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How to Make a Healthier Pasta Salad Recipe

By: Stacy Fraser

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.

hands tossing pasta salad in a bowl

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 and our featured pasta salad recipes are all under 315 calories per 1 1/3-cup serving.

Related: Healthy Pasta Salad Recipes

1. Choose & Cook Pasta

Vegetable and Tuna Pasta Salad

Pictured Recipe: Vegetable & Tuna 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

Broccoli and Feta Pasta Salad

Pictured Recipe: Broccoli & Feta Pasta Salad

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
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Baby spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Fennel bulb
  • Melon
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini

3. Add Lean Protein

Antipasti Pasta Salad

Pictured Recipe: Antipasti Pasta Salad

Adding lean protein to pasta salads helps make them more satisfying. To keep prep time to a minimum, use convenient proteins like canned beans or tuna, cooked ham or roasted chicken.

Add 1 to 2 cups lean protein:

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

4. Add Ingredients to Boost Flavor

Peas and Ham Pasta Salad

Pictured Recipe: Peas & Ham Pasta Salad

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 cheeses
  • Olives
  • Pepperoncini
  • Prosciutto
  • Salami
  • Smoked sausage
  • Sun-dried tomatoes

5. Add a Homemade Dressing

Creamy Buttermilk 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.

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

Creamy Buttermilk 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
Whisk 1/4 cup each extra-virgin ­olive oil, reduced-sodium chicken broth and red-wine vinegar in a bowl with 3-4 table­spoons chopped fresh herbs, 2 table­spoons finely chopped shallots and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Makes about 3/4 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…

Antipasti Pasta Salad

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.

Broccoli & Feta Pasta Salad

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.

Vegetable & Tuna Pasta Salad

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.

Peas & Ham Pasta Salad

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.

Melon & Chicken Pasta Salad

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.

Watch: How to Make Mexican Pasta Salad

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