Healthier Homemade Macaroni and Cheese Recipes

Indulge in lighter versions of everyone's favorite comfort food

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Some of us grew up with the stuff in the blue box, made with bright orange powder and half a stick of butter. The lucky ones sat down to homemade, oven-baked macaroni and cheese, complete with a browned crispy topping. Whatever kind you loved as a kid, chances are you're still a fan of macaroni and cheese. Ask any group of people what their favorite comfort foods are, and, most likely, mac and cheese will make the list.

So just where did the dish everybody knows and love come from?

A type of pasta called "maccheroni" (perhaps similar to today's macaroni, but without being hollow) is thought to have been eaten in Italy as early as the 1300s. As for macaroni and cheese, this notoriously American dish goes back to Colonial times. A dish called "macaroni pie" became a favorite of a certain statesman named Thomas Jefferson, who tasted it while in Italy. He served it at his home in Monticello, and at formal parties in Washington. According to The Food Encyclopedia, Jefferson used American cheese instead of the European cheeses of the time -- and American macaroni and cheese was born.

Jefferson might not recognize the dish today, when the various versions of macaroni and cheese range from kid-friendly to gourmet. "Lobster Mac n Cheese," featuring marscarpone cheese, Havarti, and white cheddar, is a popular side dish at the upscale restaurant chain The Capital Grille. A version of macaroni and cheese using Romano, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, and pepper jack cheese is the most requested recipe from The Grand Central Baking Company in Seattle and Portland. The three cheeses in Martha Stewart's recipe for Macaroni and Three Cheeses are white cheddar, Havarti, and Muenster.

Today's mac and cheese toppings range from buttered bread that's been run through the food processor to panko crumbs or saltine crackers. But one thing's for certain in most of the recipes I found -- homemade macaroni and cheese tends to contain an abundance of butter and cream. One recipe on Epicurious.com, for example, calls for 6 tablespoons of butter, 3 cups of whole milk and 2 cups of heavy cream!

Let's hope everyone reading this article is ready to ban the blue box from their kitchen (at least for the day) and is open to the magic of homemade macaroni and cheese. And as the "Recipe Doctor," of course, I'm going to lighten this historic American recipe a bit. Nutritionally, there are three ways to improve on homemade macaroni and cheese:

  • Make a lower-fat and saturated fat cheese sauce. You can do this by reducing or eliminating the butter, using lower-fat milk instead of whole milk or cream, and substituting a reduced-fat cheese with lots of flavor.
  • Use a higher-fiber noodle. Several brands of whole-grain or whole-grain blend pasta are available in most supermarkets. Most taste great, and they boost the nutrients and fiber in the dish.
  • Add some veggies. Hot pasta dishes such as macaroni and cheese offer the perfect opportunity to work in a serving of nutritious vegetables, including red bell pepper, broccoli or cauliflower florets, spinach, or carrots. Stir in the lightly cooked veggies right before serving or serve them aside the macaroni dish.

Macaroni and Cheese Recipes

With these three tips in mind, here are three macaroni and cheese recipes for you to try; one recipe for beginners (perfect for younger kids who aren't quite ready for sauces), one for the intermediate macaroni and cheese eater (a light version of a more traditional American recipe), and one for the more advanced eater (a light version of a fancy restaurant rendition with lobster or crab and stronger-flavored cheeses).

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.

Ingredients:

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)

Preparation:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Nutrition Information:
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%.