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There is no debating the inherent comfort of mac and cheese: warm, creamy, cheesy goodness clinging to tender pasta – does it get any better?! This pumpkin mac and cheese is a seasonal twist on an old classic and is loaded with pumpkin and spinach.
A healthier indulgence…
This wholesome rendition of mac and cheese is an ode to the cozy season. Pumpkin is the epitome of fall and its natural richness means it steps in for the heavy cream in this recipe. It reduces the fat content while infusing the dish with a velvety richness that is both satisfying and nutritious.
Pumpkin is full of Vitamins A, E, and C as well as a good source of iron and fiber. It's also super low on the calorie scale, so you get twice the sauce with half the calories.
With this pumpkin mac and cheese, you can celebrate fall AND add nutrition while still making an indulgent dish the whole family loves.
We are not going to claim that cheese sauce is health food any time soon, but it's a heck of a lot better for you when it's loaded with pumpkin! For another way to sneak veggies into sauces, check out this creamy carrot pasta sauce.
- Macaroni: Elbow macaroni is the classic choice! You can use other short styles, like penne or fusilli, or sub it for a gluten-free pasta.
- Spinach: Kale also works well if that's what you have on hand.
- Butter and panko: This crispy topping takes this pasta over the top.
- Bacon: Cooked crispy adds so much flavor to this meal.
- Fresh sage leaves: We quickly cook these in butter so they're wonderfully crisp.
- Pasta cooking water: Scoop some water out of the pot before you drain the pasta. This is good practice anytime you toss pasta with sauce. Adding some of the starchy cooking water loosens the sauce so it's creamier and adds body.
For the pumpkin cheese sauce:
- All-purpose flour + milk: Plus some of the fat from cooking the bacon creates the roux that will thicken the cheese sauce.
- Pureed pumpkin. We buy it in a jar to make life easier. Make sure to look for 100% pumpkin.
- Garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper. So much flavor!
- Cheddar cheese, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese: Feel free to use whatever cheese is in the fridge or add in your favorite cheese! We recommend grating blocks of cheese instead of packaged pre-grated cheese as it melts better and tastes fresher.
How to make pumpkin mac and cheese
Don't be afraid of the 8 steps it takes to make this recipe – they are all very easy. This no-bake dish is super simple – you don't even have to turn the oven on!
- Cook the pasta: Boil up some macaroni noodles until al dente. After you drain it, add spinach to the pot with the cooked pasta so that it wilts.
- Bake the panko: Melt butter to toast up some panko for a crispy topping.
- Cook the bacon: You want it nice and crispy!
- Cook the sage: A minute in some hot oil is all it takes to make sage leaves deliciously crisp.
- Start the sauce: Start with a roux (flour and fat) to give a velvety base.
- Finish the sauce: Then whisk in whole milk, pumpkin puree, and seasonings before adding the cheese.
- Stir it all together! Pour the sauce over the cooked pasta and spinach and add some of the pasta cooking water to loosen it up and make it ultimately creamy.
- Serve: Put it in a bowl and top it with the panko, crispy bacon, and sage leaves and enjoy!
Whether you want to use up what's in the pantry, or add your own twists, there are plenty of ways to mix it up…
- Seasonings: Enhance the flavor by adding a pinch of nutmeg or black pepper. Or if you're craving a spicy kick, you can use some cayenne pepper. Balance is key! If you don't have sage on hand, you can use another herby seasoning mix.
- Toppings: You could add a handful of dried cranberries for some tang. Or try some chopped nuts – we like cashews!
- Veggies: The recipe calls for spinach, but kale brings its A-game, too! If you're all about the sneaky veggies, you could add a cup of grated zucchini or pureed carrot. This recipe also works well with other winter squashes, like butternut squash.
What to serve with pumpkin mac and cheese
This cozy comfort food can be enjoyed as a meal on its own, or as a tasty side. This is the perfect side dish to take to fall dinners, and is a star side at Thanksgiving dinners (be prepared to be asked for the recipe!)
The creamy goodness of this dish is an indulgent side so it pairs perfectly with fresh and easy vegetable sides like crispy parmesan brussels sprouts or this crunchy kale apple salad. Or go full festive and serve it alongside holiday roasted vegetables.
What cheese to use in mac and cheese?
The sky is the limit! If you have a favorite cheese, then go ahead and add it to the mix, or use up whatever you already have in the fridge. Our ultimate choice would be a blend that complements the earthy pumpkin flavor: Sharp cheddar to add a tang or gruyere to bring a nutty depth. We recommend blocks of cheese over the pre-grated packaged mixes if possible, as they melt better and taste fresher.
How much pumpkin puree should I use?
We tested this recipe using the whole 15-ounce can of pureed pumpkin, which was good, but the pumpkin flavor was quite prominent. If you prefer a more subtle flavor, use 1 cup.
Can I roast pumpkin instead of buying the canned puree?
You certainly can! The canned varieties are great because they are 100% pumpkin and often don't have any additives, making it more convenient than making your own puree. If you want to use fresh, get a small baking pumpkin. Look for signs that say “sugar pumpkin” or “pie pumpkin” as the flavor will taste better than anything larger, such as the pumpkins used for carving.
How long do leftovers keep?
Store any leftovers in an air-tight container for 3-4 days in the fridge. This recipe also freezes surprisingly well!
- 1 lb macaroni (gluten-free, if needed)
- 3 cups baby spinach
- ½ lb thick-cut bacon (sliced into ½ inch pieces)
- 2 teaspoons butter
- ¼ cup panko (gluten-free, if needed)
- 10 sage leaves
- 1 cup pasta cooking water
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (gluten-free, if needed)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup pureed pumpkin (see notes)
- 1 teaspoon EACH: garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper
- 1 cup EACH: grated sharp cheddar and grated mozzarella (avoid using pre-grated cheeses)
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Put a large pot of salted water on high heat. When it comes to a boil, add the macaroni and cook according to package directions until al dente. Reserve 2 cups of the cooking water from the pot and then drain the pasta. Add the cooked pasta back into the pot. If you're using spinach, add it to the pot.1 lb macaroni, 3 cups baby spinach
- While the pasta is cooking, prepare the rest of the recipe. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add the panko and let it toast for 2-3 minutes.2 teaspoons butter, ¼ cup panko
- In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until it is crispy. Then use a slotted spoon to put the bacon into the pot with the pasta. (You can reserve a few pieces for garnish if you'd like.)½ lb thick-cut bacon
- Add the sage leaves to the pan and cook them for 1 minute, until they are crispy. Remove them from the pan.10 sage leaves
- Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon oil from the pan. (If there is less than 2 tablespoons, add some butter.) Whisk the flour into the oil and let it cook for one minute. Slowly whisk in the milk and cook until it thickens, about 3 minutes.2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 2 cups whole milk
- Whisk the pumpkin puree, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper into the sauce and let it heat through. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese.1 cup pureed pumpkin, 1 teaspoon EACH: garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper, 1 cup EACH: grated sharp cheddar and grated mozzarella, ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Pour the sauce over the cooked pasta and stir well. Add as much pasta water as you need to loosen the pasta – we normally add about a cup.1 cup pasta cooking water
- Sprinkle the top of the pasta with the panko and crispy sage leaves and serve right away.
We have thoroughly tested this recipe for accuracy. However, individual results may vary. See our full recipe disclosure here.
This recipe is part of our Healthy Super Bowl Recipes series.