Protein Packed Healthy Mac and Cheese

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A healthy mac and cheese recipe that is packed with protein, broccoli and spinach. Perfect as a full meal and a sneaky way to get your kids to eat more veggies. This post is sponsored by Barilla®.

Mac and cheese will forever be one of my favorite meals. It instantly brings me back to my childhood and reminds me of my sister. She taught me how to make all the pasta dishes you need to know how to make in high school and/or college — mac and cheese, buttered noodles and ramen. So, this recipe is for you, sis! With a little added nutrition oomph. 😉

A bowl of creamy, healthy protein packed mac and cheese made with chickpea pasta, broccoli and spinach. Macaroni is topped with extra cheddar.

Macaroni and cheese is a staple for most American families, but there is a miiiiinor problem with traditional mac and cheese — it’s pretty low in nutrients.

Since most kids I know are surviving off of mac and cheese, and because I miss having a bowl every now and then, I wanted to take a stab at turning a traditional recipe into a full meal that’s protein packed and sneaks in some green veggies. Challenge = accepted!

Hand pouring a box of Barilla chickpea rotini pasta into a boiling pot of water for protein mac and cheese.

Ingredients in Protein Mac and Cheese

  • Barilla Chickpea Rotini – I love using Barilla’s line of legume pastas because they’re made with one simple ingredient, packed with plant-based protein and have an excellent source of fiber. And as an added bonus, all of the Barilla legume pastas are certified gluten-free and non-GMO Project Verified.
  • broccoli and spinach because you can’t have healthy mac and cheese without some veggies. 
  • butter I prefer organic butter, but you can use whatever you have on hand. 
  • milk I used unsweetened almond milk, but you can use regular milk as well.
  • Laughing Cow spreadable cheese wedge for this you need just one  cheese wedge. You can find them at almost every grocery store in the cheese section. If needed, you can leave this out or sub it for cream cheese (dairy or non-dairy).
  • reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese – I used organic Irish cheddar cheese and shredded it myself, but you can use whatever you prefer including reduced fat cheddar cheese.
  • sea salt and pepper – for a little seasoning.
A bowl of creamy, healthy protein packed mac and cheese made with chickpea pasta, broccoli and spinach. Macaroni is topped with extra cheddar.

Notes & Substitutions

Pasta: As I mentioned above, I love using legume pasta to amp up the nutrition count. That said, you can totally use whatever pasta you prefer.

Veggies: Not a fan of spinach and broccoli? Feel free to use other veggies!

Cheese: I used organic Irish cheddar cheese and shredded it myself. In case you were wondering, let me just confirm that real cheese is 100x better than powdered cheese or even pre-shredded cheese. Fresh is always better and shredding the cheese takes no time at all. However, you can use whatever you prefer including reduced fat cheddar cheese.

Vegan + Dairy Free: If you want to make this recipe vegan or dairy-free you can use vegan butter, vegan shredded cheddar cheese and 1 Tablespoon of vegan cream cheese instead of the spreadable cheese wedge. I also have a Vegan Mac and Cheese recipe if you’re interested!

Wooden spoon mixing a pot of creamy and healthy protein mac and cheese made with chickpea pasta, broccoli and spinach.

How to Serve This Protein Mac and Cheese

This mac and cheese is hearty enough to be served as a meal on its own, but if you want additional protein I recommend pairing it with an easy protein option like roasted chickpeas, tofu, shrimp or chicken. It pairs perfectly with my grilled apple cider vinegar chicken.

You can also serve it alongside a salad for extra veggie goodness. I’d recommend one of these salads: Garlicky Kale Salad, Easy Spinach Salad or Easy Caprese Salad.

A bowl of creamy, healthy protein packed mac and cheese made with chickpea pasta, broccoli and spinach. Macaroni is topped with extra cheddar.

How to Store Protein Mac and Cheese

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. This mac and cheese will keep for 3-4 days.

More Pasta Recipes to Try

More Broccoli Recipes to Try

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4.44 from 80 votes

Protein Packed Healthy Mac and Cheese

A healthy mac and cheese recipe that is packed with protein, broccoli and spinach. Perfect as a full meal and a sneaky way to get your kids to eat more veggies.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 4

Ingredients  

  • 1 box, 8 oz Barilla Chickpea Rotini
  • 4 cups broccoli florets
  • 1 Tablespoon organic butter
  • 1 cup milk, I used unsweetened almond milk
  • 1 Laughing Cow spreadable cheese wedge
  • 1 1/2 cups 6 oz reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese (more, if needed)*
  • 1 handful chopped baby spinach
  • Sea salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions 

  • Boil pasta & broccoli: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add chickpea rotini pasta, return to a boil and cook for a total of 8 minutes, adding in the broccoli florets at the four minute mark. Drain pasta and broccoli.
  • Add remaining ingredients: In the same large pot over low/medium heat add butter, milk, salt and pepper. Once butter has melted add in drained pasta and broccoli, spreadable cheese wedge and shredded cheese. Let cheese melt a little, about 30 seconds. Use a spoon to stir everything together until pasta is well coated with cheese, adding more cheese if needed. Add in chopped baby spinach and toss until wilted.
  • Serve: Serve immediately with additional salt and pepper, if needed.

Notes

  • Pasta: As I mentioned above, I love using legume pasta to amp up the nutrition count. That said, you can totally use whatever pasta you prefer.
  • Veggies: Not a fan of spinach and broccoli? Feel free to use other veggies!
  • Cheese: I used organic Irish cheddar cheese and shredded it myself. In case you were wondering, let me just confirm that real cheese is 100x better than powdered cheese or even pre-shredded cheese. Fresh is always better and shredding the cheese takes no time at all. However, you can use whatever you prefer including reduced fat cheddar cheese.
  • Vegan + Dairy Free: If you want to make this recipe vegan or dairy-free you can use vegan butter, vegan shredded cheddar cheese and 1 Tablespoon of vegan cream cheese instead of the spreadable cheese wedge.

Nutrition

Serving: 1(made with reduced fat cheddar cheese) | Calories: 395kcal | Carbohydrates: 42g | Protein: 26g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Cholesterol: 38mg | Sodium: 354mg | Fiber: 10g | Sugar: 3g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Additional Info

Course: Lunch/Dinner
Cuisine: Vegetarian
Keyword: healthy mac and cheese, protein mac and cheese
Did you make this recipe?Mention @eatingbirdfood and tag #eatingbirdfood!

About Brittany

Hey there, I’m Brittany, the creator of Eating Bird Food, cookbook author, health coach and mama of two littles. Here you’ll find quick and easy recipes that make healthy fun and enjoyable for you and your family!

More about Brittany
Chicken fajita filling on a sheet pan with a wooden spoon. Tortillas are resting on the bottom of the sheet pan.
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Recipe Rating




66 Comments

    1. It’s similar to cream cheese. I used the creamy swiss Laughing Cow spreadable cheese wedge for this recipe!

    1. Ha! I think I’m confusing a lot of people with the spreadable cheese wedge. It’s just one of those Laughing Cow cheese wedges — you can find them at almost every grocery store in the cheese section. If needed, you can leave this out or sub it for cream cheese (dairy or non-dairy). The cheese wedge is 21 grams so I’d about the same amount of cream cheese if you make that swap. Overall, it helps make the mac and cheese extra creamy. 🙂

  1. Maybe a dumb question but after draining the pasta do you add the cheese and milk with the stove off or do you feed it with heat (low/medium)?

    1. Not a dumb question. Yes, you do need a little heat for the cheese to melt. I’ll add that to the recipe. Thanks for noticing. 🙂

  2. 2 stars
    Honestly this recipe sounded really good! Unfortunately for the amount of stirring to mix the cheese sauce with the pasta, there’s no way that the chickpea pasta can hold up, all my pasta broke up immediately into little pieces. Though I love chickpea pasta sooo much maybe this isnt the best way to use it. Also I should’ve added flour since the milk was way too watery in the end.

    1. Oh no! Sorry the recipe didn’t turn out as expected. Which brand of pasta did you use? I didn’t have any trouble with the Barilla pasta breaking apart. I know some brands are more fragile than others. You also shouldn’t have needed to stir the cheese for very long. Just curious, did you follow the recipe exactly or change some of the ingredients?

  3. How could you go wrong with mac & cheese? This looks absolutely amazing. I can not wait to make this for my little one.

  4. I noticed you say serve immediately – how does it hold up if you make ahead? I wanted to bring it to an office potluck, so was planning on making it the night before.

    Thanks!

    1. Hey Rachel, I think that would be just fine! Do you plan to use regular pasta or a legume-based pasta?

    2. I wanted to make this for a meal prep for my kids lunches. Do you think this will hold up and be good reheated? I was gonna make them in little muffin tins to serve easily. What are your thoughts? I guess it doesn’t hurt to try 🤷🏼‍♀️

      1. It’s worth a try! It should be fine to store in the fridge for a few days I would imagine! Let me know how it turns out for you.

  5. This sounds great and I’m looking forward to trying it. However please reconsider your recommendation of Laughing Cow – they have a record of animal cruelty and abuse – just thought it was worth a mention. Thanks :).

  6. 5 stars
    This recipe looks delicious! I have yet to try the chickpea pasta — I’ll need to try it with this recipe.
    Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Is it ok to use regular fusilli pasta over the chickpeas ones? I’m not a big plants pasta, and also during this pandemic is harder to source such deli.

  8. is the milk supposed to evaporate completely? cause mine ended up kind of watery/milky and the cheese didn’t really stick to the pasta

  9. You didnt say how big a serving size is or how many servings this makes prepared. It sound awesome I’m excited to try this soon

  10. 5 stars
    Brittany,
    This was absolutely delicious and my hubby loved it as well! Made it tonight with unsweetened plain almond milk and substituted 1 T. whipped cream cheese for the Laughing Cow (because I forgot it at the store 🤣) and added a bit more spinach than called for. I am super happy I now have a healthy comfort dish I can make that is quick and easy! Thank you and would love to try more of your recipes!
    Karen of Florida

    1. Ahh yay!! This makes me so happy to hear, Karen! I’m so glad you enjoyed this recipe. I appreciate you trying it and coming back to leave a comment + star rating. It means the world to me. <3

  11. Barilla chickpea rotini is always the base of my go-to comfort food– usually with a tomato sauce, sauteed veggies, and Italian seasonings. However, tonight I was feeling indulgent and was craving good old fashioned mac and chees.

    Not only did I already have every ingredient on hand beacuse it requires such simple ingredients, but the directions provided gave perfect results and I was able to enjoy a childhood favorite “sans neon-orange powder.

    Great recipe that gave me exactly what I was looking for!!

  12. 2 stars
    Not good. Love the addition of the broccoli and spinach and such a good tip to cook it in the pasta water. The cheese and milk did not mix. Would have had the same outcome without adding any milk. Cheese probably should be added to the milk before adding pasta.
    Not keen on the chickpea pasta either. This recipe turned into a sad disaster 🙁

    1. Hey Lisa – so sorry to hear that this recipe didn’t turn out for you. What kind of cheese did you end up using? And the chickpea pasta is totally optional! You can make this with any type of pasta in the future.

    1. Ahh yay!! So glad this dish was a hit with the whole fam, Beth. Thanks for making it and for coming back to leave a comment + star rating. I so appreciate it!

    2. I really, really wanted this recipe to work out. I had it saved on Pinterest for months.
      We live in a rural area, so it was a challenge to get any pasta other than white or wheat. I finally got some via the internet and prepped everything in the morning to make sure it was done in time to feed us and the kids after work/school. Everything was going great until mixing in the milk and butter. The first attempt yielded instantly curdled milk. Ok. My bad, I used regular milk and the pot was too hot. Attempt #2 at this step was better until I added the pasta, broccoli, and cheese to the mix. The result was a pasta and broccoli partially cemented together in a mix of oily cheese globs in a think milky sauce. It looked terrible and we had to throw it away. It was getting late, so eggs and any leftovers were set out for the family.
      This may not seem like a big deal, but with limited choices, we really value good, healthy food at home. Again, I really wanted this dish to work and am disappointed at the result.

      1. Hey Kristen – I’m so sorry to hear this! I hate that the recipe didn’t turn out for you. 🙁 What kind of cheese did you use? And you didn’t change anything about the recipe?

  13. 5 stars
    Absolutely fantastic!!! I’m a Mac and cheese fanatic and with adapting a healthier lifestyle I thought Mac and cheese was off the table, but it’s not! Thank you, Brittany, for always making delicious dishes that I can eat on my diet and that my kids will also eat (with their picky palates!!) Even my 9 month old approves!! As always, 5 stars!!

    1. Woo!! So glad you loved this recipe. Thanks for making it and for coming back to leave a review. It means the world to me. 🙂

  14. 5 stars
    I’ve always made mac&cheese from the box but wanted a less processed version that is easy/quick to make, and this is JUST THAT! I didn’t use the cheese wedge or butter, but still sooo creamy. I also used Banza chickpea shells and they worked fine. Also had frozen veg to use up so dumped those in. An A+ dinner!

  15. Agreed. A sad disaster. Had to throw it away after trying the stir the oily cheese globs in the pot of expensive pasta and broccoli. So frustrating and disappointing. I had this recipe saved for months and was almost in tears when it didn’t come together. (I know it sounds dramatic – but we really value good, healthy food here. We live in a rural area and it is hard to get anything other than basic white or wheat pasta for example).

    1. Hey Kristen – I hated that this recipe didn’t work out for you so I decided to test it again over the weekend and I didn’t have any issues with the cheese melting. I’m trying to figure out what might have happened! What brand/style of cheese did you use? Did you use a laughing cow wedge as well?

  16. 5 stars
    I made this tonight in a double batch, using half chickpea pasta and half whole wheat. I used 2% milk and 4 c. cheddar, without any of the Laughing Cow cheese. I also didn’t get the spinach in because I didn’t have it prepared to go in the pot on time… Not understanding the chemistry issue others mentioned with cheese globbing together, I decided to just make my cheese sauce in a separate pot, adding the pasta and broccoli after they were cooked. This worked perfectly. Mine may have been a bit less healthy than the original recipe, but still healthier than other mac ‘n cheese recipes out there, and very tasty and filling!

    1. So glad this recipe turned out for you, Charis!! Thanks for making my recipe and for coming back to leave a review. I so appreciate it. 🙂

  17. 5 stars
    Really enjoyed this quick, one pot meal. My 6 year old ate it up! The spinach is hidden and while you can’t hide the broccoli it’s covered in a yummy cheese sauce. Adding this to the regular rotation.

    1. Yay!! So pumped to hear this recipe was a hit, Melissa! Thanks so much for the review and star rating. I really appreciate it!

  18. 2 stars
    followed recipe except i did the sauce separately and melted everything together first before mixing. unfortunately even after almost 10 minutes my pasta still crumbled to bits when i added it. ultimately everything was melted but the pasta was a mess. it’s edible but i’m disappointed…the sauce was quite wet and i had to cook it down some more.

    1. So sorry to hear that!! I made this recently and didn’t have any issues, so wondering if it might be the brand of pasta. What kind of pasta did you use?

  19. 5 stars
    I made this tonight and it was yummy. It is very similar to a less healthy version I’ve made many times that starts the cheese sauce with butter and flour. I made your cheese sauce in a separate pan to help the cheese melt evenly. I added 2 wedges of Laughing Cow to make it thicker and coat the pasta better. If you cheese sauce separates into oily or milky liquid with cheese clumps, your heat is too high. You need to melt on a low heat. You can try the Alton Brown method to fix it by putting the sauce in the blender and then back in the pan before combining with pasta and broccoli.Sometimes this works for me, sometimes it doesn’t but it’s definitely an improvement for a broken sauce.

    1. Hi Halee – This recipe makes 4 servings and one serving is 395kcal and one serving is about 2-2.5 cups. If you decide to give this recipe a try, I would love to know how you enjoy it!

  20. 5 stars
    I am pregnant and in my first trimester and eating is difficult. I was looking for a recipe that sounded appealing and was also high in protein and fiber, and came across this one. Full disclosure – I didn’t add any vegetables :p I have an aversion to broccoli at the moment, and I simply didn’t have any others on hand that sounded good. Even so, I darn near ate my weight in the creamy goodness that came from the rest of this recipe! So good! When my appetite is back I will try it again WITH the veggies!

    1. AH YAY! Congratulations, Laura. I am so excited to hear that this recipe was a hit. Thank you so much for sharing your review & star rating, I really appreciate it. Best of luck on your pregnancy journey, hoping your appetite comes back soon!

  21. Hi. So excited to make this! My SIL gives birth soon and broccoli Mac is her comfort food. Do you think this would freeze okay to deliver as a freezer meal after birth?

    1. Hey Devon – I’m not sure how this would freeze as I haven’t tried it! I would be concerned that the cheese sauce would thaw weirdly after being frozen, but let me know if you end up trying it!

  22. 1 star
    This was absolutely disgusting. I wanted a healthy comfort meal for my toddler but this is not it. A huge waste of expensive ingredients. I am shocked there are so many positive reviews.

    1. Hi Sarah – I am sorry to hear that this recipe did not turn out as you had hoped. Did you change anything about the recipe?