5 Healthy Ways to Add More Flavor to Basic Mac and Cheese
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Make mac and cheese extra tasty without adding lots of calories or fat
Good mac and cheese should have a rich, creamy, and flavorful cheese sauce.
Hard cheeses like Parmesan typically add fewer calories than softer varieties like Cheddar or mozzarella because you don’t have to add as much to achieve a bold flavor. If your recipe doesn’t call for any hard cheeses, try cutting back on the amount of soft cheeses and toss in a healthy handful of grated Parmesan instead.
If your recipe calls for fattening ingredients like bacon, try swapping them for healthier options. You won’t miss bacon at all if you add a pinch of smoky cumin or paprika to the cheese sauce.
Fresh or dried herbs also add a ton of delicious flavor to the cheese sauce, limiting the need for excess cheese, butter, or cream.
Try combining the homemade cheese sauce with puréed butternut squash or carrots. Aside from cutting back on the fat and calories, both vegetables will add a subtle sweetness to the dish without sacrificing the creaminess of the cheese sauce.
Although we don’t condone replacing all the pasta with vegetables (because then it’s not really macaroni and cheese, is it?), adding some vegetables for flavor can be a good way to reduce the amount of carbohydrates you’re eating. Grilled corn, fire-roasted tomatoes, and small florets of roasted cauliflower are all great choices.
Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal’s Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.
What Are Good Spices For Mac And Cheese?
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Mac and cheese is an American favorite that is versatile and which can be made in multiple ways. For example, you can make it from scratch with your choice of high-quality cheeses or you can make a boxed mac and cheese. In either case, the flavor can always be improved upon with the addition of herbs and spices. Because it can serve as a blank canvas, you have a range of options when it comes to the seasonings that you can add to it.
Noodles with Butter and Cheese (Beginner Recipe)
Children in France are often served this pasta dish at home and in restaurants, although the cheese usually used there is Gruyere.
2 cups cooked macaroni noodles (whole-grain blend)
2 teaspoons whipped butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup grated cheese of your choice (reduced-fat cheddar, reduced-fat Jack cheese, or shredded Parmesan)
- Spread the noodles out in a medium-sized, microwave-safe bowl. Sprinkle the pieces of butter over the top of noodles. Microwave on high for 2 minutes.
- Sprinkle the grated cheese over the noodles and stir the mixture together. Microwave another 30-60 seconds to melt cheese.
Yield: Makes 1 large serving or 2 small servings.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 3/4 cup starchy foods with 1 tsp fat maximum + 1 ounce low-fat cheese OR
1 portion light frozen dinner
Per small serving: 260 calories, 13 g protein, 38 g carbohydrate, 6.5 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 5.2 g fiber, 17 mg cholesterol, 129 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.
10 Healthy Ways to Switch Up Mac 'n' Cheese
When you think of comfort food, doesn&rsquot macaroni and cheese instantly spring to mind? That melty combination of elbow-shaped pasta and gooey cheese never fails to satisfy. But good ol&rsquo mac &lsquon&rsquo cheese can be a high-fat disaster if we&rsquore not careful.
What you want is a healthier version of mac &lsquon&rsquo cheese. So we&rsquove assembled a round-up of great recipes with a twist: They&rsquore made with whole-grain pasta to add a boost of healthful fiber, or packed with green veggies, or lightened up with less fat. So you can still have your mac &lsquon&rsquo cheese and eat it, too!
Lower-Fat Baked Mac &lsquon&rsquo Cheese
This recipe uses fat-free sour cream and low-fat cheese to cut fat and calories. Another smart swap: Using evaporated non-fat milk instead of whole milk to make the cheese sauce. We recommend whole-wheat macaroni here.
Light & Creamy Mac &lsquon&rsquo Cheese
This low-fat variation on macaroni and cheese includes pureed butternut squash, which adds body and velvety texture. Greek yogurt further lightens things up, and the recipe uses bold-flavored Pecorino and Gruyere instead of traditional cheddar. Just 390 calories per serving.
Stovetop Mac &lsquon&rsquo Cheese
Get dinner on the table quickly with this simple cheese sauce, cooked pasta and a buttered breadcrumb topping. No baking required.
Switch up the Cheeses
If you have a favorite macaroni and cheese recipe, try different kinds of cheese beyond the traditional cheddar. Parmesan and Pecorino Romano give a sharper flavor. Gruyere has a nutty taste, while Swiss and Havarti are milder. With more strongly flavored cheeses, try adding a little less to reduce calories. And look for part-skim or low-fat cheeses.
What is your favorite way to eat macaroni and cheese?
Bryn Mooth is extending her 20-year career in publishing as an independent journalist and copywriter. She shares seasonal recipes, kitchen techniques, healthy eating tips and food wisdom on her blog writes4food.com.
Reviews ( 20 )
my family said it tasted just like Stouffer's! they loved it this is my go to recipie for mac and cheese from now on
This is a great recipe only problem had was with the amount of milk this recipe said to use. This is way to much. I found adding Cayenne pepper adds a real nice flavor to the dish.
I love mac n cheese and this was my first time making it so I followed the recipe exactly. I found this recipe a little bland. I would recommend using less milk and more cheese. Throw a little fontina cheese in there too and maybe sharp cheddar instead of cheddar.
How right you are. I did, and it was delish. thanks for your comment.
Once in a while can't hurt. this is a crowd pleaser!
802 calories per serving. I'd love to see a healthy mac and cheese recipe that is lower in calories!
This was the best mac & cheese my family has ever had. We actually subbed out the cheddar and guyere for a cheddar gouda combo we found at Trader Joe's. Sprinkled the top with bacon. Perfect for the first snowy night of the year. Delicious!
This dish is my oven now. from the first time I read this recipe, pouring it in the baking dish & watching it bake, I think 6 cups of milk is way too much. I think Mac'n Cheese made right will always be considered high calorie & unhealthy if eaten too much, unless made with Cauliflower & low cal cheese. But what's the fun in that! Remember everything in moderation. I was just looking for meatless dish to make during lent. I also had a 1/2 cup of Feta in my refrigerator, that I added to the recipe. I'll let you know how it comes out!
How much do I love Kraft Mac and Cheese?
I love Kraft Mac and Cheese (or Kraft Dinner, as my Canadian friends call it). I will eat it hot, cold, leftover, for breakfast, and even massively expired, apparently:
And although it will taste fine if you just follow the instructions on the blue box, I always use four simple tricks to make it so much creamier and even more delicious! Trust me, once I show you how to make box Mac and Cheese better, you won’t want to go back to the box instructions.
Basic vegan mac and cheese ingredients:
- Pasta – Macaroni, shells, or any small pasta shape works great. Use gluten-free pasta if you need to.
- Plant-Based Milk – Any PLAIN flavored plant milk like soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk, will work great in this recipe. For an extra rich and creamy mac and cheese, you can also use 1 1/2 cups of canned coconut milk or cashew cream plus 1/2 cup water in place of the 2 cups of milk.
- Nutritional Yeast – Aka nooch. This is a yellow powder found in most health food stores. It has a cheesy umami flavor and without it, your vegan mac and cheese just won’t be cheesy tasting. You can learn more about nutritional yeast here.
- Tapioca Starch – Aka tapioca flour. This is essential for a creamy, stretchy texture that won’t get gloppy once it cools off. You can sub it with corn starch or potato starch, but nothing else gives your cheese sauce the same great texture as tapioca starch.
- Corn Starch – This helps to thicken up your sauce and make it the right consistency. (You can swap potato starch for this equally if you prefer).
- Salt – for flavor.
Add-ins for spicy vegan mac and cheese:
- Salsa - to add flavor and acidity. Use mild, medium, or hot depending on your preference.
- Beans - to add protein and texture. I usually use black beans, but you can use any type that you want.
- Cilantro - for a southwest flavor. (optional)
- Cumin - for a southwest flavor. (optional)
- Garlic Powder - for flavor (optional)
- Chipotle Pepper Flakes - for spiciness and flavor. (optional)
- Taco Toppings - you can throw in anything that you like on tacos. Vegan taco meat , spicy Soyrizo , corn, diced tomatoes, avocado, or olives are also delicious tossed into this mac and cheese.
10 Creative Ways to Spice Up Your Mac & Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is an American classic and a college student staple—but the commercially available orange powdered stuff can be questionable in both ingredients and taste. When you’re ready to take a step beyond the blue box, try out these ideas to give your mac some more zest.
1. CLASSIC BAKED
If you’ve only ever had mac and cheese from a box, homemade baked macaroni is a revelation. The classic recipe is a simple bechamel sauce: butter and flour cooked together with milk to create a thick sauce that simply needs shredded cheese to be perfect on elbow noodles. This macaroni is good as is, but absolutely wonderful baked with breadcrumbs on top.
2. STUFFED OR TOPPED
It’s certainly extravagant, but also delicious, to take macaroni and cheese and add it to other classic foods. Pizza , for example, or cheeseburgers , and even grilled cheese are all improved by mac and cheese, and that’s only the beginning.
3. BACON AND TOMATO
Bacon is a pretty standard addition to macaroni and cheese, but adding tomatoes makes the dish reminiscent of a BLT—another American classic.
For those spice fans, adding Sriracha or another hot sauce gives creamy macaroni and cheese more bite. If you enjoy sweating your way through dinner, this variation is definitely the way to go.
5. SPINACH ARTICHOKE
The classic dip is delicious on pita points or baguette, but this dish takes it beyond an appetizer. Spinach artichoke dip is already creamy and baked with a crumb topping, so adding macaroni noodles is basically a no-brainer. And a delicious one at that!
If you’re looking for a classier version of the childhood staple, look no further than lobster mac and cheese . Expensive seafood might not seem like the most logical choice for macaroni, but the cheesy sauce and lobster are a match made in heaven.
7. CHILI MAC
This might stretch the boundaries of the definition of macaroni and cheese, but adding chili spices, ground beef, beans, and corn makes macaroni both delicious and filling. This variation is a perfect easy dinner, especially when you need to make a meal of simple pantry staples.
8. BUFFALO CHICKEN
Another classic combination , buffalo sauce and chicken make a great match with cheesy sauce and noodles. Buffalo is everywhere now, from wings to dips to salads, so why not add it to your mac?
While vegans avoid the butter, milk, and cheese that are generally components of macaroni and cheese, vegan versions do exist. Soaked cashews provide creaminess, and nutritional yeast gives a cheesy flavor that apparently closely mirrors the original dish.
This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Dessert macaroni and cheese exists, and you can make it. Noodle kugel paved the way for noodles in dessert, but a sweet bechamel sauce makes this dessert version of mac and cheese a distinct culinary innovation.
6 Simple Salt Swaps
Beer, wine and liquor flavor dishes beautifully. Plus, some of the alcohol (and the calories) dissipate off depending on the amount of heat and how long the food cooks. Use a longer cook time and higher heat setting to eliminate more calories, while ensuring the flavor remains intact. Try adding a lager to a slow cooker chili or some red wine to your beef stew for a powerful flavor punch.
If you've ever cooked with chicken or vegetables, you already know that citrus fruit like lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit have the power to take a bland dish to the next level. One of my favorite salad dressings combines olive oil, lemon juice, salt and black pepper which I top over a simple Israeli-style chopped salad. You can also use the zest or peel for even more flavor by combining it with nonfat plain Greek yogurt for parfaits, popsicles and lighter cookies.
3. Herbs and Spices
These babies are very low in calories and with a plethora from which to choose, you can dress up your meat or veggie dishes a million ways without ever getting bored. Create a simple spice rub to flavor steak or pork roasts add a sprinkle of cinnamon to baked goodies, oatmeal and smoothies or chop fresh herbs and add to whole-grain salads such as tabbouleh.
When purchasing spice blends or packets at the store, avoid those with "salt" in the name, such as onion salt and garlic salt. Instead, opt for onion powder and garlic powder, neither of which contain salt.
Red wine, white wine, balsamic and apple cider are some common vinegars that can be added to a wide variety of dishes, from salads to sauces. Their tangy taste helps activate taste buds and create a mouthwatering flavor. You can also find vinegars infused with ingredients including garlic, chili peppers, fruits and vegetables at your local grocery store or farmers market.
You can now find unsalted packaged stocks at the market, but with a little bit of time, it's also possible to make your own healthy stock right at home. Stocks are made by simmering water, bones (fish, chicken or beef), herbs, spices and a combination of vegetables which usually includes carrots, onions and celery (known in the culinary world as a mirepoix).
Making a stock is a fabulous weekend project and you can store half in the freezer for use in future meals. Don’t forget to skim the top of the stock of visible fat, which will make the stock virtually fat free. Use the stock to make vegetable dishes, soups, pasta and grain dishes.
6. Aromatic Vegetables
This group of vegetables adds a strong, distinctive flavor and aromas to both cooked and uncooked dishes. They include onions, scallions, carrots, shallots and chives, and they are versatile enough to jazz up nearly any dish that needs just a little something. Add chopped fresh chives to low-fat plain cream cheese and watch the flavor explode. Chop scallions and add to quinoa to punch up the flavor. I like to sauté onions at the beginning on many chicken and beef dishes to automatically add depth to the flavor.
Hack the box
Are you just cracking open a box of Mac and Cheese? We don't judge, that's perfectly fine. But it's also perfectly fine to sort of help the box flavor a bit with some steps (or fun add-ins) that will make it taste a whole lot better. Here's a basic rule that is almost 100 percent accurate the cheaper the price, the more butter you need. Kraft suggests 1/4 cup of butter (or margarine) — if you want this creamy you need more than that. It's not exactly healthy but that's the price you pay for creamy mac and cheese.
As for the milk, a standard box will require 1/4 cup of milk. Sub out half of that for cream. After you get the butter and cream mixed in, hit it with a shot of your favorite hot sauce, just to round out the cheesy flavor, and you'll have the best 99 cent box of mac and cheese you've ever tasted.