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My Best Protein Mac and Cheese

In my seven years of kinda healthy food blogging, I’ve made a lot of protein mac and cheese recipes. But I wasn’t sure how my recipes stacked up to others. So I recently tested six of the internet’s most popular recipes, including one of my own, to develop my ultimate version.

protein macaroni and cheese in a Staub cast iron braiser

Ingredients for High Protein Cottage Cheese Mac and Cheese

This version uses a high protein blended cottage cheese sauce, ground chicken, and standard pasta instead of a protein pasta. After comparing the nutrition profiles of protein pastas to standard pasta options in my cook off, I determined the minimal tradeoffs weren’t worth it for me.

If you’re skeptical about a mac and cheese with cottage cheese, you’ll just have to trust me. The flavor is completely masked and you’re left with a thick, creamy, protein-packed cheese sauce.

This may come as a bit of a surprise since so many of my pasta recipes over the years have used Banza chickpea pasta. I still think it’s a great option, and it can add a few grams of protein and fiber per serving if you’re a fan.

I will add, the protein plus wheat pastas like I used for my spaghetti and chicken meatballs is a closer substitute.

nutrition information for standard pasta, protein plus pasta, and Banza chickpea pasta

My ultimate protein mac n cheese also includes a crunchy panko bread crumb and bacon topping. I borrowed this from my ultimate smoked mac and cheese but kept it lower calorie by not adding extra butter or olive oil. I considered a higher protein crunchy topping like crushed pork rinds that you may want to experiment with.

Or if you’d rather skip the crunchy topping, a simple broiled cheese topping works great. Just add one to two ounces of shredded cheese and broil for 3-5 minutes.

one serving of protein mac and cheese in a bowl next to a cast iron skillet, parsley, and parmigiano reggiano

Keep in mind, this is MY ultimate protein mac and cheese. You can (and should) customize this recipe to fit your personal preferences.

Prefer a Tex-Mex flavor profile? Add diced green chiles to the sauce or cook peppers and onions before the ground chicken to add at the end.

How about an Italian style high protein mac and cheese? Blended ricotta makes a great cheese sauce.

There are tons of options. Watch the video from my full protein macaroni cook off for more ideas (in the recipe card below) and have fun!

If you have a question about my recipe or need help making adjustments, I’m happy to help. Leave a comment at the bottom of this post. And I’m curious to hear your thoughts about my ultimate version. Let me know how yours turns out in a recipe review.

protein mac and cheese in a bowl garnished with parsley and parmigiano reggiano

My Best Protein Mac and Cheese

Yield: 6 Servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

I tested the internet's best protein mac and cheese recipes, including my own, to come up with my ultimate version.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1 pound Ground Chicken
  • 2 Tablespoons Ranch Seasoning
  • 8 oz Pasta Shells or Elbow Macaroni
  • 3 cups Chicken Broth

For the Cheese Sauce

  • 1 1/2 cup (330g) 2% Cottage Cheese
  • 3 oz Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
  • 3 oz Gouda or Gruyere
  • 2 Tablespoons Milk or Water

For the Topping

  • 6 slices Center Cut Bacon, diced
  • 1 cup (60g) Panko Bread Crumbs
  • Parmigiano Reggiano and Freshly Chopped Parsley (optional garnish)

Instructions

  1. For the topping, add the diced bacon to a cold skillet over medium heat. Allow the fat to render and the bacon to crisp before transferring to a bowl lined with a paper towel. Add the panko bread crumbs to the same skillet and toast for 2-3 minutes until golden brown. Toss the toasted bread crumbs and cooked bacon together and set aside.
  2. Carefully wipe the skillet clean, deglazing with water if needed, and place the skillet over medium-high heat.
  3. Add the olive oil and once hot, the ground chicken. Brown one side for 3-4 minutes before breaking apart and fully cooking. Add the ranch seasoning, pasta, and chicken broth.
  4. Cook until the pasta is al dente and the broth has fully cooked off, about 15 minutes.
  5. While the pasta cooks, add the cheese sauce ingredients to a food processor and blender. Blend until smooth and set aside.
  6. Once the pasta is al dente and very little to no broth remains, reduce the heat to medium and add the cheese sauce. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the sauce is thick and creamy. Turn off the heat, add the topping, and garnish with freshly chopped parsley and grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano, if desired.

Notes

If you don't have ranch seasoning, you can season the chicken with a blend of granulated garlic or garlic powder, onion powder, dried herbs, black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Or if you have a well stocked spice cabinet, make your own ranch seasoning.

For a cottage cheese substitute, you can try blended ricotta cheese. See my creamy ground turkey pasta for an example.

Nutrition Facts Notes

You can reduce the calories per serving by using a broiled cheese topping instead of the crispy bread crumb topping. Add 2 ounces of shredded cheddar and broil in the oven for 4-6 minutes once the cheese sauce begins to thicken. Compare 460 calories, 18g protein, 51g carbs, and 25g fat in the bread crumb topping to 220 calories, 14g protein, 2g carbs, and 18g fat in 2 ounces of cheddar cheese.

I used 97% lean ground chicken breast.

You can add a bit of protein and fiber to this mac n cheese by using chickpea pasta or a protein pasta. Compare 760 calories, 52g protein, 132g carbs, 20g fiber, and 14g fat in 8 ounces of chickpea pasta (Banza) to 800 calories, 28g protein, 164g carbs, 8g fiber, and 4g fat in 8 ounces of traditional wheat pasta.

The macros do not include any additional parmigiano reggiano.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: about 8 oz
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 475Total Fat: 18gCarbohydrates: 43gProtein: 41g

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Hannah

Wednesday 18th of October 2023

How would I make this vegetarian?

Mason Woodruff

Tuesday 24th of October 2023

You could omit the chicken or use a plant-based protein replacement and swap the chicken broth for vegetable broth/stock. For the topping, you could just toast the breadcrumbs in olive oil instead of rendered bacon fat.

Kristy

Monday 2nd of October 2023

After you cook the bacon, should you remove the bacon grease from the pan before adding the panko? It's not clear from the recipe and imagine that impacts the fat content. Thanks for clarifying!

Mason Woodruff

Tuesday 24th of October 2023

Leave it in to toast the breadcrumbs in unless you have a fatty bacon that leaves more than needed behind. You only need about a tablespoon or enough to barely coat the bottom of the pan.

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