Healthy Baked Mac and Cheese
Published Oct 17, 2022, Updated Oct 03, 2023
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This baked mac and cheese is made lighter with a combo of almond milk and vegetable broth and almond meal instead of breadcrumbs. It’s creamy, cheesy, comforting and sure to become a new family favorite!
There’s nothing quite like a comforting bowl of mac and cheese, am I right? It always brings me back to my childhood and now with two kiddos myself mac and cheese is definitely a staple in our household! While boxed mac and cheese is convenient, I prefer to make homemade mac and cheese. I love my healthy mac and cheese, but today I’m sharing a lightened-up baked mac and cheese, which might just be my new favorite.
I love the end result of baked mac and cheese… it still has the same creamy and cheesy consistency of regular stovetop mac and cheese, but it has a nice crisp, crunchy topping! To lighten up this recipe just a bit I used a combo of almond milk and vegetable broth instead of heavy cream, less butter and almond meal instead of breadcrumbs that can typically be found in many baked mac and cheese recipes.
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
- Packed with cheesy goodness!
- It’s a dish that the whole family will love!
- It’s a lightened-up version of a comfort food classic.
- elbow macaroni – you can’t get any more classic than elbow macaroni for this dish. That said, any variety of pasta will work! For some added protein and fiber you can use whole wheat pasta, lentil or chickpea pasta.
- butter – when combined with the flour this forms a roux to help thicken the cheese sauce. I suggest using butter that’s from grass-fed cows.
- all-purpose flour – this is what thickens the cheese sauce. Feel free to use gluten-free all-purpose if you need a gluten-free option.
- almond milk – I used unsweetened almond milk for this recipe instead of cream or regular milk, but any type of milk will work. If you’re going the dairy-free route I recommend using unsweetened milk as many milk alternatives will have sugar and this will change the flavor of the mac & cheese.
- vegetable broth – instead of using all milk for the liquid I decided to use half vegetable broth for some added flavor! Chicken broth will work as well. I just recommend using low-sodium broth so you can control the sodium content in this dish.
- cheddar & parmesan cheese – the combo of sharp cheddar cheese and parmesan takes this dish to the next level. I recommend shredding your own cheese instead of using pre-shredded store-bought cheese for the best results.
- almond meal or panko breadcrumbs – this adds a nice crispy, crunchy topping! I prefer using almond meal for some added nutrients, but panko breadcrumbs are also a great option.
- salt & pepper – for seasoning and bringing all the flavors together.
How to Make
Begin by preheating the oven to 375°F and spraying a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray. Cook your macaroni noodles according to the package instructions until al dente (you want the pasta a little undercooked). While the pasta is cooking, add the butter to a large pot and heat over low heat. Once butter is melted, whisk in flour until combined.
Next, add the almond milk, broth, salt & pepper and bring the mixture to a boil while whisking constantly until smooth and thick. Remove from heat and slowly add 2 cups of shredded cheddar cheese, mixing until melted and smooth. Add the noodles to the cheese sauce and stir to combine.
Pour the mac & cheese into your baking dish and top it off with the remaining cheddar and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle bread crumbs or almond meal on top and bake for 20-25 minutes until bubbly and the top begins to brown. Broil for 2 minutes to make the topping nice and crispy, but watch closely so it doesn’t burn. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and enjoy!
Substitutions & Notes
- Add veggies – want to amp up the nutrition count in this recipe by adding vegetables? Go for it! Broccoli, spinach, kale or zucchini are some options that would pair well with this dish.
- Swap the cheese – sharp cheddar cheese and parmesan are my favorite cheeses to use for this dish, but there are many other varieties of cheeses that would work well such as white cheddar, gouda, monterey jack, pepper jack, havarti and gruyere.
- Spice it up – want to make spicy mac and cheese? Add your favorite peppers or spices to the dish. Sliced jalapeño, cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes are some good options.
- Amp up the flavor – combining some herbs and spices can really amp up the flavors in this mac and cheese recipe. Garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, paprika, cumin powder, dried thyme, oregano, rosemary or fresh parsley are all excellent additions.
- Vegan – I haven’t tried a vegan version of this baked mac and cheese and I’m not sure how it would turn out with vegan cheese, but let me know if you try it in the comments below! You could also try this vegan mac and cheese instead!
- Low-carb – for a low-carb mac and cheese option I recommend making this baked cauliflower mac and cheese instead!
- Gluten-free – to make this dish gluten-free use a gluten-free pasta option like brown rice or chickpea noodles and almond meal instead of breadcrumbs. Banza is my favorite gluten-free brand that’s high in protein, using chickpeas as a main ingredient.
Tips for Success
- Cook your pasta only until al dente. You’ll want it a little undercooked as it’ll cook more in the oven.
- Skip the store-bought pre-shredded cheese. Use hand-shredded cheese! I definitely recommend buying a block of cheese and grating it yourself. Fresh is always better and shredding the cheese takes no time at all. The pre-shredded store-bought cheeses typically contain preservatives like potato starch, natamycin and/or cellulose to prevent the shreds from clumping together in the bag. This will prevent your cheese from melting properly in the roux mixture and will likely lead to more of a grainy taste texture.
- Remove roux from heat before adding cheese. You don’t want to add your cheese to the sauce mixture if it’s still bubbling, otherwise it could burn the cheese or result in a grainy texture.
- Add cheese a little at a time. It will take longer for the cheese to melt and may end up too clumped together if you add it all at once.
- Watch closely if broiling at the end. To make sure the top doesn’t burn! Only speaking from experience here. 😉 You should only broil the mac and cheese for about 2 minutes.
What to Serve With Baked Mac & Cheese
This baked mac and cheese makes a great option for a meatless dinner or lunch, but I also think it would be amazing served alongside some protein or additional sides for a more filling meal. Here are some ideas:
- I recommend pairing with an easy protein option like grass-fed beef hot dogs (hot dogs + mac and cheese = a kid’s favorite!), salmon (salmon + mac and cheese is so good… I’m obsessed with my salmon mac and cheese bowls) or chicken. It pairs perfectly with my grilled apple cider vinegar chicken.
- Serve with a vegan meat substitute like the beyond sausage, tofu crumbles, tempeh bacon or these lentil meatballs.
- Add a side salad to go along with your mac & cheese for some extra veggies. Try this tasty kale caesar salad or a refreshing spinach salad.
- Serve this dish alongside some roasted veggies like apple cider vinegar brussel sprouts or roasted broccoli. Both are super easy to make and will taste great with mac & cheese.
- Make this vegan cornbread for a delicious side with a touch of sweetness.
How to Store
Store any leftovers in an airtight sealed container for 4-5 days in the fridge. To reheat, add the mac and cheese to a saucepan and heat over medium-low, until warmed, stirring often to prevent burning. If needed, add a little bit of milk or water to thin out the sauce. Alternatively, you can reheat this in the microwave if you’re short on time.
Baked Mac and Cheese FAQ’s
No you don’t need to! It’s actually more convenient to leave it uncovered as this helps the top of the dish become nice as crispy!
The best cheese to use for any mac & cheese is sharp cheddar, and of course it doesn’t hurt to add parmesan to the mix! There are plenty of other cheeses that will work with a much different taste. Gruyere is a common cheese used for fondue and melts really well and Gouda cheese will add a robust, almost smoky flavor to your mac & cheese. White cheddar, Monterey Jack and Colby cheese are other common options for mac and cheese.
No, you don’t need to add breadcrumbs or almond meal. You’ll still end up with a creamy and ever-so-cheesy meal. The breadcrumbs/almond meal just adds a really nice touch with a slightly crunchy texture.
Yes! You can easily prepare this mac & cheese ahead of time! Simply prepare the mac & cheese as directed, but hold off on the breadcrumbs/almond meal and don’t bake it! Cover the dish and set it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. When you’re ready to bake, uncover it, top it with breadcrumbs and bake for 20-25 minutes, until bubbly and the top begins to brown. Broil for the last 2 minutes to brown the top even more, watching closely to not burn the cheese.
More Pasta Recipes
- Vegan Mac and Cheese
- Protein Packed Healthy Mac and Cheese
- Salmon Mac and Cheese Bowls
- One Pot Pasta
- Creamy Pumpkin Pasta
- Spaghetti Squash Baked Feta Pasta
- Roasted Butternut Squash Pasta with Tahini Sauce
- Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese
- Turkey Bolognese
Healthy Baked Mac and Cheese
- Preheat oven to 375°F and spray a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray.
- Cook pasta according to package instructions until al dente (you want the pasta a little undercooked).
- While pasta is cooking, add butter to a large saucepan and heat over low heat. Once butter is melted, whisk in flour until combined.
- Add almond milk, broth, salt and pepper and bring mixture to a boil, whisking constantly, raising heat to medium-high, until mixture is smooth and thick.
- Remove from heat and slowly add 2 cups of shredded cheddar cheese, mixing until fully melted and smooth.
- Add cooked pasta to cheese mixture and stir to combine until pasta is fully coated.
- Add pasta to prepared baking dish and top with remaining 1 cup cheddar cheese and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle breadcrumbs or almond meal over the mac and cheese and bake for 20-25 minutes until bubbly and top begins to brown. Broil for the last 2 minutes to brown the top even more, watching closely to not burn the cheese.
- Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.