Easy Healthy Mac and Cheese swaps out copious amounts of heavy dairy for lightened up options. This healthier mac is still creamy and comforting but with a fraction of the fat and calories! It’s easy to make in 15 minutes in one pot.
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When you’re craving mac and cheese, but not all the unhealthy saturated fats, calories, and heavy dairy that comes with traditional recipe. This healthy mac and cheese recipe is the perfect answer.
Fuss-free healthy dinner ideas will teach you that you don’t have to drench dishes in full-fat dairy and butter for it to be wholesome, comforting, and cozy.
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 the whole family, 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 You Will Love This Recipe
- Only 8 ingredients: And the healthiest version, too, with simple, wholesome ingredients. And no shelf stable cheese or powdered cheese packets like you might find in traditional mac.
- Low-calorie mac and cheese: Restaurant-style versions have 600+ calories vs. my homemade macaroni and cheese only 400 cal per serving.
- One pot: For a fuss-free, simple midweek meal.
- Uses no flour: Less calories, lower in fat, and overall healthier macaroni and cheese.
- Only 1/4 cup cheese needed: For a decadent cheesy flavor that is still the ultimate comfort food.
- Kid approved: Healthy mac n cheese is a wonderful crowd pleaser even if you have picky eaters!
- Super versatile: Enjoy as is or bulk it up with veggies and protein. You can even prepare it dairy-free or gluten-free.
Ingredients and Substitutions
This healthy mac and cheese recipe requires just 8 simple ingredients, most of which are likely already in your kitchen, including:
- Pasta: Macaroni or also known as elbow pasta is our favorite and traditional shaped pasta for mac and cheese. However, you can use any short pasta that can hold creamy sauce – penne, fusilli, bow ties, etc. Feel free to use whole wheat noodles, white pasta, gluten-free noodles, or chickpea pasta (adjust the cooking time accordingly).
- Broth: Use low-sodium vegetable broth or chicken broth for extra flavor.
- Milk: I recommend using whole milk vs. skim milk for the creamiest results, or at least 2%. Dairy-free will also works.
- 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 cheese or cheddar cheese and Parmesan. For vegetarian mac and cheese feel free to sub the parmesan for another sharp cheese. Make sure to use real cheese blocks, not pre-shredded for the best melting.
- Seasonings: I used a combination of garlic powder, mustard (the condiment), and salt and pepper.
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 florets or cauliflower: That has been blanched or steamed, roasted, or some even like it raw.
- 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 the pot.
- 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 this healthy mac and cheese recipe.
- 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!
How to Make Healthy Mac and Cheese
- Prepare the creamy cheese sauce: In a large pot, whisk 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.
- Add the pasta: As soon as your liquid mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to a medium heat simmer and add the macaroni to the saucepan.
- Cook: Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until al dente. Stir occasionally, to stop the pasta sticking to the pan.
- Add the cheese: Once the pasta is ready, remove the saucepan from the heat. Do not drain. Then gradually add in the cheese, stirring between each addition.
There are also several ways to vary this easy mac and cheese recipe:
- Creamier: For creamier 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.
- Vegetarian mac and cheese: Unfortunately, parmesan isn’t vegetarian because it contains rennet. However, simply swap this out for another sharp cheese for a vegan parm and/or some nutritional yeast.
Tips for Best Results
- Have all the ingredients prepped: Since this stove-top 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 1/4 cup or more of broth.
- Use whole wheat pasta when possible: Unlike processed 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 mac and cheese recipes often include tons of cheese, butter, and even sometimes cream. Luckily, you can make some easy ingredient swaps for a healthy cheese pasta 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 noodles 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.
Yes but I recommend you make 2 portions. That way, you get to enjoy leftovers for healthy lunch! 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 make this a protein mac and cheese! You can use chicken or use chickpeas for plant-based source of protein.
I don’t recommend it because the sauce will dry out. Baked versions need more cheese, sauce and seasonings due to the longer baking time.
How to Serve Stovetop Mac and Cheese?
I often get asked “What to serve with mac and cheese?” You can enjoy this healthy macaroni and cheese for as a side dish, alone as-is, or with these meal ideas:
- Comfort food: For a mac and cheese dinner pair with ground turkey meatloaf or healthy fried chicken. Kids love almond crusted chicken!
- Meatballs: Like these turkey 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.
- Roasted Vegetables: Like roasted cauliflower or oven roasted asparagus.
Looking for more easy one-pot pasta comfort food recipes? You might also enjoy this
Making it 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 in the refrigerator for 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 broth to bring back the saucy consistency. Alternatively, you can use a microwave in 40-second increments.
More Healthy Pasta Recipes
- Spaghetti in tomato sauce
- One pot spaghetti
- Turkey pasta casserole
- Healthy pasta salad
- Pasta with zucchini
- Healthy chicken alfredo
- Instant pot lasagna
You can also browse through my entire collection of healthy pasta recipes here!
Healthy Mac and Cheese Recipe
- 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.