5 Mac and Cheese Recipes Putting a Healthy Spin on Comfort Food

Everyone loves a good mac and cheese. What’s not to love? Warm carbs and rich cheese are a match made in comfort food heaven, and both vegetarians and meat-lovers alike can get on board with the classic. The problem with America’s favorite dish is that it’s loaded with calories and fat, and isn’t exactly a dinner many are trying to serve as the new year rolls around and consumers are making a conscious effort to eat healthy. Luckily, we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to deprive yourself. You can have your comfort food and eat it, too — you just have to know how to healthify the dish. Here are 5 healthy spins on the classic mac and cheese meal that will satisfy your cravings without devastating your healthy living resolutions.

Lobster Macaroni and Cheese, pasta cheese casserole

Source: iStock

1. Skinny Baked Mac and Cheese

Up first is a baked version of the mac and cheese dish found in The Skinnytaste Cookbook, featured on Chocolate Covered Katie. Gina Homolka developed this recipe that requires no funky ingredients and yields just 244 calories per serving. Most traditional mac and cheese recipes have calorie counts double, or even triple, that amount. This macaroni and cheese sidesteps the calories and fat by forgoing heavy cream ingredients and instead subbing in vegetable broth. The dish also gets baked for 20 minutes before serving, and even boasts a hint of green.

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces fusilli or elbow pasta
  • 1½ tablespoons buttery spread
  • ¼ cup minced onion
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 2 cups milk of choice
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar
  • 12 ounces fresh broccoli florets
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan-type grated topping
  • ¼ cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • cooking spray
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions: In a large pot of salted water, cook the pasta and broccoli together, according to package directions for al dente. Spray a baking dish with cooking spray, and set aside. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large, heavy skillet, melt the buttery spread, then add the onion and cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Add the flour and cook 1 minute or until flour is golden and well-combined. Whisk in milk and broth, raise heat to medium-high until it comes to a boil, then cook an additional 5 minutes or until smooth and thick. Season with salt and pepper if desired. Remove from heat, add cheese, and stir until melted. Stir in the cooked pasta and broccoli, then pour into the prepared baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs and Parmesan or nutritional yeast. Spray a little more cooking spray on top. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, then broil a few minutes until the breadcrumbs are golden.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

2. Spaghetti Squash Mac and Cheese

Up next is a mac and cheese recipe from Pop Sugar that enlists our favorite fibrous winter vegetable, the spaghetti squash. Spaghetti squash is packed with vitamins, nutrients, and fiber, and is satiating because of such. It’s also low in calories, which helps this Spaghetti Squash Mac and Cheese dish boast the same distinction. In this recipe, traditional noodles are subbed out for spaghetti squash, and low-fat milk along with reduced-fat cheddar cheese and Parmesan are called into the game. It serves 4 hungry eaters.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large spaghetti squash
  • Canola oil spray
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, steamed
  • 1 tablespoon ghee
  • 1 tablespoon whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • 1 cup reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon grated parmesan for garnish

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut spaghetti squash in half, and scoop out and discard seeds. Spray the center of both halves of squash with cooking spray, and place cut side up on a cookie sheet. Roast until tender when pierced with a knife, about 50 minutes.

Remove squash from oven, and let cool. Once it’s safe to handle, scrape flesh into a large bowl. Add in steamed broccoli florets to bowl and set aside. In a large saucepan, melt ghee on medium heat and whisk in whole wheat flour. Add milk and whisk quickly. Turn heat down to low, add both cheeses to saucepan, and stir until melted. Remove from heat. Pour cheese sauce over spaghetti squash and broccoli mixture, and toss until all the squash is covered. Dish into 4 portions, and top off with red pepper flakes.

macaroni and cheese, casserole

Source: iStock

3. Lightened Up Mac and Cheese

Cooking Light provides our next recipe for lightened up mac and cheese, and this recipe enlists squash, too, except it’s of the butternut variety. Butternut squash, low-fat milk, Greek yogurt, and three kinds of cheese go into this dish, but subbing out some of the milk for broth keeps the calorie count for this dish in check. Cavatappi are the noodles that will get covered in the cheese, and panko, or Japanese breadcrumbs, also make an appearance.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups cubed peeled butternut squash
  • 1¼ cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth
  • 1½ cups fat-free milk
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons plain fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1¼ cups shredded Gruyère cheese
  • 1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
  • ¼ cup finely grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
  • 1 pound uncooked cavatappi
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ½ cup panko
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Directions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine squash, broth, milk, and garlic in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until squash is tender when pierced with a fork, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place the hot squash mixture in a blender. Add salt, pepper, and Greek yogurt. Remove the center piece of blender lid; secure blender lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in blender lid. Blend until smooth. Place blended squash mixture in a bowl; stir in Gruyère, pecorino Romano, and 2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir until combined.

Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain well. Add pasta to squash mixture, and stir until combined. Spread mixture evenly into a 13-by-9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add panko, and cook for 2 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from heat; stir in remaining 2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the hot pasta mixture. Lightly coat topping with cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes or until bubbly. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately.

Macaroni and cheese, pasta, ramekin

Source: iStock

4. Vegan Mac and Cheese

Up in the No. 4 spot is Vegan Mac and Cheese. The name sounds like a misnomer, right? Regardless, the dish still exists and this recipe from The Detoxinista yields it. Enlisting raw cashews, nutritional yeast, and a handful of seasonings, no butter, flour, or cheese is needed for this recipe, and you can forget about milk as well. Homemade “cheese” sauce replaces the dairy component of traditional mac and cheese, and it is so deceptively decadent that even the pickiest of eaters might not even notice your healthy swaps.

Ingredients:

  • 1½ cups raw cashews
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • ¾ cup water
  • 1½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ cup nutritional yeast
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ clove garlic
  • Pinch of turmeric
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon mustard
  • 8 ounces of elbow or shell pasta of choice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Paprika, for garnish

Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Start boiling some water to prepare your pasta. If you have a Vita-Mix, or other high-powered blender, combine the first 10 ingredients into the blender, and blend until smooth and creamy. If you do not have a high-powered blender, use a food processor or blender to process the cashews first, until they are finely ground. Once your cashews are thoroughly processed, add the rest of the ingredients and process until thick and smooth. At this time, check pasta. Once it’s cooked to your liking, drain and rinse it, then return the pasta to the pot to be mixed with the cheese sauce. Serve immediately while hot, or move on to the next step for baking.

Baking Instructions: Once you’ve mixed everything together, pour the mac ‘n’ cheese into an 8-by-8-inch square dish and garnish with a sprinkle of paprika and black pepper. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then serve.

Skillet Macaroni and Cheese, pasta, noodles

Source: iStock

5. Pumpkin Mac and Cheese

Last but not least: Healthier Pumpkin Mac and Cheese from Well Plated. This dish is still dreamy, but at least it’s not as creamy. Healthified by the use of pumpkin puree and Greek yogurt, the Pumpkin Mac and Cheese is the perfect lightened-up spin on the indulgent mac classic. Cheese is still on the ingredient list, as are elbow macaroni and bacon, but the use of low-calorie pumpkin puree, yogurt, and broth help do the dirty work of calorie killers like heavy milk and cheese, and therefore, this recipe yields a product that is a deceptively healthy one.

Ingredients:

  • 4 ounces bacon
  • 3 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 cups yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 1½ cups nonfat milk
  • 1 cup low-sodium canned chicken stock (if homemade, skim off fat)
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 13 ounces whole wheat elbow macaroni
  • 4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
  • ⅓ cup 2% plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, finely grated, divided
  • ¼ cup panko breadcrumbs

Directions: Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a large baking sheet with foil. Arrange bacon slices in a single layer on a flat oven-proof rack, then set the rack atop the prepared baking sheet. Bake bacon for 20 minutes, until crispy. Once cooked, set bacon between two paper towels and pat dry. Once cool enough to handle, chop into rough pieces and set aside.

Meanwhile in a large skillet, heat 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium high. Add onions and sauté just beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook onions until caramelized and tender, stirring occasionally. Let the onions cook for at least 10 additional minutes, or up to 30 minutes as you prepare the rest of the recipe.

In a deep, wide saucepan, combine pumpkin, stock, and milk, then bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until sauce thickens slightly, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat, then stir in mustard, salt, pepper nutmeg, and cayenne.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and 1 tablespoon kosher salt, then cook just until al dente according to package instructions. Drain, then transfer noodles to a large bowl. Pour pumpkin sauce over the top, then stir in the cheddar, Greek yogurt, and 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Fold in all of the caramelized onions and reserved bacon.

Lightly coat a 9-inch square, deep baking dish or a 2-quart casserole dish with cooking spray. Transfer the pumpkin noodle mixture to dish. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs, remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan, and remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the noodles. Cover dish with foil and bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until lightly browned and crisp on top, 30 to 35 minutes more. Serve immediately.

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