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.

1. Choose & Cook Pasta

Tex-Mex Pasta Salad

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:

  • Elbows
  • Bowties
  • Shells
  • Fusilli

2. Load Up on Veggies

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:

  • Arugula
  • Artichokes
  • Baby spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Fennel
  • Melon
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini

3. Add Lean Protein

Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Pictured Recipe: Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Adding lean protein to pasta salads helps make them more satisfying, although this step is optional, especially if you'll be serving the pasta salad as a side. To keep prep time to a minimum, use convenient proteins like canned beans or tuna, cooked ham or roasted chicken. And remember, when squash, beans and corn are eaten together, they form a complete protein.

Add 1 to 2 cups lean protein:

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Cooked chicken breast
  • Cooked ham (reduced- or low-sodium)
  • Beans
  • Chunk light tuna (albacore) in water

4. Add Ingredients to Boost Flavor

Lemon Chicken Pasta

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:

  • Capers
  • Full-flavored cheese (Parmesan, Cotija, Cheddar)
  • Olives
  • Peperoncini
  • Prosciutto
  • Salami
  • 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 or canola oil.

Toss 8 cups pasta salad with 3/4 cup 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.

Herb Vinaigrette

In a jar, combine 1/3 cup each extra-virgin ­olive oil and and vinegar (such as red-wine, champagne, white balsamic or rice ), 3 table­spoons chopped fresh herbs (such as basil, chives, cilantro, dill, oregano and/or tarragon, or 1 tablespoon dried), 2 table­spoons finely chopped shallot, 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Screw on lid and shake until well combined. Makes a generous cup.

Recipe Combos We Love:

pasta salad combos on a spoon

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.