Cheesy, gooey, and traditionally high-calorie, macaroni and cheese is the epitome of classic comfort food. It’s also surprisingly easy to lighten while dialing up the nutritional value. Here are a few ways to add a healthier twist to this old favorite.
1. Sneak In Veggies
- “Sneaking” pureed veggies into our favorite foods is an easy way to add nutrients and slash calories. Pureed cauliflower has a surprisingly mild taste, and the texture is perfect for adding smoothness and volume to cheese sauce. You’ll also get a superfood boost of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and other nutrients. All you have to do is chop cauliflower in florets, boil, and then throw in a food processor or blender with a little of the cooking liquid. Blend until smooth and you’re good to go. Other veggies that go well in mac & cheese are pumpkin or butternut squash.
- You can also replace some or all of the pasta with veggies. Try spiralized zucchini, butternut squash ribbons (easy to do with a vegetable peeler), or spaghetti squash.
- Green veggies look really pretty and taste delicious in mac ‘n cheese. They also happen to be nutritious. Convenient, no? Experiment with mixing in some steamed spinach or kale or topping your bowl with peas. Even roasted broccoli or Brussels sprouts work. Aside from a great-looking meal, you’ll get a big dose of essential vitamins and minerals. Added bonus: the extra fiber from the veggies will help you fill up, not out.
2. Ditch Those Neon Orange Dyes
- Want that from-the-box bright color without creepy food dyes? Butternut squash and pumpkin puree both add a burst of orange and creamy texture.
- Not into the squash thing? Consider turmeric, a powerful spice often used in Indian food. Even a little bit of this anti-inflammatory powerhouse will add a pop to your cheese sauce.
3. Forgo Fatty Dairy
- Instead of whole milk, use skim or 1%. Use part-skim ricotta as the base of your sauce and a richer cheese (try sharp cheddar, goat cheese, or even blue cheese) as a garnish. Going for a better quality cheese lets you get away with adding less.
- Another option? Fold a little plain low-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt into your cheese sauce.
4. Replace Dairy Entirely
- Make a cheese sauce with unsweetened almond or coconut milk and either nutritional yeast or shredded vegan cheese to make a dairy-free version.
- You can also use pureed silken tofu in your cheese sauce for a smooth, creamy texture and extra protein boost.
5. Be Picky With Your Pasta
- If you’re avoiding gluten, try one of the many gluten-free pasta varieties available. If you and gluten get along just fine but you’d like a nutritional upgrade, swap in whole wheat pasta or another nutrient dense alternative to white. For a change of pace, check out pasta made from quinoa, brown rice, or black beans.
6. Protein Makes Perfect
- Adding some lean protein to your recipe helps balance out the meal so you can feel more satisfied with a smaller amount of pasta and cheese. A few ideas: peas, chicken, shrimp, or lobster (why not?). If you like the taste of lobster but aren’t up to the task of boiling and shelling your own, langostino tails have a similar taste and texture but are closer in size to shrimp. Check the freezer section of your local market.
Making nutritious swaps where you can and bulking up the meal with veggies can help you enjoy a healthier bowl of mac ‘n cheese. Of course, if nothing but the old-fashioned real deal is going to do it for you, serve yourself a smaller amount in your prettiest little bowl and enjoy a salad or your favorite veggies on the side—best of both worlds.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and writer in New York City.