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Warm, melty, and creamy—macaroni and cheese is pretty much perfect. Far too often, however, we make it from a box... which isn't the healthiest of options.

We're all short on time, but the truth is, making homemade pasta and cheese sauce doesn't take that long—and for those few extra minutes, you get tons more flavor, far less sodium, and no artificial colors or flavors. Seems like a win to us!

Next time you're tempted to reach for that blue box, make one of these easy recipes featuring different noodles, added veggies, creative sauces (that still taste cheesy), or vegan ingredients. All of them are made from real foods, and when you're going to have comfort food, that's what matters most.

Alternative Noodles

Truffle Gnocchi Macaroni and Cheese
Photo: Foodie Crush

Gnocchi are delicate potato dumplings you can douse in any pasta sauce. Here, of course, the sauce is a Swiss-cheddar-Parmesan mix that keeps the color light but the flavor rich. The truffle butter in the recipe may be a little pricey, but the mushrooms have so much earthy goodness, it's worth it.

We love how the strings of spaghetti squash are so close to the real thing, you can use it to make any Italian dish a little lighter. A five-ingredient sauce comes together quickly, so once your squash is roasted, dinner is only minutes away.

This certainly doesn't look like your traditional dish, but that doesn't mean you won't devour it just the same. In addition to using protein-rich quinoa, leeks and tomatoes are mixed in for extra flavor and nutrients. It bakes into more of a pie than a gooey mess, but that just means you can eat with your hands!

We've had zucchini noodles every other way; it would be a sin not to have them smothered in melted cheddar. Here you get not just cheddar but also cream cheese and goat cheese mixed in for a super silky consistency. Top with some protein for more staying power.

All you need are six ingredients to whip up this sweet yet savory dinner. Sweet potatoes may seem odd as pasta, but cook them quickly in a skillet, and they'll be soft yet not mushy like baked taters. This one's so good and easy, it may replace your go-to stuffed sweet potato recipe.

This recipe takes its cheese commitment seriously. Feel free to toss some veggies or protein into the mix, just be sure you actually dive below the heavenly layer of cheese on top to actually eat the rest!


Stovetop Avocado Mac and Cheese
Photo: Two Peas and Their Pod

Finally, our two favorite food groups come together. (Yes, we consider avocados and macaroni and cheese their own food groups). We don’t just love avocados for their rich, creamy texture; they’re pretty powerful in the nutrition department too, offering about 13 percent of your daily recommended potassium and 7 grams of fiber in one serving of this meal.

Many kids may turn their noses up at Brussels sprouts, but if you're like us, you've grown to love these mini cabbage-like veggies. And good thing since the sulfur compounds in them fight cancer. Anticancer Mechanism of Sulfur-Containing Compounds. De Gianni E, Fimognari C. The Enzymes, 2015, Jun.;37():0423-2607. Mix the greens with their natural partner—bacon—and some spicy cheese and elbow noodles, and you've got a winning combination.

This ain't no kids' mac. Four different veggies add color, flavor, texture, fiber, and lotsa vitamins and minerals; spices add a bit of bold flavor. Bonus: All that heat from the cayenne may help relieve pain, though studies are inconclusive at this point. Effect of highly purified capsaicin on articular cartilage and rotator cuff tendon healing: An in vivo rabbit study. Friel NA, McNickle AG, DeFranco MJ. Journal of orthopaedic research : official publication of the Orthopaedic Research Society, 2015, Jul.;():1554-527X. Capsaicin 8 % as a cutaneous patch (Qutenza™): analgesic effect on patients with peripheral neuropathic pain. Raber JM, Reichelt D, Grüneberg-Oelker U. Acta neurologica Belgica, 2014, Nov.;115(3):2240-2993.

Is it just us or does putting food inside a veggie makes it taste better? Well, with gruyère and both sharp and white cheddar, this one certainly tastes amazing. It's perfect for a dinner party or main course on a cozy night in.

This one doesn’t skimp on the cream and butter, but veggies help balance it all out with antioxidants and calcium (credit: spinach), lycopene (thank you, sun-dried tomatoes), and vitamin K (holla leeks!). Along with oregano, rosemary, and feta, you'll certainly taste the Greek in this dish.

Spinach and kale tend to hog the spotlight when it comes to leafy greens, but give Swiss chard a shot. It has flavonoids and betalains (natural pigments) that fight cancer. Nutritional and functional potential of Beta vulgaris cicla and rubra. Ninfali P, Angelino D. Fitoterapia, 2013, Jun.;89():1873-6971. Identification of betalains from petioles of differently colored Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris L. ssp. cicla [L.] Alef. Cv. Bright Lights) by high-performance liquid chromatography-electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Kugler F, Stintzing FC, Carle R. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2004, Jul.;52(10):0021-8561. If you're up for a pink dinner, grab red Swiss chard; otherwise, go for green. Definitely use whole-wheat pasta so you get more fiber.

See that green peeking out of this cheesy dish? That's protein—in the form of peas and edamame. But what you'll really love is the paprika-spiked breadcrumbs, which lend a smoky, crunchy taste you'll want more of.

With a mere six ingredients and five uncomplicated steps, this one's pretty simple. Zucchini brings some vitamin B6, which helps break down protein so your body can use it. Pick your favorite cheese or try a blend. Anything goes!

Healthier Sauces

Healthy Mac and Cheese
Photo: Pinch of Yum

Have you heard about people using butternut squash in mac and cheese and thought it sounded like blasphemy? Don't knock it till you try this recipe. Using the squash means you can use less cream, butter, and cheese, yet still have a creamy sauce that's also naturally orange. Caramelized onions add a rich flavor you'd never get from a powder.

Pizza and mac n’ cheese rolled into one dish—now you’re speaking our language. And between the whole-wheat pasta and Greek yogurt-based sauce, it’s not half bad for you either. Only 25 minutes to fix, it’s also perfect for a fast and comforting weeknight dinner.

Cauliflower not only magically turns into a great substitute for mashed potatoes and pizza crust, it also transforms into cheese sauce (with the help of actual cheese, naturally). And it's loaded with vitamin C, that all-important antioxidant powerhouse.

We may be adults, but it’s still fun to eat a dish where the veggies are cleverly concealed. Puréed carrots lend some healthy vitamins and carotenoids (good for eye health), but there are still three types of cheese—ricotta, cheddar, and Parmesan—so you know your taste buds will be happy.

One look at this and you'll want to dive right in. The sauce is made from Greek yogurt, your fave cheese, onion and garlic powder, and some starchy water from cooking the pasta. That's right: no butter, no flour, nothing heavy, yet still so gooey you'll want to lick the bowl after. And it all cooks in one pot for easy cleanup.


Spicy Southwest Macaroni and Cheese
Photo: Spa Bettie

If your friends thinks vegan food is flavorless, make them this—it will change even the strongest anti-vegan's mind. Jalapeño, chilies, cumin, and cayenne spice things up, but of course you can adjust the measurements if you prefer a milder meal. With beans and optional toppings like green onions and avocado, this dish is like loaded nachos—on pasta.

Rather than calling upon vegan butter and cheeses, this recipes uses cashews and cannellini beans for the perfect consistency, nutritional yeast for cheesy flavor, and turmeric for coloring. But this is no basic sauce: Paprika makes it nice and smoky. Toss in peas or any other veggies you like.

This one is loaded with nutrient-packed ingredients that also purée into the ideal texture. We're talking butternut squash, cashews, and avocado, which fortify your body with vitamins A and C, healthy fats, and fiber. The only things you need to cook are your pasta (or use zucchini noodles) and the squash; then simply make the sauce in a blender and toss it all together.

Sweeten the deal with this recipe, which combines sweet potatoes, maple syrup, and vegan cheese for its sauce. The taters aren't the only veggies here; kale joins the party so you can get some leafy greens too. The blogger tops everything with rice cereal, but you can omit that if it feels a little too Thanksgiving side dish to you.

Packed with veggies, this is a healthy and delicious crowd-pleaser. If you're short on time, only add the broccoli and cauliflower. But try to make the additional add-ins, which don't take much longer and mean you get more vegetables, some spice, and more ooey, gooey goodness.

Feelin' fancy? Make this. Yes, the ingredients list is a bit long, but you get so much flavor: Bell pepper, onion, carrots, and parsnips are puréed with cashews, nutritional yeast, paprika, chili, and nutmeg. Sounds amazing, right? Well, it gets even better because that sauce mixes with sautéd mushrooms, Swiss chard, and the pasta, of course. We call it a must-try!

With a mere six ingredients, this can be whipped up in minutes, and it serves one, so you can eat the whole thing! (It's also easy to double or triple the recipe to serve more.) Using unsweetened soy milk adds about seven grams of protein to your meal.

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