Creamy and full of taco flavor, this Healthier Taco Mac and Cheese is lower in sodium and fat while still tasting like the comfort food you crave.
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Taco Mac no longer needs to be a gut bomb! With ground turkey, a simple homemade spice blend, hidden veggies, and reduced-fat milk and cheeses, this Healthier Taco Mac and Cheese is spicy, creamy, and satisfying while being a lower in fat and salt.
It's getting to be that time of year!
Even though it's warm here again in Colorado, the cold snap (and snow!) we had last week also snapped my brain into thinking about comfort food and fall.
Maybe it was the foot of snow I hiked through in Rocky Mountain National Park on Friday. Or, it would also be the days getting shorter and the nights getting chillier.
Let's just forget the 90-degree temperatures during the day because, whatever the reason, comfort food has definitely been on my mind!
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Not that there's really ever a time that I'm not thinking about mac and cheese! #confession
But, of course, when I have an excuse like fall to think about it I am going to milk that reason for all it is worth.
My most recent ponderings have led me to where we are today: taco mac and cheese. Not sure if it's the childlike subject, or just that I'm that in love, but there are not many other words I have for this dish than... Oh. My. God.
Because, when you have a dish that satisfies both your comfort food cravings and your more health-conscious adult sensibilities, what else do we have to do than to offer a moment of veneration between spoonfuls?
At least that's how I'm choosing to spend and celebrate my comfort food season. Let's dig in!
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This Tex Mex macaroni and cheese is...
- Lower in fat
- Lower in sodium
- A complete meal
- Easily made gluten-free
- Perfect for leftovers
- A new way to do Taco Tuesday
This variation on macaroni and cheese will be a hit with the whole family!
- Macaroni (or other small shape pasta) -- go for whichever you have on hand and/or prefer!
- Yellow or white onion -- cut into a ¼" dice
- Sweet pepper -- red, orange, or yellow does the trick!
- Ground turkey -- a combination of ground breast and thigh is best so choose a package that is 85% or 93% lean meat
- Easy homemade taco seasoning -- chili powder, ground cumin, dried oregano, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and salt
- Salsa -- choose your favorite flavor. I even make this with pineapple salsa and it's delicious
- Frozen chopped spinach -- let's sneak some extra veggies in there! Promise, you won't even taste 'em 😉
- Unsalted butter -- all we need is 2 tablespoons
- Light cream cheese -- adds extra creaminess to the sauce without all the calories of full-fat cream cheese
- Reduced-fat shredded sharp cheddar cheese -- the classic cheesy flavor of macaroni and cheese without all the heaviness
- 1% or 2% milk -- ties the cheese sauce together without adding too much extra fat or calories
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The recipe is best as-is, but here are some substitutions you can easily do if in a pinch!
- Taco seasoning -- the homemade seasoning we will use is super simple and tasty, but if you don't have all the seasonings on hand you can substitute in a pre-made seasoning blend. I like this seasoning blend because it's natural and not high in salt. If using another blend, beware of the sodium levels and season the mac and cheese with salt accordingly.
- Sweet peppers -- diced green pepper can work in place of the sweet red, orange, or yellow pepper.
- Ground meat -- ground beef or ground chicken can work in place of the turkey. Ground beef will make the dish more hearty and higher in saturated fat and ground chicken will likely make it lighter in flavor, calories, and fat.
- Onions -- 1 cup of sliced green onions can work in place of the diced yellow or white onion.
- Cheese -- reduced-fat shredded Mexican cheese blend can work in place of the shredded cheddar cheese. The cheese sauce will have a bit less of a cheesy "punch" to it, however.
What is the best type of salsa for this recipe?
The best type of salsa for this recipe is your favorite type of salsa. If you like hot salsa, use your favorite bottle of that. If fruit salsa is your jam (like me!) pour in a bottle of that. Is tomatillo salsa all your family's rage? That should work just fine, too!
Have fun customizing this dish to your family's liking with your favorite salsa bottle.
Can you make taco mac gluten-free?
Thankfully, it is super easy to make this recipe gluten-free! Just substitute in gluten-free noodles (brown rice, quinoa noodles, or your other favorite gluten-free small-shaped pasta) in place of the traditional macaroni use the homemade spice blend (as listed) and you're good to go!
Is this recipe budget-friendly?
Yes, this taco mac is a very budget-friendly dinner, coming in at $1.25 per serving! To make it even more budget-friendly, buy and freeze ingredients ahead of time when you find them on sale. Then you can make this recipe any time for a steal!
How to make Taco Mac!
Below are illustrated instructions to make one of my favorite mac and cheese variations. For the full instructions and specific measurements, please see the recipe card at the bottom of this blog post.
- Cook the macaroni according to the package directions in heavily salted water. Drain and set aside.
- While the pasta cooks: saute the onions and peppers in oil.
- Add the ground turkey and taco seasonings and saute, crumbling as you cook, or until the turkey is cooked through.
- Add the frozen spinach and salsa to the turkey, bring to a simmer and cook until the mixture is reduced and thickened.
- Melt the butter in the empty pasta pan over medium-low heat.
- Add the cream cheese, cheese, milk, and extra salt to the butter. Cook and stir for 5-6 minutes, or until the cheese sauce is thickened and creamy.
How to make this recipe delicious every time:
- Cook the macaroni in heavily salted water -- you want to cook the pasta in water that tastes like the ocean. The pasta absorbs the flavor of the salt without absorbing all the extra sodium, so it is a great flavor hack.
- Measure your ingredients before you start -- especially, your taco seasonings and cheese sauce ingredients. The cooking will go quick; it's easiest to have all your ingredients there and ready to use as you need them.
- Use your favorite salsa -- the flavor of the salsa will directly translate into the flavor of the taco mac and cheese.
- Stir the cheese sauce as it cooks -- keep an eye on and stir the cheese sauce frequently as it cooks. This will keep the sauce from burning or cooking unevenly.
- Cook the cheese sauce over medium-low heat -- another measure we take to keep the sauce from burning. Medium-low heat will be enough to melt and thicken the cheese sauce, but not too much to scald or burn it.
How do you serve taco mac and cheese?
This dish is a complete meal in and of itself, but you can serve it the following ways.
- Shredded lettuce
- Green onions
- Minced onion
- Sliced black olives
- Extra shredded cheese
- ... or any of your other favorite taco toppings!
- Roasted broccoli
- Air fryer green beans
- Mexican lager beer -- like Pacifico, Dos Equis, or Corona
- Tortilla chips
- Green salad
How long does this recipe last?
It all depends on how hungry your family is. 😉 But really, leftovers will last covered in the refrigerator for up to 4-5 days.
Can you freeze this recipe?
Yes, you can definitely freeze this macaroni and cheese! Just freeze in a freezer-safe container for up to 2 months. For best reheating results, defrost the taco mac in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours before reheating in the microwave on 50-60% heat.
Tools needed to make this recipe:
- Cutting board
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Glass measuring cup
- Dutch oven or stockpot
- 12" non-stick skillet
- Heat safe spatula or turner
- Whisk (optional)
Other healthier comfort food recipes you might like:
- Tuna Mac and Cheese
- Taco Tater Tot Casserole
- Taco Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
- Peanut Butter Chicken Curry
- Healthy Macaroni and Cheese
- Healthy Mashed Potatoes (No Butter or Oil!)
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Healthy Taco Mac and Cheese: a comfort food recipe the WHOLE family will love. This dish is lower in fat, but still just as full of flavor as typical taco mac. It also is lower in sodium.
To make this recipe gluten-free, simply substitute in gluten-free pasta.
- 16 oz. uncooked macaroni noodles
- 1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 sweet pepper (red, orange, or yellow), diced
- 1 lb. ground turkey (preferably breast & thigh)
- 1 teaspoon salt, DIVIDED
- 2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 ¼ cup salsa
- 2 cup frozen chopped spinach
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 oz. light cream cheese
- 2 ½ cup reduced-fat shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 ½ cup 1% or 2% milk
Additional toppings (optional):
- chopped cilantro
- shredded lettuce
- diced tomato
- sliced olives
- ... any other favorite taco toppings!
- Bring a dutch oven or stockpot of heavily salted water to boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to the package directions. Drain in a colander and set the pasta aside.
- While the macaroni cooks: heat the tablespoon of oil in a 12" saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sweet pepper and saute, stirring every 30 seconds or so, for 3-4 minutes, or until the onions start to turn translucent.
- Add the ground turkey and seasonings (¾ teaspoon of the salt, chili powder, cumin, dried oregano, garlic, and smoked paprika) to the skillet and cook for another 4-5 minutes, crumbling the turkey as you cook, or until the turkey is cooked through and no longer pink.
- Stir the salsa and frozen spinach into the ground meat mixture until combined. Bring the meat and veggie mixture to a simmer and cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring every few minutes, or until it has reduced down and thickened. Reduce the heat to low while you make the cheese sauce.
- Make the cheese sauce: return the empty stockpot or dutch oven (that you cooked the pasta in) to medium-low heat. Add the butter to the pan and melt until it starts to foam. Add the cream cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, milk, and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt to the butter and stir frequently, melting the cheeses as you cook it for 5-6 minutes, or until the sauce is thickened.
- Turn the heat off. Add the pasta and ground meat mixture to the cheese sauce and gently stir in until the cheese sauce covers the pasta and taco meat. Serve the taco mac hot!
1. You can also substitute in other small-shaped pasta, like orecchiette, shells, or rotini.
2. Ground beef or chicken can also work in place of the ground turkey.
3. To make this recipe gluten-free, substitute in gluten-free pasta in place of traditional pasta.
4. Leftover taco mac lasts covered in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. It can freeze for up to 2 months in a freezer-safe container.
5. This recipe can also be made with full-fat cream cheese, cheese, and milk, though the calorie and fat count will be higher.
6. You can serve this taco mac as-is for a comforting meal or you can also serve it with all your favorite taco toppings. Diced green onions and tomatoes, cilantro, sliced black olives, and extra shredded cheddar cheese would all be delicious.
7. Though I recommend the homemade spice blend, you can substitute 2 tablespoons pre-made taco seasoning in a pinch. Here is my favorite pre-made seasoning blend. When using a pre-made seasoning, season the taco mac to taste with salt before serving.
Amount Per Serving Calories 318Total Fat 19gSaturated Fat 8gTrans Fat 0gUnsaturated Fat 9gCholesterol 71mgSodium 558mgCarbohydrates 19gFiber 2gSugar 4gProtein 19g
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 dieticians 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.