Undercover Carrots: Stove-Top Mac and Cheese (Shhh! Veggies Hidden Inside)
With the winter holiday food-fests just behind us and the New Year nigh, many families are thinking about ways to get their healthy eating back on track. Our suggestion? Mac and cheese! The twist here is that our version looks just like the classic boxed variety—but whole wheat noodles add extra vitamins, fiber, and protein, and the creamy, dreamy cheese sauce actually contains nutritious carrot purée (full recipe below)! The clincher? It’s delicious! We’ve even served it to unsuspecting grown-ups who scarfed it down and asked for seconds without questioning a thing.
Super easy and a kid favorite, stove-top (carrot—shhh!) mac and cheese is your healthy eating quick fix.
A few simple and wallet-friendly ingredients are all you need to cook up a big ol’ pot of healthy and tasty from-scratch carrot mac and cheese. One pot will easily feed a family of four (yay, leftovers!), and makes a great weekend lunch when you’re hosting a whole crew of kiddos.
Carrots are a great source of vitamin A, which boosts immunity and keeps eyes and skin healthy. When puréed, they have a thick, silky texture that allows you to reduce the total fat typically found in mac and cheese recipes.
Use whole wheat elbow macaroni or other types of pasta with little nooks, crannies, and ridges that are ideal for catching and holding onto a sauce (shells, campanelle, farfalle, and mini penne rigate are good choices).
No matter what pasta you use, reserve a cup of the cooking water before you drain the noodles. Adding a little of that starchy water back to the pasta when you add the sauce will yield a silkier, creamier result and better adhere the sauce to the noodles.
Carrot mac and cheese is delicious on its own, but you can add a special je ne sais quoi with an additional sprinkle of cheese, chopped herbs, crumbled bacon, mini meatballs, or buttery toasted bread crumbs. Serve with fresh fruit, sliced raw veggies, or steamed broccoli or peas.
In our centers, we embrace family-style eating—encouraging children to serve themselves teaches them important social skills (like passing items, sharing, being patient, saying “please” and “thank you”) and how to listen to their own hunger cues. Allowing them to get in on the serving action can also inspire them to try new foods, like mac and cheese made with carrots and whole wheat noodles! Sure, there will likely be some spills when children take the lead, but also lots of smiles.
Experiment with adding more carrot and less cheese (and/or butter) to this recipe to make it even healthier. We’re also fans of mac made with hidden cauliflower, summer squash, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash.
Want more yummy ways to sneak a little extra nutrition into your little one’s diet? Check out Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food or The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals for lots of tasty tricks.
(CARROT—SHHH!) MAC AND CHEESE
Yields: 6–8 servings
Total time: Approximately 30 minutes
- ½ pound carrots, washed and thinly sliced
- 1 pound whole wheat elbow macaroni
- 1½ cups 2% milk
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a small saucepan, combine the carrots with ½ cup of water and a sprinkle of salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cover. Stirring occasionally, cook until the carrots are tender, about 12–15 minutes.
- While the carrots cook, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and then cook the pasta according to directions. Reserving a cup of the cooking water first, drain the pasta when done. Set aside.
- When the carrots are ready, pour them into a blender along with the water they cooked in. Blend until smooth.
- Add the milk to the blender and blend again until very smooth. Set aside.
- Add the butter to the large pot the pasta cooked in and melt over medium heat. Add the carrot mixture and garlic powder, and stir to combine. Next, add all the cheese and stir until the sauce is smooth and begins to thicken and bubble. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the pasta to the sauce along with a ¼ cup of the reserved pasta cooking water (to help bind the sauce to the noodles) and stir until well-mixed. If the sauce is too thick, you can stir in additional cooking water a tablespoon or two at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. Serve with your favorite garnishes and/or side dishes. Enjoy!