Mac & Cheese with Benefits

A few weeks ago, the Times did a story about dialing back on meat and there was lots of great stuff in there — not the least of which: that mushroom bourguignon that everyone including us seemed to be making over the long weekend — but the part I keep turning over in my dinner brain was this quote:

According to Marion Nestle, an author and professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, if you are getting enough calories, then you are getting enough protein.” (Elite athletes are the exceptions) “People are very concerned about protein, but it’s a nonissue,” she said. “It’s in grains, it’s in vegetables, it’s everywhere. It will find you.”

I have to believe that’s true, but even still, I’m skeptical! It remains the number one question people ask me when I tell them we’re mostly eating vegetarian these days: But how do you know your kids are getting enough protein? Not for nothing, the second question is: How do you make sure you’re not only eating cheese and pasta?

Yikes. I’ve been making a lot of Mac & Cheese in the past year — it’s the kind of dish that can serve as the main for a vegetarian or a side for the meat-eaters but mostly I’m making it a lot because, uh, my 16-year-old loves it and I am 100% guilty of conflating food and happiness. Plus, after a parade of beigey browny bean dinners (it’s been bean chapter recipe development season over here) I feel like I owe her a high-five kinda dish every now and then, “high-five” defined as I get a literal high-five when I tell her it’s what’s for dinner.

Still, there’s a lot of it. To make everyone feel a little better about things, last week I swapped out the regular pasta with Banza shells — made from chickpeas, so: protein! fiber! — which my friend Lia told me was the best of the alternate pasta lot. I’ve tried many kinds over the years — rice pasta, quinoa pasta, etc. — but this was the first one that came close to regular pasta. It’s definitely pricier than normal pasta, and the texture is slightly chewy, but I’ll take chewy over mushy any day. And though there’s a distinct garbanzo-bean flavor, you don’t really notice when it’s paired with a bold sauce…or when baked with milk, cream, and three kinds of cheese. I made the mistake of telling my family about the swap-out before they had a bite, so their antennae were up for something unusual. They claimed they did notice the chewiness, but it didn’t stop them from eating everything on the plate.

I’m hard at work tweaking and perfecting a recipe for weeknight Mac & Cheese for my book, but until then, I’ve had a lot of success with this recipe in the past. Try it at home! Replace the elbow pasta for chickpea pasta and see if anyone notices.

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I’ve been slowly steering my very meat focused house towards more weekday vegetarian/pescatarian meals (if someone really wants a midweek steak they get to shop and make dinner) and the protein thing really is a non-issue for us. The recommended protein intake is .8 grams of protein per kg of body weight or .36 grams per pound…that’s not actually that much protein. So rest assured with milk and cheese in the sauce there’s plenty of protein even without using the chickpea pasta!


I think my question about protein is less “how do you get enough to meet your actual dietary needs” (because as you point out, that’s easy). It’s more “how do you get enough protein, and sufficiently limit your carbohydrates, to not have the blood sugar dips or middle age pound creep?”

As I age, I find I really do have to limit my carbs to avoid both. And so I find a diet that reduces meat is challenging. I do a lot of salads topped with salmon at lunch, or canned tuna, but even those have their downsides. Grains or even beans during the day just leave me hungry 2 hours later, whereas a salad that is topped with grilled chicken will keep me full and satisfied all afternoon.

I think it’s tough, and probably the #1 reason I find I can’t fully give up meat.


Don’t worry about giving up the meat or the animal products. This plant-based on trend thing will pass. I won’t judge you. Just like I won’t judge my sister-in-law for her Whole30/Paleo thing with the holiday arrival Peleton (and Peleton tights) on the side!


Precisely this! I find myself just eating boiled eggs all the time, which gets old. My kids would eat this everyday and be happy. I eat this for dinner and gain 5 pounds right away. It’s tough.


As a vegetarian of 20+ years, I’m amazed at how often the protein question comes up. I think Americans are a little obsessed with protein. The bigger concern to me is getting adequate vitamins, particularly B12/folate. We use nutritional yeast in our household a fair bit for those purposes. This macaroni & cheese looks delicious! Can’t wait to try it.


I remain absolutely and fanatically devoted to this Melissa Clark mac & cheese recipe from her Dinner: Changing the Game cookbook:

It is incredibly easy to make, so perfect for the weeknight rush dinner. And it works to accommodate my daughter, who has always been a bit meat-averse, but plays soccer multiple times a week and burns through food like, well, the growing tweenager that she is! 😉 I’ll definitely check out this chickpea pasta idea – thanks for sharing!


I can’t type this w/o cringing, but my tweener son prefers the boxed mac’n’cheese over my delicious home-made. i know! i know! it’s terrible! i never made it for him when he was a tot so he feels especially deprived. so, for now, the blue box is my “high five” meal for him when i need to make his day. (husband and i would rather eat leftovers on that night). sigh.


I’m so excited to order your new book! I own them all and your recipes tend to be the ones we turn to the most. We are eating completely vegetarian right now… some of us stick to it out of the house, too, in my family of five. Will your book be out soon? I would love some inspiration.