Protein Packed Healthy Mac and Cheese

4.45

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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

Be sure to check out all of the dinner recipes on EBF!

If you enjoyed this recipe, please consider leaving a ⭐ star rating and let me know how it went in the 📝 comments below.

4.45 from 81 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




67 Comments

    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?

  1. 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.

    2. I feel like this could be due to the reduced fat cheese. I’ve tried that stuff before and I will never use it again because it does not melt like regular cheese. However I also agree that making the sauce and then adding the pasta back in would be a great option… I tried it exactly as was written and my chickpea pasta ended up falling apart.

  2. 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!!

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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 :).