This easy recipe for healthy homemade macaroni & cheese is full of flavor with added veggies to make this an all-in-one meal. Enjoy this recipe the next time you’re craving mac & cheese!
Macaroni & cheese is a staple in our household.
Maybe that comes as a surprise to you. I mean, do nutritionists and dietitians even eat foods like boxed mac & cheese???
The answer is YES!!
If you’ve ever felt on the fence about foods like macaroni & cheese and wondered if (and how) you might be able to include them for your family, read on to learn a few tips about how I include these foods for my family – plus find a delicious (and easy!) recipe for a grown-up version of mac & cheese my whole family loves.
Can Macaroni & Cheese be Healthy?
The answer to this question is a resounding YES!! Macaroni & Cheese can absolutely fit into a healthy eating pattern. Eating “healthy” is really all about balance and ensuring you’re getting all the nutrition you need.
In a traditional bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese, you get these nutrients:
Carbohydrates from the pasta
A small amount of protein from the cheese
Fat from the cheese
Sodium from the cheese
Mac & cheese contains all three macronutrients – carbs, fat, & protein – which are the nutrients where we get energy (i.e. calories). However, the traditional dish is missing many vitamins and minerals, fiber, and usually doesn’t have enough protein to balance the carbs.
This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy mac & cheese; it simply means you need to pay attention to the nutritional balance of the meal when it comes to enjoying this.
Want to enjoy delicious, family-friendly meals which are balanced nutritionally for you?
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How a Dietitian Nutritionist Enjoys Eating Mac & Cheese with Her Family
I sometimes encounter a recipe or meal my family LOVES but doesn’t necessarily contain the nutrition we need.
As a dietitian and a mom, it’s important to me to serve my family foods that benefits them! So here’s how I handle foods like mac & cheese…
First, let me tell you what I DON’T do:
I DON’T forbid the food: this only leads to more cravings. I call this “the pink elephant theory” – if I were to tell you not to think of a pink elephant, it would be hard not to think of that thing! Forbidding foods can give them more power than we want them to have. (Read more tips about Picky Eating)
I DON’T talk about how unhealthy it is: this can lead to shame and guilt surrounding the food, which can ultimately lead to bad habits like sneaking food. While the nutritional value of foods might differ, the moral value of foods should not.
I DON’T include this food in every meal: the key to healthy eating is all about balance. While the flavor of boxed mac & cheese is delicious, I want my kids (and myself!) to enjoy a wide variety of flavors. This means I need to expose us to lots of different foods! So mac & cheese is definitely on the menu, but not every day.
Healthy eating = a balance of nutrients.
Rather than stress or worry about any one food or ingredient, take a step back and think about the quality and balance of your eating pattern as a whole.
BUT to get a bit more specific, let me give you an example of how to include mac & cheese as PART of a meal and also an example of how to make it a meal in and of itself…
How to Include Kraft Mac & Cheese in a Healthy Diet (for Kids AND Adults!)
There will ALWAYS be a special place in my heart (and in my teenager’s) for that good ‘ol boxed Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. The good news is: you can certainly include the Mac & Cheese as part of a healthy diet.
To balance a healthy plate, you want to include about ¼ protein, ¼ carbohydrate, and about ½ fruits and veggies.
Kraft Mac & Cheese enjoys it’s place in the “1/4 carbohydrate” section of the plate.
This “plate method” is how I balance all the meals in the Peas & Hoppy Meal Guides. I know it can be overwhelming as a parent to wonder if what you’re serving to your family is healthy – so the Meal Guides take the guesswork out of it.
In terms of balance and nutrition, boxed mac & cheese is an ultra-processed food, meaning it has been designed by food scientists to maximize the “bliss point” of flavor: the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat.
Enjoying ultra-processed foods once in a while is perfectly fine and can easily fit into a healthy eating pattern, BUT eating these foods every day or every meal can change your taste palate: your taste buds start to expect this “bliss point” of flavor and natural foods like fruits and vegetables can taste rather bland in comparison.
One of the best ways to make favorite foods healthier is to make it at home and make it from scratch. Instead of powdered cheese, you can use real cheddar. Instead of white pasta, you can use a whole grain or legume-based option.
Which leads me to a second option for including Mac & Cheese as part of a healthy diet…
How to Make Mac & Cheese into a Healthy Meal
One of the best things about Mac & Cheese is that it’s so easy!
If the above advice to cook MORE things for your meal has you feeling a bit bummed, there is another way to make Mac & Cheese into a healthy meal! Instead of balancing the pasta with other foods on the plate, you can balance the nutrition of the dish itself.
Here’s the checklist for making mac & cheese into a healthy meal:
1/4 plate carbs: check – got enough in the pasta!
1/4 plate protein: not quite enough, add in some real cheddar cheese to increase the protein. (Bonus: add in cooked chicken or use a legume-based pasta for extra protein.)
Fiber: not quite enough; use whole grain or legume-based pasta and add in veggies
Vitamins & minerals: not quite enough; add veggies to the dish to make it an all-in-one meal
One of the best ways to make favorite foods healthier is to make it at home and make it from scratch. BUT time is of the essence when you’re a busy parent! Which is why I created this all-in-one mac & cheese meal that checks all of the nutrition boxes AND cooks in one single pan.
No extra dishes for this recipe! (See more tips for How to Use Fewer Dishes and Make Less Mess in the Kitchen)
Start by dicing an onion and mincing 4 cloves of garlic. Set these aside and heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once hot, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, onions, and garlic. Cook until onion is translucent and garlic is fragrant, 8-10 minutes, stirring every few minutes to ensure even cooking.
While onion and garlic cook, chop about 8 cups of kale: strip kale leaves from stems and roughly chop. Add to sauté pan with onions and cook until kale shrinks to about half of its original volume.
While kale cooks, dice four tomatoes and add to pan as they are prepared. Note: when tomatoes aren’t in season, use canned diced tomatoes; include liquid from can when adding.
Add one cup of water, two cups of milk, and a half teaspoon of salt to pan with vegetables. Stir to distribute vegetables and cover with lid. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil.
Once liquid is boiling, add four cups of whole grain or legume-based penne pasta to pan with water and vegetables, stirring to distribute evenly. Make sure pasta is fully submerged in liquid, then reduce heat and cover; simmer until pasta is fully cooked, about 10-13 minutes.
While pasta cooks, coarsely chop a fourth-cup of fresh basil leaves and set aside.
Once pasta is cooked, remove from heat and stir in a half-cup of plain Greek yogurt, two cups of shredded cheddar, and a half cup of feta cheese crumbles to pasta. Stir in chopped basil just before serving.
Voila! A delicious, creamy, and healthy grown-up mac & cheese dish. If you’d like try substituting or adding other veggies, such as sliced mushrooms, zucchini, or roasted red peppers.
We love this dish in our household. I hope you will, too!
Happy mac & cheese eating,
Dietitian Ann from Peas & Hoppiness
Printable Recipe for One Dish Healthy Mac & Cheese with Tomatoes & Kale
1 White or yellow onion (medium, diced)
4 clove Garlic (minced)
2 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
8 cup Kale leaves (1 large leaf = approximately 1 cup)
4 Tomato (medium, diced; 2 medium = 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes)
1 cup Water
2 cup Whole milk
1/2 tsp Salt
4 cup Whole grain penne (uncooked; sub gluten-free pasta for Celiac-friendly)
1/4 cup Basil leaves
1/2 cup Plain Greek yogurt
2 cup Shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup Feta cheese
Dice onions and mince garlic; set aside. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once hot, add oil, onions, and garlic. Cook until onion is translucent and garlic is fragrant, 8-10 minutes, stirring every few minutes to ensure even cooking.
Meanwhile, strip kale leaves from stems and roughly chop. Add to sauté pan with onions and cook until kale shrinks to about half of its original volume.
While kale cooks, dice tomatoes and add to pan as they are prepared. Note: when tomatoes aren’t in season, use canned diced tomatoes; include liquid from can when adding.
Add water, milk, and salt to pan with vegetables. Stir to distribute vegetables and cover with lid. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil.
Once liquid is boiling, add pasta to pan with water and vegetables, stirring to distribute evenly. Make sure pasta is fully submerged in liquid, then reduce heat and cover; simmer until pasta is fully cooked, about 10-13 minutes.
While pasta cooks, coarsely chop fresh basil leaves and set aside.
Once pasta is cooked, remove from heat and add Greek yogurt, shredded cheddar, and feta cheese crumbles to pasta; stir to combine. Stir in chopped basil just before serving.
Printable Recipe | Serves 6 – Serving Size: 2 cups – Nutrients per serving: 622 calories – 25 total fat –59 mg cholesterol – 679 mg sodium – 64 g total carbohydrates – 7 g fiber – 10 g sugar – 28 g protein
Total Time: 45-50 min | Prep time: 30-35 min | Cook time: 10-15 min
Serving Size: 2 cups
Pro Tip: use dried basil and canned tomatoes if fresh aren’t available. However, fresh is best and will greatly enhance the flavor of this recipe.
Cooking Equipment: Cutting board | Chef’s knife | Large sauté pan
Leftovers: Refrigerate in airtight container up to 5 days. Do not freeze.
Dice onion: trim top and base off onion, then peel tough outer layers (usually top 1—2 layers). Slice in half lengthwise and lay the onion with the cut (flat) side face down. Slice the onion into thin wedges, about 1/4-inch thick, then turn a quarter-turn and dice.
Mince garlic: smash garlic clove: place flat edge of chef’s knife on top of clove and press firmly with palm of the hand; remove papery skin. Cut clove into very thin slices. Stack slices and cut into very thin matchsticks. Turn a quarter-turn and mince finely.
Strip leaves from kale: hold kale leaf with stem-side up by the base of fibrous stem in one hand. With the other hand, pinch stem loosely at the base with thumb and forefinger and slide down the stem to strip leaves off. Discard tough stem and tear leaves into 1-inch pieces.
Chop kale: stack leaves into a pile and coarsely chop. Stack again, turn pile of leaves a quarter-turn, and chop again. Repeat this process until pieces are about 1/2-inch in size.
Dice tomatoes: using very sharp or serrated knife, slice into 1/4-inch slices lengthwise. Lay slices flat, then slice into 1/4-inch wide strips. Turn a quarter-turn and slice perpendicular to dice.