How to Make a Healthier Pasta Salad Recipe
Make a healthier pasta salad with this easy no-recipe formula that uses whole-grain pasta, fresh veggies, lean protein and a zingy homemade dressing to tie it all together.
There are endless healthy ways to make pasta salad. While pasta salad is a crowd-pleaser, traditional recipes typically weigh in at over 500 calories per serving. They also skimp on the good stuff like whole grains, crunchy vegetables, fresh herbs and lean protein. Our step-by-step guide includes lots of ideas for great flavor combinations to help you make a healthier pasta salad.
Related: Healthy Pasta Salad Recipes
1. Choose & Cook Pasta
Pictured Recipe: Tex-Mex Pasta Salad
Whole-wheat pasta adds 2 grams of heart-healthy fiber per ounce of dry pasta versus white pasta. The amount of dry pasta to start with depends on the shape. To get 4 cups of cooked pasta, use 2 cups elbow macaroni, 2 1/2 cups shells, 3 cups bowties or fusilli. Cook pasta and drain (but don't rinse). Spread on a large baking sheet to cool.
Start with 4 cups cooked whole-wheat pasta:
2. Load Up on Veggies
Pictured Recipe: Thai-Inspired Peanut Shrimp Noodles
Use as many cups of veggies (and/or fruit) as pasta. This keeps your pasta salad healthy and slashes the calories compared with typical versions that are made with mostly pasta.
Add 4 cups fresh vegetables and/or fruits:
- Artichoke hearts
- Baby spinach
- Fennel bulb
3. Add Lean Protein
Pictured Recipe: Mediterranean Pasta Salad
Adding lean protein to pasta salads helps make them more satisfying. To keep prep time to a minimum, use convenient proteins like canned beans or tuna, cooked ham or roasted chicken.
Add 1 to 2 cups lean protein:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Cooked chicken breast
- Cooked ham (reduced- or low-sodium)
- Chunk light tuna
4. Add Ingredients to Boost Flavor
Pictured Recipe: Lemon Chicken Pasta
For the best flavorful pasta salad, don't forget to add a few higher-calorie or salty ingredients like cheese, cured meats or pickled vegetables. Chop them small so you get a little bit of big flavor in each bite.
Add 1/2 to 1 cup total:
- Full-flavored cheeses
- Smoked sausage
- Sun-dried tomatoes
5. Add a Homemade Dressing
Skip high-calorie creamy dressings and use a lighter version made with low-fat mayonnaise and buttermilk. Or try a heart-healthy vinaigrette made with olive oil.
Toss 8 cups pasta salad with 3/4 cup dressing:
Creamy Buttermilk Dressing
Mash 1 clove garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a bowl into a paste. Whisk in 1/2 cup buttermilk, 1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise, 3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs and 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar until smooth. Makes about 3/4 cup.
Whisk 1/4 cup each extra-virgin olive oil, reduced-sodium chicken broth and red-wine vinegar in a bowl with 3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Makes about 3/4 cup.
Recipe Combos We Love:
Try these healthy pasta salad recipes that follow our tips for creating a flavor-packed pasta salad. To 4 cups cooked pasta, add…
Vegetables: 2 cups thinly sliced fennel bulb, 1 cup diced bell pepper and 1 cup quartered canned artichoke hearts
Protein: 1 cup canned cannellini beans (or other white beans), rinsed
Flavor Booster: 1/2 cup cubed salami, 5 tablespoons shredded Provolone and 3 tablespoons chopped pepperoncinis
Dressing A or B: Use fresh marjoram.
Vegetables: 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes and 2 cups chopped broccoli
Protein: 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
Flavor Booster: 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Dressing A or B: Use fresh oregano.
Vegetables: 3 cups baby arugula and 1 cup diced zucchini
Protein: 2 5-ounce cans chunk light tuna, packed in water, drained
Flavor Booster: 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese and 1/4 cup chopped soft sun-dried tomatoes
Dressing A or B: Use fresh basil.
Vegetables: 2 cups sliced button mushrooms, 1 3/4 cups frozen (thawed) peas and 1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion
Protein: 1 cup diced ham and 2 chopped hard-boiled eggs
Flavor Booster: 1/2 cup diced Cheddar cheese
Dressing A or B: Use fresh dill.
Vegetables & Fruit: 2 cups cubed cantaloupe (or honeydew), 2 cups thinly sliced baby spinach
Protein: 2 cups cubed or shredded cooked chicken breast
Flavor Booster: 1/4 cup dried cranberries and 1/4 cup chopped prosciutto
Dressing A or B: Use fresh tarragon.