and more nutritious. For starters, you can cut down on the fat. Sub lowfat milk and cheese, use less butter (and/or substitute olive oil), or use lowfat Greek yogurt in place of some of the other dairy. You can also swap out the regular macaroni in favor of a whole-wheat, gluten-free, or other alternative pastas (like the currently trendy cauliflower or chickpea).

This approach will trim some calories and fat from your mac and cheese and if that's all you're looking to do, then that's all you need to know.

But at the end of the day, your "healthier" mac and cheese is still just pasta and cheese. If, on the other hand, you're looking to ramp up the nutritional value of your mac and cheese, as opposed to just tinkering with it around the edges, there's even more you can do. 

Note that the following suggestions can be used in conjunction with the above approach or simply incorporate it into your standard mac and cheese as a way of making it tastier, heartier, and more nutritious.

Add Butternut Squash to the Cheese Sauce

The base of any homemade mac and cheese recipe is a creamy bechamel infused with grated cheese. This upgrade incorporates butternut squash. All you have to do is prep and cook the squash are you usually do, then puree it into your cheese sauce using a regular or immersion blender. Combine this sauce with your pasta as usual. You can do this with any vegetable, of course, but butternut is nice because cheese sauce stays orange.

Add Broccoli to the Simmering Pasta

The trick here is timing it so that your pasta and your broccoli are cooked at the same time. If you're baking your mac and cheese, you'll want to cook both your pasta and your broccoli a bit al dente. But in general, add your broccoli florets to the simmering pasta about 2 to 3 minutes before the pasta reaches its desired doneness.

And of course you can use this trick with other vegetables, even frozen vegetables, which only need to simmer for a minute or two before draining.

Add Some Greens

Baby spinach is perfect, since it wilts nicely when simmered in the cheese sauce, even if you don't bother slicing up the leaves. You can also use kale, which is a heartier green, and benefits from being chopped first before sauteeing and then stirring into the sauce.

Add Diced Chicken Breast

Want to add some protein? Great idea. Some lean grilled chicken breast is perfect. You can also pull the breast off a roasted chicken, or use poached chicken breast, which is easy to make and incredibly low in fat.

Add Silken Tofu

Silken tofu, also known as Japanese tofu, is a separate kind of tofu from the Chinese kind, which is the most common. And the Chinese kind will also add protein to your mac and cheese. But silken tofu is particularly good since its soft, almost liquid consistency lets it blend well with your existing cheese sauce. Or for a fully vegan mac and cheese, you can use silken tofu to add creaminess when using soy or nut-based vegan cheeses.

Add Oil-packed Tuna

This easy upgrade involves nothing more than opening a can of oil-packed tuna, draining it, and then stirring the tuna into the mac and cheese as you're mixing in the cheese sauce. You could also just top each serving with a few flakes of tuna. Just remember that tuna contains mercury, so you might want to limit this to once a week or so, depending on how much other tuna (or other seafood) you consume.

Add Protein Powder

Credit the bodybuilding community for this hack. Here's it's simply a matter of adding 1/4 cup or so of some sort of protein powder. There's a wide range of protein powders available, based variously on soy, whey, hemp, pea and brown rice, to name just a few. Pea protein powder, made from the yellow split pea, is especially popular for making mac and cheese as it has a naturally savory flavor to it.