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. But without focusing on a few key ingredients, you could be skimping on good-for-you 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

pasta salad process shot 1
Credit: Jen Causey

Whole-wheat pasta adds 2 grams of satisfying 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 bow ties 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
  • Bow ties
  • Shells
  • Fusilli

2. Load Up on Veggies

Credit: Jen Causey

Traditional pasta salads are made with mostly pasta. But here at EatingWell, we suggest you use as many cups of veggies (and/or fruit) as pasta. Doing so not only delivers delicious flavor, but it also means you'll get a healthy dose of important nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin C (e.g., from red bell peppers) and heart-healthy fats (like from avocado).

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

Credit: Jen Causey

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 in water

4. Add Ingredients to Boost Flavor

Credit: Jen Causey

For the best flavorful pasta salad, don't forget to add a few 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
  • Pepperoncini
  • Prosciutto
  • Salami
  • Smoked sausage
  • Sun-dried tomatoes

5. Add a Homemade Dressing

If you're looking to lighten things up, but still want the creaminess of a classic pasta salad, consider swapping half of the mayo in the mix with buttermilk or yogurt. Or try a heart-healthy vinaigrette made with olive oil or canola oil.

Toss 8 cups pasta salad with 3/4 cup dressing:

creamy herb dressing

Creamy Buttermilk Dressing

Place 1 clove garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a bowl; mash 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

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.

Credit: Jen Causey

Pasta Salad Recipes We Love:

Try these healthy pasta salad recipes that follow this formula for creating a flavor-packed pasta salad.

black bean corn avocado pasta salad

Black Bean, Corn & Avocado Pasta Salad

Serve this colorful, veggie-packed pasta salad at your next outdoor gathering. From creamy avocado to crunchy bell peppers, this pasta salad is full of texture and flavor. A homemade herb-lime vinaigrette ties everything together.

a bowl of sun-dried tomato, tuna and pea pasta salad

Creamy Sun-Dried Tomato, Tuna & Pea Pasta Salad

Serve this healthy pasta salad at your next barbecue or backyard get-together. A garlicky buttermilk dressing adds creaminess, while sun-dried tomatoes provide a nice chewiness. Look for sun-dried tomatoes that are not packed in oil.

creamy tomato cucumber feta salad

Creamy Tomato, Cucumber & Feta Pasta Salad

Enjoy this veggie-packed pasta salad at your next picnic or backyard get-together. Cucumbers and fennel provide crunch to contrast the creamy feta and Kalamata olives. A tangy herb-buttermilk dressing completes the dish.

artichoke mozzarella chickpea pasta salad

Artichoke, Chickpea & Mozzarella Pasta Salad

This healthy pasta salad draws inspiration from a traditional antipasto platter. Artichoke hearts and pepperoncini add briny flavor, while fresh mozzarella lends a creamy note. Serve this pasta salad at your next dinner party or backyard get-together.