Lighter Baked Macaroni and Cheese
This creamy baked macaroni and cheese recipe is a lighter version of the classic recipe with added fiber from spinach. It’s comfort food at its finest!
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
I love homemade macaroni and cheese. It’s so much better than the boxed versions, but mac and cheese can be so heavy that it’s hard to enjoy it very often. This healthier mac and cheese recipe is not only lighter, but it will also be a hit with your kids. My skeptical daughter gave it her approval. For low-carb macaroni and cheese options, try Baked Spaghetti Squash and Cheese or Baked Cauliflower “Mac” and Cheese.
If you want to make this recipe a quick stovetop mac and cheese, you can skip the last step. Just serve it without the breadcrumbs and grated cheese.
I lightened up this casserole in four ways:
- Reduced the butter
- Used reduced fat cheddar cheese
- Replaced cream with skim milk and chicken broth
- Added fresh baby spinach
For creamy macaroni and cheese, it’s essential to choose a good cheese. Grating the cheese yourself will give the the smoothest cheese sauce.
Tips for Perfect Cheese Sauce (not grainy or gritty)
Have you ever made a mac and cheese that wasn’t creamy or smooth? Instead if was grainy or gritty? The worst! Here’s a few steps you should take for perfectly creamy cheese sauce.
- Shred your own cheese. For this recipe, grating your own cheese will give you the smoothest results.
- Start with a white sauce. A white sauce is made with butter or olive oil stirred with flour and milk. It thickens once it cools, then you stir the cheese into it to make your cheese sauce.
- Do NOT add the cheese to boiling sauce. When adding the cheese, remove the white sauce from the heat completely before adding the cheese. I usually move this to a different burner so it stops boiling. You don’t want to add the cheese to the mixture if it’s boiling/bubbling. Doing so will cause the cheese to break down causing a gritty texture.
- Add the cheese a little at a time. I usually do this 1/4 cup at a time, whisking in between until it’s all melted.
Is mac and cheese unhealthy?
Mac and cheese isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but it depends on the recipe – some recipes are worse than others. Macaroni and cheese does have a good amount of protein from all the milk and cheese. However, the calories can add up quickly, so it’s important to keep your portion size in check.
I also added spinach, which is another good source of fiber. Not to mention, spinach is packed with a variety of vitamins and minerals. The reduced fat cheese and skim milk help keep the calorie count down. A one-cup serving of this healthy mac and cheese comes in at just under 300 calories.
What do you serve with mac and cheese?
This easy baked mac and cheese would make a delicious main dish for dinner for a busy weeknight. If you want to add a side, you could serve it with a side salad like this chopped wedge or Caesar salad. Or serve it as a side dish with an entrée like turkey meatloaf or baked chicken tenders.
Can I refrigerate before baking?
Yes, you can refrigerate macaroni and cheese before you bake it. This make-ahead mac and cheese is a great option for meal prep. Do all the cooking whenever you have the time and bake it right before you’re ready to eat.
To refrigerate before baking, you will complete all the steps up to putting the mixture in the pan. Cover the dish with foil and refrigerate for up to two days. When you’re ready to bake it, pull the mac out of the fridge while the oven is preheating and top with breadcrumbs and Parmesan.
You will need to bake the macaroni and cheese casserole a little longer since it’ll be cold. Bake for about 30-40 minutes until heated through.
- Switch out the spinach for other vegetables like mushrooms or broccoli.
- Sub the 2% cheddar for reduced fat Gruyere.
- Use whole wheat, gluten-free, or chickpea pasta instead of fiber-enriched pasta.
- Try a different shaped pasta like farfalle, rotini, or penne.
- Swap the breadcrumbs for panko.
More Macaroni and Cheese Recipes You’ll Love:
- Baked Broccoli Macaroni and Chees
- Macaroni and Cheese Soup with Broccoli
- Pumpkin Mac and Cheese with Roasted Veggies
- Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese
- Greek Mac and Cheese
Lighter Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 12 oz elbow macaroni, wheat or whole wheat
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup minced onion
- 2 cups skim milk
- 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
- 8 oz reduced fat cheddar, for best results shred yourself
- salt and pepper
- 4 cups baby spinach
- 2 tbsp grated Parmesan
- 1/4 cup seasoned whole wheat bread crumbs
- olive oil spray
- Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions. Spray a baking dish with buttered flavor Pam.
- Preheat oven to 375F°.
- In a large, heavy skillet, melt butter. Add flour and cook over low heat stirring with a whisk.
- Add onion and cook another 2 minutes. Add milk and chicken broth and continue whisking, raising heat to medium-high until it comes to a boil and becomes smooth and thick. Season with salt and pepper.
- Once it becomes thick, remove from heat, add cheese 1/4 cup at a time and mix well until cheese is melted. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, add cooked macaroni and baby spinach.
- Pour into baking dish. Top with grated cheese and breadcrumbs. Spray a little more oil on top.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes, then broil for a few minutes to get the breadcrumbs golden.