This creamy tuna pasta salad is the perfect mix of flaky tuna, tender macaroni, fresh veggies and a healthier creamy dressing! It’s a total crowd-pleaser that’s perfect for picnics, potlucks, barbecues and easy meals!
Learn how to make the best chilled tuna macaroni salad step by step! With minimal prep and a few easy steps you can have delicious homemade pasta salad in 30 minutes or less! Continue to read on for helpful recipe tips! And, don’t miss the step by step photos included in the post!
Hi, friends! Today I’m sharing an updated, delicious take on a class – tuna macaroni salad! In case you rolled your eyes and thought to yourself, “gross” or “yuck” – have no fear! My other half absolutely loathes tuna mac, but he eats this version up like there is no tomorrow! So, trust and believe, this isn’t your mama’s or grandmama’s macaroni salad!
Tuna Macaroni Pasta Salad
Just like the classic, this macaroni salad is incredibly simple to prepare and will still leave you with that familiar, comforting feeling. However, there’s no soft, mushy pasta, overly sweet, thick shellac of mayonnaise, stale flavor or unpleasant metallic aftertaste! This version is all about bright, fresh flavors, spot-on textures, and a lightened up, flavorful creamy dressing.
This macaroni salad is made up of soft, yet slightly firm and pleasantly chewy pasta, flaky tuna, crunchy celery, delicate green onions, sweet peas, pungent red onions, herbaceous fresh herbs and savory, salty parmesan cheese. The whole thing gets generously drizzled and tossed with a tangy, slightly sweet, impossibly creamy yogurt dressing. The end result? A complex, incredibly delicious tuna salad that is downright addictive!
Why you will love this tuna macaroni salad recipe:
- It’s packed with flavor and texture! From the flaky tuna and tender pasta to the crunchy fresh veggies and flavorful dressing, this salad has got it going on!
- It is so simple to prepare! If you can boil water, you can make this salad! Which makes is wonderful for last minute get togethers or busy weeknight dinners!
- This recipe is lightened up! While other versions are loaded with mayonnaise and sugar, this recipe features a lightened up Greek yogurt and mayonnaise based dressing! Plus, it uses tuna canned in water to cut even more calories and fat!
- It’s packable and travels well! This pasta salad travels well in a cooler, making it the perfect addition to picnics, potlucks and barbecues!
- It feeds a crowd! This recipe serves approximately eight people. However, it’s incredibly easy to adjust the serving size up or down according to your needs!
- It’s budget friendly! You probably already have most of the ingredients for this recipe on hand (e.g. dry pasta, tuna, frozen peas, yogurt, mayo, dijon, salt, pepper, sugar, etc.), which makes this salad economical and totally budget-friendly!
- This recipe is totally customizable! This salad is completely flexible and customizable! Use whatever ingredients you love and swap out the ones you don’t! (Scroll down to see tuna salad variations!)
What is tuna pasta salad?
Tuna pasta salad is a classic American salad dish prepared with canned tuna, cooked pasta and fresh vegetables. It’s tossed in either a mayonnaise-based dressing or vinaigrette and almost always served chilled.
Pasta salad is typically served as a side dish; however, it can also be served as an appetizer or main course.
What’s in tuna pasta salad?
This tuna recipe is incredibly simple and fuss-free to prepare! However, it’s packed with delicious flavor and tons of texture! The ingredients are simple and flexible, so you can adapt to what’s in season or add things you love!
Ingredients needed for pasta salad:
- Tuna: I prefer solid white tuna, but chunk light tuna works just as well. Just make sure you select a good quality tuna that is packed in water, not oil. Tuna packed in oil adds unnecessary calories, plus it will make the salad too oily and greasy tasting.
- Pasta: I use elbow macaroni. However, any small or medium dry pasta, such as ditalini, shells or rotini, works well.
- Celery: Two large ribs of celery add plenty of crunch!
- Fresh Herbs: Thinly sliced green onions, chopped dill and parsley provide delicate herbaceous flavor.
- Frozen Peas: Sweet baby or petite peas provide subtly sweet, fresh tasting flavor! Make sure you defrost the peas under cool running water.
- Red Onion: Finely chopped red onion gives the salad color and mild sharp flavor.
- Parmesan: Freshly grated parmesan adds complexity to the salad.
- Dressing: A healthier creamy pasta salad dressing provides a serious punch of flavor!
What dressing for tuna noodle salad?
This delicious pasta salad features a lighter, healthier creamy dressing!
To make it, whisk together mayonnaise, Greek yogurt, lemon juice, Dijon, a pinch of sugar, celery seed, sweet paprika, kosher salt and ground black pepper. The dressing is incredibly simple, but when it’s mixed with the pasta salad ingredients, it tastes absolutely amazing!
What to add to tuna macaroni salad?
This recipe is straightforward and incredibly flexible! Use this recipe as a guide and add whatever ingredients you love to create the best tuna salad of your life!
Tuna salad variations:
- Pasta: Cooked pasta is essential, but the variety of pasta you select doesn’t matter. I prefer a pasta with nooks and crannies, such as macaroni, shells, rotini and farfalle (bow tie). However, other shapes, such as ditalini or orzo work too!
- Vegetables: The best pasta salads have an assortment of vegetables for color and texture. Try adding bell pepper, cucumber, zucchini, grated carrot, radishes, cherry tomatoes and even cauliflower!
- Herbs: I love dill, parsley and scallions, but you can add any other fresh herb you prefer. Cilantro, chervil and thyme are all great options!
- Meats: Want a little more heft in your pasta salad? Add in diced ham, chopped turkey or crumbled bacon!
- Cheese: I love the subtle salty and nutty flavors of parmesan. But, cubed sharp cheddar or mozzarella pearls taste great too!
- Extras: The best part of pasta salads, flavorful extras! Sweet pickle relish, chopped dill pickles, avocado, hard boiled eggs, olives or pickled vegetables will really make this salad shine!
How to make tuna pasta salad?
This macaroni salad is so quick and easy to prepare! If you can boil water and toss together a few key ingredients, you can make this recipe! With just a little prep and three easy steps, you can have delicious homemade pasta salad in 30 minutes or less!
Boil pasta: Boil a large pot of salted water and cook the macaroni. Rinse the pasta with cool water, drain and set aside to cool.
Mix the dressing: In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the dressing. Whisk well and set aside.
Assemble the salad: In a large bowl, add the cooked and cooled pasta, tuna, celery, green onions, peas, red onion, dill, parsley and parmesan. Toss to combine. Pour half of the dressing over the pasta mixture. Toss to coat.
You can either make the salad in advance, or make it fresh to eat. Either way, keep the salad chilled until you are ready to serve. Add in the remaining dressing and season to taste before serving!
Tips for the best salad:
- Use good-quality tuna packed in water. Tuna is one of the main ingredients, so make sure you purchase good-quality tuna from a brand you trust! Look for a brand that has big, firm pieces of tuna fish. Don’t flake the fish, just break it into big, bite-sized pieces before mixing it to the salad.
- Cook the pasta just past al dente. This may sound counterintuitive, but cook the pasta two minutes beyond the al dente stage! The pasta should be soft, but not mushy throughout! This is key, as once the pasta is shocked, it will firm up and regain that perfect al dente texture!
- Shock the pasta. Shocking the pasta means draining and rinsing it under cold water to stop the cooking process. The result is perfectly cooked, tender pasta! Shocking also prevents the pasta from absorbing all the dressing which will result in a dry salad.
- Use a mayo-yogurt dressing. Using just mayonnaise makes a pasta salad heavy and too rich. A mixture of mayo and Greek yogurt makes the flavors in this salad shine! The tangy of the yogurt balances the rich mayo perfectly!
- Don’t serve it straight from the fridge. Serving a macaroni salad shivering cold, straight from the fridge will subdue the flavors. It also makes the texture less appealing. It is so much better to serve pasta closer to room temperature! This helps the salad have a more delightful texture and bright flavor. (Just don’t let it sit out for more than 2 hours to avoid any food-poisoning scenarios.)
How to prepare macaroni salad step by step photos:
What goes with macaroni salad?
Everything tastes better with cold, creamy tuna macaroni salad! This versatile summertime favorite is incredibly versatile and can be paired with so many different dishes!
My favorite dishes to serve with it:
- Burgers and Hotdogs: Is there anything more quintessential summer than juicy burgers, flavorful veggie burgers and snappy hot dogs?
- Sandwiches and Paninis: Finger sandwiches and warm, pressed sandwiches are always a hit!
- Grilled Meats: Smoky grilled ribs, steaks and BBQ chicken go beautifully with pasta salad!
- Other Meats: Fried chicken and pulled pork are wonderful pairings!
- Fresh Fruit: Fruit slices and fresh fruit salads are a wonderful way to lighten things up!
- Summer salads: Cold caprese salad, cucumber salad and bean salads are all delicious!
- Deviled Eggs: Creamy, dreamy deviled eggs are a southern summer classic!
- Corn on the Cob: Soft, buttery corn on the cob is a must!
- Baked beans: Barbecue beans are another traditional summer staple!
Can you make macaroni salad in advance?
The great thing about pasta salads – they get better over time! Pasta salads taste better once the pasta, tuna and vegetables sit in the dressing for a while. Allowing the flavors to develop and meld for at least an hour (in the refrigerator) makes all the difference in the world.
I recommend making this tuna noodle salad at least 2 hours in advance. When ready to serve, stir in a bit more dressing, add in a little salt, pepper and fresh herbs to taste and watch the flavors come to life!
How long does pasta salad last?
Store tuna salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Properly stored, it will stay fresh for up to 5 days.
Can you freeze tuna salad?
Freezing tuna macaroni salad is not recommended. This recipe contains mayonnaise which separates when frozen, which will affect the texture of the salad when thawed.
Is it healthy and good for you?
This creamy tuna macaroni salad is a lightened-up version of the classic! Light tuna packed in water, versus packed in oil reduces added calories and fat. The creamy homemade dressing is a combination of mayonnaise mixed with Greek yogurt to reduce calories while adding protein!
If you are looking to make this dish even better for you, try using whole wheat pasta!
- Tuna: Tuna fish is an excellent source of protein and contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids that help combat heart disease. It’s also rich in antioxidants that improve the immune system, such as manganese, zinc and vitamin C.
- Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt packs a healthy punch! It’s a wonderful source of protein, probiotics, calcium and vitamin B-12.
- There are approximately 178 calories per serving in this recipe.
- This salad has roughly 7 grams of protein per serving.
This creamy salad is so satisfying and insanely easy to throw together! It’s delicious as a quick meal and also the perfect side dish to complement summer picnics, potlucks and outdoor barbecues! One bite and this recipe will become a fast family favorite!
Looking for more delicious pasta salads?
If you love this dish, try one of these recipes next:
The best Tuna Macaroni Pasta Salad recipe👇
Tuna Pasta Salad
- Large Pot
- Small mixing bowl
- Large Mixing Bowl
- 8 ounces Dry Small Pasta – (1/2 pound or about 2 cups dry pasta) (SEE NOTES)
- 2 (5 ounce) Cans Albacore White Tuna – drained (SEE NOTE)
- 2 large ribs Celery – finely sliced (about ¾ cup)
- 2 medium Green Onions – thinly sliced (about 1/3 cup)
- 1 cup Frozen Peas – thawed (SEE NOTES)
- ¼ cup finely chopped Red Onion
- 2 scant TBS EACH: Fresh Dill & Flat-leaf Parsley – chopped, plus more for garnish (SEE NOTES)
- 2 TBS Freshly Grated Parmesan – plus more for garnish
- Coarse Sea Salt & Ground Black Pepper – to taste
For the Dressing:
- ½ cup Good-quality Mayonnaise
- ½ cup Greek Yogurt or Sour Cream (I used nonfat Greek Yogurt)
- 1 TBS Fresh Lemon Juice
- 2 tsp Dijon Mustard
- 2 tsp Granulated Sugar
- ¼ tsp Celery Seed
- ¼ tsp Sweet Paprika – plus more for garnish
- Boil pasta: Add 4-5 quarts of water to a large pot and bring water to a boil. Season water with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Add the pasta and cook 1-2 minutes PAST al dente according to package instructions. Drain pasta and rinse it with cold water to stop the pasta from cooking. Drain again and allow the pasta to cool. (SEE NOTES)
- Mix the dressing: In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the dressing. Season with 1 teaspoon of sea salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper. Whisk well to thoroughly combine.
- Assemble pasta salad: In a large bowl, add the cooked and cooled pasta, tuna, celery, green onions, peas, red onion, dill, parsley and parmesan. Toss to combine.
- Add dressing: Pour HALF of the dressing over the pasta mixture. Toss well to evenly coat. Taste the pasta salad and adjust for seasoning.
- Refrigerate: Cover the pasta salad and the remaining dressing. Place both in the refrigerator and allow to chill for 2-3 hours, or until cold. (SEE NOTES)
- Serve: Remove the salad from the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter for about 20 minutes to remove the chill. Just before serving, stir in the remaining dressing. Garnish with fresh dill, paprika and a sprinkle of parmesan. Serve immediately and enjoy!
- Pasta: I use elbow macaroni. However, you can use small shells, bowtie, ditalini or your other favorite bite-size pasta!
- Tuna: White albacore tuna packed in water is best for this pasta salad. Tuna packed in oil tends to make the salad too greasy and oily. If you are using a drained, ready-to-use tuna, you only need 8 ounces (instead of 10).
- Peas: I suggest baby peas or baby sweet peas for this recipe. To defrost, simply run the frozen peas under cold water. Drain before using.
- Herbs: You can use any combination of fresh herbs you like. Basil, cilantro and chervil are also wonderful options. Or, you can use a ¼ cup of just one herb.
- Cooking pasta: This may sound counterintuitive, but cook the pasta one to two minutes beyond the al dente stage! The pasta should be soft, but not mushy throughout! This is key, as once the pasta is shocked, it will firm up and regain that perfect al dente texture!
- To quickly cool pasta: Drain the cooked pasta and spread it out on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Spreading the pasta out in a thin, even layer will help it cool for quickly. You can place the baking pan with the pasta in the refrigerator to speed up the cooling process even more.
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