Creamy, cheesy, and protein-rich, this tuna mac and cheese recipe is a quick and easy-to-make dinner! Homemade mac and cheese doesn't need to be a hassle. This family-friendly recipe is ready in under 25 minutes and made with wholesome ingredients.
This post was originally published on February 10, 2021. It was updated with new recipe information on January 23, 2024. It may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Please see my disclosure policy for details.
This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Please see my disclosure policy for details.
You won’t believe it but this tuna macaroni has a rich and creamy sauce that doesn't require flour or making a roux! It’s so simple, quick, easy, and satisfying and you can easily make this recipe for dinner tonight!
We all need more quick and healthy dinner recipes in our lives. I find having a reliable source of easy, delicious, and fast recipes makes it easier to satisfy the entire family without a lot of cooking fuss and stress!
While being kid-friendly (who else grew up on tuna mac?!), this recipe is also filling and protein-rich enough for an active adult, while still being -- thanks to a few of my kitchen hacks -- coated with a still luscious but lower-fat cheese sauce.
Table of contents
What is Tuna Mac and Cheese?
This dish is a classic easy dinner meal. It’s a fusion of macaroni and cheese with tuna casserole! Basically tuna mac and cheese is macaroni and cheese with tuna mixed into it. It’s full of all the cheesy goodness of mac and cheese but adding tuna makes it a more complete meal. Add a veggie side dish and you’re good to go!
While I love the rich flavors of the traditional recipe, I really prefer the lower-fat cheese sauce in this one. In most cases no one will even know you’ve adjusted the recipe at all. Here’s what I did to lower the fat and calories just a bit.
- Go light on butter. We use just enough butter to add richness while not adding too much heft
- Light cream cheese. My secret ingredient for a few of my mac and cheese recipes like this taco mac and cheese. Light cream cheese adds a velvety texture to the sauce without adding as much fat as butter or full-fat cream cheese.
- Using 2% milk. We can develop just as rich of a flavor without the extra fat or calories by using 2% milk instead of whole.
- Skip the roux. These other swaps allow us to make a flavorful, thick sauce without starting from a roux, a paste of melted butter and flour.
Making these simple changes gives us a cheesy tuna pasta recipe without all the heft! You can make tuna mac and cheese from scratch (as we are doing with this recipe!) or you can also mix it into your box-made mac and cheese.
Why You Will Love This Tuna Mac and Cheese Recipe
- Great Flavor and Rich in Protein. The tuna boosts the amount of protein while it has the ultimate creamy and cheesy flavor you expect in your mac and cheese. Made in One Pot. This makes clean-up so much easier!
- So Easy to Make. This tuna mac recipe is ready in under 30 minutes!
- Kid-Friendly Dinner. This dish makes a filling dinner the whole family will love!
- Perfect for Hungry & Busy Weeknights! Homemade mac and cheese isn't as difficult or complicated to make as you may think! .
- Pasta: You can use any size or shape. Try your mac and cheese tuna will work with bow-ties, cavatappi, ditalini, penne, rotini, elbows, or any other short pasta.
- Unsalted butter: Unsalted is best for more control over the saltiness of the dish. If all you have is salted butter, reduce the salt in the recipe to a scant ½ teaspoon to account for the salt in the butter.
- Light cream cheese: This is also called Neufatchel cheese and found in the dairy case in your grocery store. Full-fat cream cheese also works but will affect the calorie count of the recipe.
- Cheese: Use sharp cheddar cheese for more flavor. For a creamier consistency buy a block of cheese and shred it yourself! It’s super easy to do using the grating blade of your food processor or a handheld vegetable grater.
- Milk: 2% is best though 1% milk and whole milk also work in a pinch. I do not recommend using skim milk as it has no milk-fat and your sauce will be lacking a bit.
- Canned tuna: Use albacore tuna in water. Drain and flake the tuna before adding it to the recipe.
Substitutions and Variations
This tuna mac is super flavorful on its own but you can also play around with different mix-ins and ingredient swaps if you're looking for some variety. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Different Flavors of Cheese. Sharp cheddar cheese keeps this recipe classic, but you can also experiment with different types of cheese such as Gruyere, white cheddar, fontina cheese, or a blend of different cheeses! You can even make Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese with tuna!
- Tuna Mac and Cheese with Peas. Add steamed green peas towards the end of cooking. They will need to cook just long enough to heat up.
- Add More Green Veggies. Boost the nutrients by stirring in wilted spinach, sliced black olives, steamed green beans, or even roasted broccoli.
- Mac and Cheese Tuna Casserole. Transfer it to a baking dish and top with Italian breadcrumbs before baking until the toasted and bubbly.
- Swap the Tuna. Enjoy this same recipe using canned salmon or even shredded chicken instead.
- Add Some Aromatics. Stir in some finely diced red pepper, sliced green onions, or finely diced sweet onion. Another option is to add sauteed peppers and onions for a milder flavor.
- Add More Protein. You can also stir in drained garbanzo beans or black beans. Another option is to make a vegetarian version by using one of these options in place of the tuna.
How to Make Tuna Mac and Cheese
Step 1: Boil the pasta in heavily salted water, according to the package's directions.
Step 2: Drain the pasta in a colander and set aside.
Step 3: Melt the butter and cream cheese together in the same saucepan to make the cheese sauce.
Step 4: Add in the cheddar cheese and 2% milk to the saucepan.
Step 5: Simmer the cheese sauce for 5-6 minutes, stirring often, until it’s smooth and thickened.
Step 6: Remove the pan from the heat and gently fold in the drained pasta and flaked tuna. Enjoy hot!
- Salt the Water. Salting the pasta water makes a world of a difference in how your pasta tastes. Shoot for 1 ½ tablespoons of salt for every 2 quarts of water.
- Use Quality Tuna. The better the quality of tuna you use, the better this dish will taste. I like using albacore tuna packed in water. Costco's Kirkland brand albacore tuna is reasonably priced for its high quality.
- Simmer the Cheese Sauce. Make sure you cook long enough for it to thicken. We want a nice and rich cheese sauce for this recipe, so be sure to sufficiently simmer it until it’s nice and thick which is around 5-6 minutes.
- Save More Time. Making this recipe as directed makes it a one-pot recipe. You can also simmer the cheese sauce in a separate pan while the pasta cooks to get dinner on the table more quickly.
This recipe is a filling meal on its own, but you can certainly serve it with some healthy vegetable side dishes to round it out. It is super tasty with air fryer Brussels sprouts, baby spinach salad, blistered green beans, or air fryer butternut squash.
- Storing: Leftovers last covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, though the fresher the better. For longer storage, you can freeze leftovers in a freezer-safe container for up to 2 months. Defrost the macaroni in the refrigerator before reheating.
- Reheating: Reheat leftovers in the microwave on medium heat or on the stovetop. If the mac and cheese dries out during storage, just mix in a few teaspoons of milk before reheating.
Yes, you can double or triple this recipe. Just multiply the ingredients by your desired amount and follow the recipe directions as listed, increasing the size of your pot to accommodate the extra volume.
Thankfully, this recipe is super easy to make gluten-free since there's no flour in the cheese sauce. So, all you need to do to make this gluten-free is use gluten-free noodles in place of wheat noodles. I love brown rice and chickpea pasta!
Tools Needed to Make This Recipe
- Measuring cups and spoons
- 2-Quart Sauce Pan
- Can opener (optional)
- Silicone spatula or wooden spoon
More Tuna Recipes
- Instant Pot Tuna Casserole
- Tuna Macaroni Salad
- Tuna Stuffed Peppers (Keto + Low-Carb!)
- Italian Tuna Pasta Salad (No Mayo!)
- Cheesy Tuna Rice Casserole
If you made and liked this recipe, don't forget to rate the recipe and let me know how it went for you in the comments! It always makes my day to hear from you!