A rich and creamy Healthy Mac and Cheese Recipe that's lighter on calories thanks to a few simple recipe hacks.
This recipe was originally published on April 8th, 2020. It was updated on May 19, 2022.
Table of contents
- Why this low calorie mac and cheese recipe works:
- More mac and cheese recipes:
- More healthy comfort food recipes:
- Making stovetop mac and cheese vs. baked mac and cheese:
- Save this low-fat mac and cheese recipe for later on Pinterest:
- What is a roux?
- How to make healthy mac and cheese:
- How to make a roux:
- Recipe pro-tips:
- A note about baking the recipe:
- Doubling or tripling the recipe:
- Recipe FAQs:
- Recipe mix-ins:
- Serving suggestions:
- Recipe adaptations:
- Storage directions:
- Tools needed to make this recipe:
If you look around Mae's Menu for any period of time, chances are you'll discover -- after seeing the abundance of mac and cheese recipes -- that I probably should have just named my site "Mae's Mac and Cheese."
It's pretty safe to say I love macaroni and cheese! Seriously, I eat the dish at least once/week... and that's on a light week!
As much as I eat it and in as many interpretations and I enjoy it in, this healthy mac and cheese recipe is where it all began.
This recipe is my most classic version of my (arguably) most favorite dish: with a light-on-the butter roux as the base of the healthy cheese sauce, your favorite pasta shape, and the cheddar cheese flavor we know and love, this healthy mac n cheese is a hit every time.
Why this low calorie mac and cheese recipe works:
- Quick & easy - though admittedly not as fast as whipping up a box of kraft mac and cheese, homemade mac and cheese is so much quicker and easier than expected! Especially when making the stovetop variation, this recipe is ready in less than 15 minutes!
- Cheesy - why else do we eat mac and cheese except to -- gasp -- get our cheese fix (okay okay, the pasta is pretty great, too!)? Thanks to the roux, we get maximum cheddar cheese flavor without having to use maximum cheddar cheese. Making it a win for flavor and for fat content.
- Budget friendly - using a mixture of common refrigerator ingredients and pantry staples, this recipe makes an affordable homemade dinner!
Making stovetop mac and cheese vs. baked mac and cheese:
For this easy healthy mac and cheese recipe I offer directions for both stovetop mac and cheese and baked mac and cheese. The recipe is approachable and easy to make either way, though if you are shorter on time or don't prefer baked macaroni and cheese, the stovetop variation is the way to go.
- If making stovetop mac and cheese: just stir all of the cheddar cheese into the pasta and serve.
- If making baked mac and cheese: sprinkle a portion of the cheddar cheese onto the pasta before baking the cheese until bubbly and golden.
Save this low-fat mac and cheese recipe for later on Pinterest:
What is a roux?
A roux is a mixture of butter and flour, or a fat and a flour, that you cook together on the stovetop before whisking in a liquid. It is most commonly used to thicken sauces. In this case, it thickens the mac and cheese sauce and makes it creamy, smooth, and luscious.
The flour in the roux helps to thicken up the sauce as it cooks and the butter adds a bit of richness and nuttiness. A few other popular dishes that also use a roux are chowders, gumbo, bisque, and some cream soups.
- Pasta - a small shaped pasta like penne, cavatappi, macaroni, orecchiette, or shells is best
- Unsalted butter
- All-purpose flour
- Low-fat milk -- 1% or 2% is perfect
- Sharp Shredded Cheddar Cheese - the sharp cheese flavor allows us to use less cheese while still having a nice and cheesy flavor
- Pasta - traditional pasta alternatives like chickpea pasta or rice flour pasta can seamlessly substitute for the original. In fact, I used Banza for this recipe and loved it (I buy mine on Thrive Market each month - the best deal I've found)!
- Milk - if you don't have 1% or 2% milk, you can substitute in skim milk or whole milk. I haven't tried this recipe yet with oat milk or nut milk so I can't guarantee those results.
- Flour - -a gluten-free 1-to-1 blend can work in place of traditional to make this recipe gluten-free.
- Cheese - shredded sharp cheddar cheese is my my favorite cheeses for this mac and cheese, but you can also substitute in another semi-hard cheese if you have one. Gruyere, swiss, white cheddar, and provolone are all delicious in this recipe!
How to make healthy mac and cheese:
- Cook your pasta according to the package directions in heavily salted water. If you will bake the macaroni and cheese, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Make the roux (according to the instructions below).
- Turn the heat to low and whisk in the cheddar cheese and salt until smooth and creamy.
- Turn off the heat and add the pasta to the cheese sauce. Gently fold it into the sauce until combined.
- Serve right away or prepare the mac and cheese to bake. If baking, pour it into a greased baking dish & sprinkle the dish with more cheddar cheese.
- Bake the dish for 21-23 minutes, or until the cheese is melted, bubbling, and golden brown. Serve hot!
How to make a roux:
Below are the steps to follow a roux. Have all your ingredients measured out ahead of time as the cooking will go fast!
Step 1: Bring your saucepan to heat over medium or medium-low heat. Add your butter and let it melt until it just starts to get foamy.
Step 2: Whisk in your flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1-2 minutes, or until the roux smells warm and lightly nutty.
Pro-tip: if the flour starts to cover the bottom of the pan and turn a golden brown color, turn your heat down to medium-low.
Step 3: slowly whisk in your milk (or other liquid) and whisk the roux into the liquid rapidly while continuing to cook over heat for about 2-3 minutes, or until the sauce gets thick and you can see the bottom of the pan while you whisk. Remove from the heat!
- Salt the pasta water. Salted water makes all the difference in the flavor of the pasta, so don't be bashful in salting it! If you are concerned about the sodium levels in the recipe if you salt the water, know that pasta only absorbs 1/16 of a teaspoon of salt per serving on average.
- Cook the roux on medium or medium-low heat. A scalded or burnt roux is the quickest way to destroy the recipe. Be conservative with the temperature when you make the roux. Start medium-low and you can always add more heat as you need it.
- Whisk the cheese sauce until smooth. The cheese will melt into the roux as you whisk it. You will know that it is entirely whisked in when the sauce is smooth and creamy -- and no longer stringy or separated. It may take 30 seconds to 1 minute, so keep whisking until it achieves this texture.
A note about baking the recipe:
You do not need to bake this mac and cheese. It's a optional step if you prefer a your pasta with a crunchier and chewier topping. If you like mac and cheese creamy, you can skip the step! You can serve it right after you mix the pasta in with the cheese sauce.
Doubling or tripling the recipe:
To double or triple this recipe, just multiply the ingredients by your desired amount and follow the recipe as directed, using a stockpot and 8 x 13" pan if needed.
If you're baking the mac and cheese, you may need to bake it for 5-8 minutes more every time you multiply the recipe.
According to Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, and registered dietitian nutritionist and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices, "Although mac and cheese is a dish that’s typically higher in calories, saturated fat, and sodium–this dish is filled with better-for-you swaps that makes it much lighter. By using skim milk or 1% milk, it slashes the saturated fat content. This recipe also uses significantly less butter than most, meaning less overall calories and fat per serving. If you want to pump up protein and fiber content, try using the recommended Banza pasta as a healthier swap. I would also suggest pairing your pasta with a veggie-filled side dish to add extra color to your plate."
Make this healthier mac and cheese a complete meal by mixing in any of the following ingredients when folding the pasta into the cheese sauce:
- Grilled apple chicken sausage
- Flaked canned tuna
- Turkey or ham lunch meat -- cut into small pieces
- Roasted broccoli
- Steamed green peas
- Barbecue pork or chicken
Mac and cheese goes well with so many dishes. Here are a few of my top recommendations of what to serve it with:
- Grilled or air-fried fish
- Green salad
- Blistered green beans
- Baked ham or pork tenderloin
- Sloppy joes
- Grilled chicken
This recipe is naturally vegetarian and processed sugar-free.
To make gluten-free mac and cheese, just use gluten-free rice or bean pasta and a gluten-free 1-to-1 flour.
To make low-sodium mac and cheese, eliminate the salt from the cheese sauce.
This homemade macaroni and cheese will last covered in an airtight container in the fridge for 4-5 days.
- To freeze leftovers: freeze them in individual portions in airtight freezer-safe containers for 1-2 months. To reheat: warm the macaroni and cheese around 75% heat for 2-4 minutes in the microwave, stirring every minute or so, or until the pasta is heated through.
- To freeze an unbaked pan of macaroni and cheese. Prepare the macaroni and cheese up to the baking step. Cover the baking container with an airtight and freezer-safe bag or lid and freeze for 2-3 months. To reheat: defrost the pan in the refrigerator for 24 hours and then bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35-40 minutes, or until the mac and cheese is heated through and the cheese is browning on the top.
Tools needed to make this recipe:
- 2-quart saucepan or 6-quart Dutch oven
- Measuring cups & spoons
- 8 x 8" glass baking dish
- Silicone spatula
More mac and cheese recipes:
- Greek Yogurt Mac & Cheese
- Instant Pot Kraft and Cheese
- Lactose-Free Mac and Cheese
- Healthier Taco Mac and Cheese
- Tuna Mac and Cheese
- Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese
More healthy comfort food recipes:
- Taco Tater Tot Casserole
- Healthy Deviled Eggs
- Mom's Tuna Macaroni Salad Recipe
- Instant Pot Turkey Chili
- Baked Italian Sausage Casserole
- Colorado Pork Green Chili
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Healthy Macaroni and Cheese (Baked or Stovetop!)
Whether you're looking for an easy holiday side dish or just simply a healthier comfort food the whole family will love for dinner, this Healthy Macaroni and Cheese is ultra-cheesy and comforting.
Serve it straight off the stovetop or bake it with a cheesy golden topping -- depending on how you like your mac and cheese.
See my illustrated directions on the blog post above to see how to make a roux (I photo those steps just for you!) before you start.
- 8 oz. pasta shapes: penne, macaroni, cavatappi, orecchiette, or other shapes
- 1 ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour or 1-to-1 gluten-free flour blend
- 1 ¼ cup 1% or 2% milk
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 ¾ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, DIVIDED (if baking) or 1 ¼ cup cheese (if not baking)
- Cook your pasta according to package directions in heavily salted water and drain. If baking your mac and cheese: Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and grease an 8 x 8" baking pan with butter or non-stick cooking spray.
- Make the cheese sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, just until it starts to foam. Add the flour to the butter and whisk vigorously for 1-2 minutes, or until the mixture smells warm and nutty. If the flour coats the bottom of the pan and starts to turn golden brown, turn the heat down to medium-low.
- Pour the milk into the saucepan while continuing to whisk the roux. Cook for another 2-3 minutes, whisking non-stop, or until the sauce thickens up and you can see the bottom of the pot when you whisk it.
- Turn the heat to low. Add in 1 ¼ cup of the shredded cheese and salt. Whisk vigorously for 15-30 seconds, or until the cheese is smooth & creamy. Remove the pot from the heat.
- Stir the drained pasta into the cheese sauce and gently fold it in until combined. If not baking the pasta: serve the macaroni and cheese hot!
- If baking the pasta: pour the macaroni and cheese into the greased baking dish and bake for 21-23 minutes, or until the cheese on top turns golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve hot!
This mac and cheese will last covered in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.
To make this recipe gluten-free, just use gluten-free pasta and gluten-free flour.
Make sure to heavily salt your pasta water-- it makes all the difference in the flavor of your pasta! I like to add at least 1 tablespoon salt for every gallon of water I boil.
To double this recipe: just double all the ingredients, bake the mac and cheese in an 8 x 13-inch baking pan, and bake the pasta an extra 5-8 minutes or until the cheese on top starts to turn golden brown.
Serving Size⅛ of the recipe, baked & made with 1% milk
Amount Per Serving Calories 294Total Fat 20gSaturated Fat 11gTrans Fat 1gUnsaturated Fat 6gCholesterol 57mgSodium 535mgCarbohydrates 14gFiber 1gSugar 2gProtein 15g
This nutrition breakdown is just an estimate of the nutritional value of this recipe and cannot be taken as facts. The owners of Mae's Menu are not nutritionists or dietitians and therefore cannot be held accountable for this nutrition estimate. Please contact your nutritionist or medical professional for a nutritional breakdown of this food. Furthermore, this food is not intended to prevent, diagnose, cure, or treat any disease.
How much is one serving, 1 cup?
Mae's Menu says
Hi, Addy -- A serving is 1/6 of the recipe, or about somewhere in between 3/4 - 1 cup.
Hope that helps!
How many cups of dried pasta do I use?