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  • Writer's picturedeborahreinhardt

Low-Fat Mac-and-Cheese

This delicious and hearty version of mac-and-cheese uses butternut squash for the sauce’s base and cuts out more than half the fat of traditional dish.

baked macaroni and cheese in white casserole topped with breadcrumbs on counter with succulent planter in background
Low-Fat Mac-and-Cheese with a butternut squash and cheese sauce

Mac-and-cheese is one of my Top 3 comfort foods. Recently, I attended a Lenten fish fry with some friends and naturally this was one of the side choices. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed it, but you don’t want to know the calorie and fat totals in the serving. (But I’m telling you anyway.)

According to the web site Nutritionix, our favorite homemade mac-and-cheese has 510 calories per cup, 39 grams of carbs, and 29 grams of total fat. A bechamel (flour, butter, and milk) usually is the base for that decadent cheese sauce that can include up to three different cheeses.


Realizing nutritionists and food bloggers for decades have tinkered with slimming down this dish, and the method most often used is substituting a pureed vegetable for that silky bechamel and cheese sauce.

For my Low-Fat Mac-and-Cheese, I tweaked a recipe from a thrifted Weight Watchers® cookbook to create a delicious and surprisingly rich cheese sauce that uses pureed butternut squash instead of the traditional bechamel. Now, before you say, “aw, hell no,” hear me out. Butternut squash has (as its name implies) a slightly sweet and nutty flavor, so you can cut out the oft-used gruyere cheese, as well as the milk, flour, and butter used to make the bechamel. Lighter Neufchatel cheese, which has 6.5 grams of fat (1 ounce) compared to cream cheese, which contains 10 grams, is a healthier swap; and toasty, flavorful breadcrumbs replace Parmesan cheese often used to top the baked casserole.


But let the numbers do the talking:

  • 295 calories in 1½ cups (Note you get an extra ½ cup here compared to the traditional mac.)

  • 9 grams total fat

  • 38 grams net carbs


To make Low-Fat Mac-and-Cheese, which yields six servings, you’ll need these ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

  • 1/3 cup panko-style breadcrumbs

  • ½ teaspoon granulated garlic

  • 1 (20-ounce) package peeled and cut butternut squash

  • ¾ cup chicken broth

  • 1 cup shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar

  • 2 tablespoons Neufchatel cheese

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • ¾ teaspoon salt

  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne

  • 2 cups elbow Mac or mini pasta of your choice

  • Non-stick cooking spray

Mac and cheese on white plate with white casserole on counter in background

Directions for Low-Fat Mac-and-Cheese

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add granulated garlic and panko. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the breadcrumbs achieve a nice golden color (about 4 minutes). Set aside.


Bring a stockpot of salted water to a boil. Add squash and cook for 15 minutes until vegetable is very tender. To test, remove a piece and place on a cutting board. If you can easily mash it with a fork, it’s done.


Combine broth, cheddar, light cream cheese, mustard, salt, and cayenne in a blender or food processor. Using a slotted spoon, transfer squash from stockpot to blender (or food processor) and puree. Be sure to leave water in the stockpot.


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a 10-inch baking casserole with non-stick.


When water is boiling again, add pasta and cook to al dente; I usually save 1 to 2 minutes off cook time on the package. Reserve a cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and return to stockpot.


Stir in puree and toss to coat pasta. If the sauce seems on the dry side, add the pasta water in increments until you achieve the consistency you like.


Spread pasta mixture in the pan. Top with crumbs and spray top with non-stick to aid in browning. Bake for 25 minutes.

Notes for your kitchen

If you want to make this a vegetarian dish, swap the chicken stock for vegetable stock. The sauce’s texture won’t be as silky as the traditional, but this wasn’t a problem for me. In fact, I think there’s much more flavor to this healthier version! And to reheat leftovers, add a little stock to the sauced pasta, cover, and place in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes.


Did you know?

The first modern recipe for macaroni and cheese was included in Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. It was a hit in England and later Europe. James Hemings, a classically trained French chef enslaved by US president Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in bringing the recipe to the United States after Jefferson encountered it in Paris. Thank you Elizabeth and James!

I hope you'll try this mac-and-cheese recipe. It's great on its own or served alongside chicken, pork chops, beef, or fish.

Comfort food doesn’t have to be high-calorie and heavy on the stomach. It’s often food that ignites good memories, and this month, we’re exploring ways to do that without burning through your daily calories. Stay tuned because more healthy, comforting recipes are coming.


About the blog

Three Women in the Kitchen is an award-winning food blog offering today’s home cooks comforting, hearty recipes with a personal touch. The website also pays tribute to Deborah’s mother, Katie Reinhardt, and paternal grandmother, Dorothy Reinhardt (the “three women” in the kitchen). Whether you’re an experienced or a novice cook, you’ll find inspiration here to feed your families and warm your heart. Subscribe today so you won’t miss a single delicious detail.

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