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Finally! A healthy mac and cheese recipe that your whole family will love. From added sweet potato to less fat and more fiber, this more nutritious baked pasta is STILL creamy and comforting. Easy to make gluten-free and freezing instructions included!
About the Recipe
I’m not sure Mac and Cheese can ever be categorized as “healthy.” But, since my kids love it so much, I’ve attempted several better versions than Kraft or the super decadent homemade version that is.
I’ve made and tweaked this recipe many times over the years, and my family (picky eaters included) give it two thumbs up. Of course, I like it because it’s yet another way to get vegetables into my crew.
Since our specialty at Thriving Home is easy, healthy freezer meals, I included instructions for freezing mac and cheese, too.
What Makes This Mac and Cheese Healthy?
I’m not claiming this baked pasta is the healthiest recipe out there, but it’s my attempt at a more nutritious, less calorie-laden version that’s STILL yummy. Here are some good-for-you perks of this mac and cheese:
- Whole wheat pasta (instead of white pasta)- More fiber and nutrients. No one will ever know the difference!
- Easy to make gluten-free – If you’re trying to avoid gluten or want extra protein, use a protein-rich, gluten-free pasta like Banza chickpea pasta instead.
- Less fat – I used pasta water (a natural thickener), 2% milk, and a little Greek yogurt to replace some of the usual fat (butter and heavy whipping cream). The cheese sauce still turns out rich-tasting.
- Sweet potato – This is a wonderful superfood veggie to add in for nutrition. It’s virtually tasteless and lends an orange-yellow hue that kids like.
- Whole wheat breadcrumbs (instead of white bread) – Top with whole grain breadcrumbs for even more fiber and added crunch.
So, here’s what you’ll need on hand in total…
- 1 pound (16 oz) whole wheat elbow pasta (sub: gluten-free pasta)
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, microwaved or baked until soft (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 2 cups milk (I used 2%)
- 3/4 cup plain full-fat Greek yogurt (sub: full-fat sour cream)
- Salt and pepper
- 3 cups finely shredded cheddar cheese (I use sharp cheddar)
- 1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs (make your own, if you want)
- Avocado or olive oil
- Optional: 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced or 2 teaspoons dried parsley
Have a Picky Eater in Your Family?
Many parents have been in your shoes, including me! For years, my younger kids would turn up their noses at vegetables and fruits.
While I kept offering a wide variety of healthy foods to them (kids often need to try something an average of 10x before they will like it), I also wanted to make sure they were getting the nutrition their growing bodies needed.
That’s why I came up with this ultimate list of ways to sneak fruits and veggies into kid favorites! You can even prep ahead and freeze many of these.
Be sure to Pin or save this resource to use again and again!
How to Make This Healthy Mac and Cheese Recipe
Prep Oven & Dish
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9×13 casserole dish with cooking spray (or two 8×8 dishes and freeze one for later).
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender but still a bit firm. Remove 3/4 cup of pasta water and set aside. (Don’t forget this step!) Drain pasta in strainer/colander and set aside. Toss with a little oil to keep from sticking.
Make Cheese Sauce
Meanwhile, place the sweet potato flesh (orange part), milk, pasta water, yogurt, salt and pepper into a blender and blend until smooth (this hides the vegs from keen eyes!). Note: If you don’t have a blender, use a fork to really mash the sweet potato and then whisk together all the wet ingredients.
Then pour the milk mixture into the same pot you cooked the pasta in. Stir frequently over medium-high heat and cook until the mixture is hot and nearly simmering. Remove from the heat and slowly stir in the cheese a little bit at a time. Stir until melted and smooth.
Combine Pasta and Sauce
Add the cooked macaroni to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish(es).
Prep Breadcrumb Topping
Stir together the bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon oil, and parsley in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese.
Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until the top, is lightly browned, bubbly on the edges, and hot in the middle. (This may take more like 20-25 minutes if baking a half portion.)
Can You Freeze Mac and Cheese?
As freezer meal experts and cookbook authors, this is a question we’ve heard over the years. Freezing mac and cheese is possible, but we recommend doing it like this so it turns out tasting like a fresh meal:
- Put the casserole together and then freeze before baking it.
- Tightly wrap with a few layers of plastic wrap or foil and press out as much air as possible. (Air is the enemy of good freezer meals!)
- Freeze in the back of the freezer, so it will stay consistently frozen.
- When ready to bake, the best way to thaw is for about 24 hours in the refrigerator. Once it’s fully thawed, bake according to directions.
Learn about many more foods you can freeze and the best method for doing that.
Did you make this? Snap a photo and tag us on Instagram at @thrivinghome so we can see your creations and cheer you on!
- Cooking spray (I use a reusable bottle sprayer with avocado oil in it.)
- 1 pound (16 oz) whole wheat elbow pasta (sub: gluten-free pasta, like Banza brand)
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, microwaved or baked until soft (about 1 1/2 cups) – SEE COOKING NOTES
- 2 cups milk (I used 2%)
- 3/4 cup reserved pasta water
- 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt (the full-fat version tastes best, but non-fat will work; sub: sour cream)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- Optional: good pinch of cayenne pepper or dash of hot sauce
- 3 cups finely shredded cheddar cheese (shred your own cheese to avoid additives)
- 1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs (make your own, if you want)
- 1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil, plus more for the pasta
- Optional: 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley or 2 teaspoons dried parsley
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Make It Now:
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Coat a 9×13 inch casserole dish with cooking spray (or two 8×8 dishes and freeze one for later).
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender but still a bit firm. Remove 3/4 cup of pasta water and set aside. (Don’t forget this step!) Drain pasta in strainer/colander and set aside. Toss with a little oil to keep from sticking.
- Meanwhile, place the sweet potato flesh (orange part), milk, pasta water, yogurt, salt and pepper (and optional cayenne or hot sauce for a little heat) into a blender. Blend until smooth (this hides the veggies from keen eyes and helps thicken the sauce).
- Then pour the milk mixture into the same pot you cooked the pasta in. Stir frequently over medium-high heat and cook until the mixture is hot and nearly simmering. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese a little bit at a time (use a figure 8 stir pattern to prevent clumping). Stir until melted and smooth.
- Add the cooked macaroni to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish(es). (Freezing instructions begin here.)
- Combine bread crumbs, oil, and parsley in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese.
- Bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the top is lightly browned, bubbly on edges, and hot in the middle. (This may take more like 20-25 minutes, if baking a half portion.)
Freeze For Later: Follow Steps 1-6 (no need to preheat the oven). Do not bake the casserole. Tightly wrap the dish(es) in a few layers of plastic wrap or foil and press out any excess air. Label and freeze.
Prepare From Frozen: When ready to eat, thaw in the fridge overnight or use the defrost setting on the microwave. Bake as directed.
Gluten-Free Version: Use gluten-free pasta. I like Banza brand. Omit the breadcrumbs or use a gluten-free version. I prefer to make my own with toasted gluten-free bread.
How to Cook Sweet Potato for This Recipe: Using a small, sharp knife poke a few holes in the potato on each side. Then, cook using one of the following methods and let cool for 5-10 minutes before peeling:
- Microwave for 2 minutes on high. Flip over. Microwave another 2 minutes. Flip over again and microwave in 1-minute increments until a knife is inserted easily into the middle.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Place sweet potato on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Then, flip over and bake another 30 minutes. Sweet potatoes are done when until a knife is inserted easily into the middle and skin feels crisp.