Creamy and full of taco flavor, this Taco Mac and Cheese is a delicious and easy homemade dinner recipe!
This recipe was originally published on September 15, 2020. This post was updated with new blog post info and recipe refinements on March 30, 2021.
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 Recipe is spicy, creamy, and satisfying while being 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!
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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Table of contents
This homemade taco mac recipe is...
- A complete meal
- Great for weeknight dinners and even Taco Tuesday!
Serve up a healthier comfort food today!
- Macaroni (or other small shape pasta) -- whichever you have on hand or prefer
- Yellow or white onion
- Sweet pepper -- red, orange, yellow, or green
- Ground turkey
- Easy homemade taco seasoning -- chili powder, ground cumin, dried oregano, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and salt
- Salsa -- choose your favorite flavor. Even pineapple or peach salsas can be delicious.
- Frozen chopped spinach
- Unsalted butter
- 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
The recipe is best as-is, but here are some substitutions you can easily do if in a pinch!
- Taco seasoning -- if you don't have all the seasonings on hand for the simple taco seasoning, you can substitute in a pre-made seasoning blend. I like the taco seasoning blends at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's (also this seasoning blend if you prefer to shop online) they're natural and don't contain preservatives.
- Ground meat -- ground beef or ground chicken can work in place of the turkey. I recommend a mixture of white and dark meat if using ground chicken.
- Cheese -- reduced-fat shredded Mexican cheese blend or full-fat shredded sharp cheddar cheese can work in place of the reduced-fat shredded cheddar
Special diet adaptations:
- Gluten-free: make this recipe gluten-free by using gluten-free noodles. I love Banza noodles (found at Thrive Market, Whole Foods, and most major grocery stores in the U.S.) and brown rice noodles. Also, use the homemade taco seasoning blend or check your purchased taco seasoning for wheat ingredients.
- Vegetarian: make this dish vegetarian by omitting the ground turkey from the recipe.
- Vegan and dairy-free: unfortunately, this recipe is very hard to make with dairy-free milk and cheese substitutes.
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 and Cheese:
- Cook the macaroni according to the package directions in heavily salted water. Drain and set aside. Reserve the pasta pan for later in the recipe.
- 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.
- Gently fold the mac and cheese and the ground turkey mixture into the cheese sauce until combined. Serve hot with any of your favorite toppings (see recommendations below!)
- Cook the macaroni in heavily salted water -- you want to cook the pasta in water that tastes like the ocean to give the pasta the best flavor. For every 1 gallon water, stir in 1 tablespoon salt.
- 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.
- Don't use lean ground turkey -- a mixture of white and dark meat gives the dish flavor. I recommend using 85% lean ground turkey if you can; 90-92% lean if in a pinch.
- 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.
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!
Served along with:
- Roasted broccoli
- Air fryer green beans
- Mexican lager beer -- like Pacifico, Dos Equis, or Corona
- Tortilla chips
- Green salad
- Refrigeration: leftovers will last covered in the refrigerator for up to 4-5 days.
- Freezing: taco mac can be frozen in a freezer-safe container for up to 3 months.
- Reheating from frozen: defrost the taco mac in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours before reheating in the microwave for 1-2 minutes intervals of 50-60% heat, stirring gently between intervals, or until the evenly reheated.
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 healthy comfort food options to check out:
- Peanut Butter Chicken Curry
- Instant Pot Chicken Tacos
- Healthy Macaroni and Cheese
- Healthy Mashed Potatoes (No Butter or Oil!)
- Tuna Mac and Cheese
- Taco Tater Tot Casserole
- Taco Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
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- 16 oz. macaroni pasta, or other small pasta shape
- 1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 sweet pepper (red, orange, or yellow), diced
- 1 lb. ground turkey (preferably 85% lean)
- 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, etc.
- 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. Reserve the pasta pot for later use.
- 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 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 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 as you cook 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 combined. Serve the taco mac hot!
1. Other great pasta shapes for this recipe are orecchiette, shells, or rotini.
2. Ground beef or chicken can also work in place of the ground turkey. If using ground turkey, I recommend a mixture of dark and white meat, or 85% lean.
3. To make this recipe gluten-free, substitute gluten-free pasta in place of traditional pasta. Use the homemade spice blend or store-bought taco seasoning blend with no flour. To make it vegetarian, omit the turkey from the recipe and only saute the seasonings with the onions for 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant, before stirring in the salsa and spinach.
4. To use a store-bought taco seasoning, substitute 2 tablespoons of it for the spices and salt added in step 3.
5. Leftover taco mac lasts covered in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. It can freeze for up to 3 months in a freezer-safe container.
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.