Learn how to make the best healthy tuna pasta salad step by step! With minimal prep and a few simple steps you can have the delicious homemade pasta salad in 30 minutes or less! This salad is the perfect mix of flaky tuna, tender macaroni, fresh veggies and a better-for-you creamy dressing! It’s a total crowd-pleaser that’s perfect for picnics, potlucks, barbecues and easy meals!
Continue to read on for tricks on creating the best cold tuna macaroni salad, plus tips for serving and storing it! And, don’t miss the step by step photos and recipe video included in the post!
Update: This post was originally published in August 2020. I made updates to the post below to include more information about pasta salad with tuna. Plus, I added a recipe video to show you exactly how easy it is to make deliciously healthy pasta salad at home!
Hi, friends! Today I’m sharing a healthy, yet delicious take on a classic summertime dish – tuna macaroni salad!
In case you rolled your eyes and thought to yourself, “gross” or “yuck” – just hear me out! My other half absolutely loathes tuna macaroni, 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! This is healthy and fresh tuna pasta salad that’s so delicious it will blow your mind!
Healthy tuna pasta salad: overview
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 dressing, 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 features tender 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 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 flavorsome, yet healthier Greek yogurt 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 side dish featuring canned tuna, cooked noodles, fresh vegetables and a flavorful dressing. Pasta salad with tuna is typically tossed in either a creamy mayonnaise-based dressing or silky vinaigrette and almost always served chilled.
Pasta salad is generally 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 bursting with delicious flavor and flavor from the protein-rich tuna and medley of vegetables! The ingredients are easy-to-find and flexible, so you can adapt to what’s in season or add things you love!
Ingredients you need to make macaroni tuna salad at home
- 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 like to use elbow macaroni in my pasta salad; however any small or medium dry pasta will work well! (See below for tips on the best pasta shapes for pasta salad!)
- 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 Greek Yogurt dressing provides a serious punch of flavor! (See below for dressing details.)
What dressing for tuna salad with pasta?
To make this tuna pasta salad healthy, we are using a light, yet deliciously creamy dressing!
Creating a healthy pasta salad dressing starts with one simple trick – substituting most of the heavy, calorie-laden mayonnaise for Greek yogurt! By using mostly Greek yogurt, and just a touch of mayonnaise, you get all the lovely rich creaminess of traditional pasta salad dressings with significantly less fat and more protein! To really make this dressing shine, you will add in fresh lemon juice, sharp dijon mustard and flavorsome seasonings to create a dressing that is well balanced and absolutely amazing!
What is the best pasta shape for pasta salad?
When it comes to selecting pasta for your salad, the options can get overwhelming! To create the best pasta salad, use a short variety of pasta with plenty of nooks and crannies, such as macaroni, shells, rotini or bowtie. Small shapes of pasta are the ideal, because they are easy to scoop up and eat, and they trap the creamy dressing beautifully!
While fresh pasta has a time and a place, it doesn’t work great in pasta salads! Fresh pasta tends to break apart and doesn’t hold up well in pasta salad, so make sure you are using dried pasta instead of fresh!
Pasta shapes to use in salad:
- Macaroni (Elbows)
- Bowtie (Farfalle)
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 macaroni variations
- 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! (See below for more information on adding vegetables to create an ultra healthy pasta salad!)
- Herbs: I love dill, parsley and scallions, but you can use any fresh herb you love. Cilantro, chervil and thyme are also 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, cubes of sharp cheddar or mozzarella pearls taste great too!
- Extras: The best part of pasta salads is flavorful extras! Sweet pickle relish, chopped dill pickles, avocado, hard boiled eggs, olives, pickled vegetables or your favorite fixings will really make this salad shine! (See below for more healthy mix-ins to add to pasta salad!)
Is pasta salad healthy?
When you think of “healthy” recipes, you probably probably don’t envision pasta salad. However, this recipe proves it is possible to make healthy pasta salad with good-for-you ingredients!
This creamy macaroni tuna salad is a lightened-up version of the classic! Using light tuna packed in water, versus tuna packed in oil, reduces unwanted calories and fat. And, the creamy homemade dressing uses a combination of Greek yogurt and mayonnaise to reduce calories while adding a punch of protein!
- 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.
- Calories: There are approximately 173 calories per serving in this recipe.
- Protein: This salad has roughly 8 grams of protein per serving.
How to create a healthy macaroni pasta salad?
If you are looking to make this tuna pasta salad recipe even healthier, try using few (or all) of the tiny tweaks below!
Tweaks for creating a healthy pasta salad
- Use whole grain or chickpea pasta: One super simple swap to make this pasta salad even healthier is to use whole-wheat or chickpea macaroni! Using whole-wheat pasta will add more fiber, along with plenty of nutrients, such as vitamin B-6, vitamin E and folate, while using chickpea pasta will give your salad a boost of protein and fiber, along with iron and potassium.
- Bulk up the vegetables: Swap the ratio of pasta to vegetables and make the veggies the main attraction! Incorporating more fresh produce will help up the nutritional value of your salad! You can simply use more peas and onions, or try adding any vegetables you love to the mix! Broccoli, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, spinach and artichoke hearts are all tasty options!
- Add more protein: If you are looking to serve this pasta salad as an entree, try adding more protein to create a meal that will keep you fuller for longer! You can simply add more tuna, or try throwing in some white beans, salmon, shrimp and/or hard-boiled eggs!
- Dressing: This homemade dressing offers lower calories and more nutrients than heavy store-bought versions. However, you can make this dressing even healthier if you would like by tweaking the recipe! Instead of using a 1:1 ratio of yogurt and mayonnaise, use 2/3 cup Greek yogurt and 1/3 cup mayonnaise. As well, you can substitute the sugar with a healthier alternative, such as honey, coconut sugar, Swerve or Stevia!
- Incorporate some healthy fats: “Healthy fats” (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) will help you feel more satisfied while also reducing your LDL cholesterol. To improve your heart health, make sure you use avocado-oil mayonnaise to make the dressing! You can also toss some fresh avocado in your pasta salad to amp up creamy textures while reaping more nutritional benefits!
How to make tuna pasta salad from scratch?
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, store the salad in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it. Once you are ready to enjoy the macaroni tuna salad, add in the remaining dressing, season to taste and serve!
Tips for the best tuna pasta 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 tang 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 with tuna step by step photos:
Tips for serving tuna noodle salad
Are you looking for new and exciting ways to serve you pasta salad? Below are a few of my family’s favorite ways to serve and enjoy this recipe!
What goes with macaroni salad?
Everything tastes better with cold, creamy tuna macaroni salad! This summertime favorite is incredibly versatile and pairs perfectly with a wide variety dishes, from finger foods and fresh fruit to hamburgers and barbecue chicken!
14 delicious dishes to serve with pasta salad
- Fresh Fruit: Slices of fresh fruit and/or vibrant fruit salads are the perfect light pairing option for creamy pasta salads!
- Charcuterie board: A meat, cheese and cracker appetizer board is a fun and delicious pairing for pasta salads!
- Deviled Eggs: Creamy, dreamy deviled eggs are a southern summer classic that mimic the texture of pasta salad beautifully!
- Summer salads: Cold caprese salad, cucumber salad and bean salads are all delicious!
- Slaws: Crisp, refreshing slaws and coleslaws contrast creamy tuna salad wonderfully!
- Corn on the Cob: Buttery, juicy corn on the cob is a must!
- Baked beans: Barbecue beans are a delicious, traditional summer side dish to pair with macaroni salad!
- Sandwiches and Paninis: Finger sandwiches and warm, pressed sandwiches are always a hit!
- Burgers and Hotdogs: Is there anything more quintessential summer than juicy cheese burgers, flavorful veggie burgers and creamy macaroni salad!
- Hotdogs: No cookout is complete without plenty of pasta salad and snappy hotdogs!
- Grilled Meats: Smoky grilled ribs and beefy steaks go beautifully with pasta salad!
- BBQ Chicken: Variety is the spice of life, so make sure you have plenty of barbecue chicken at your barbecue for the non-beef eating guests!
- Fried Chicken: Crispy chicken and creamy pasta are a match made in heaven!
- Pork: The savory, smoky flavors in melt-in-your mouth pulled pork pairs brilliantly with the richness in pasta salad!
Can you make macaroni salad in advance?
The great thing about pasta salads – they get better over time! This pasta salad tastes 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 or two (in the refrigerator) makes all the difference in the world.
I recommend making this tuna noodle salad at least 2 hours in advance. When you are 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!
Tips for storing tuna pasta salad
Food safety is of the utmost importance, especially when it comes to storage! Make sure you follow the simple tips below to ensure you are properly storing your tuna macaroni salad!
How long does pasta salad last?
To maximize the shelf life of your pasta tuna salad, store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Properly stored, it will stay fresh for 3 to 5 days.
Can you freeze macaroni tuna salad?
I do not recommend freezing tuna macaroni salad. This recipe contains mayonnaise which separates when frozen, which will affect the texture of the salad when thawed.
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 pasta salad recipes?
If you love this macaroni salad with tuna, try one of these delicious recipes next!
The best Healthy Tuna Macaroni Pasta Salad recipe👇
Healthy Tuna Pasta Salad
- Large Pot
- Small mixing bowl
- Large Mixing Bowl
For the Pasta Salad:
- 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)
- 3 medium Green Onions (dark & light green parts only) – thinly sliced (about 1/3 cup)
- 1 1/4 cup Frozen Peas – thawed (SEE NOTES)
- 1/2 small Red Onion - finely chopped (about scant 1/2 cup)
- 2 TBS EACH: Chopped Fresh Dill & Chopped Flat-leaf Parsley , 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:
- 2/3 cup Greek Yogurt or Sour Cream (I used nonfat Greek Yogurt)
- 1/3 cup Good-quality Mayonnaise (SEE NOTES)
- 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 2 1/2 quarts (10 cups) 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 for 1 minute 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.
- Dressing: To ensure the dressing is heart healthy, make sure use avocado oil mayonnaise or olive oil mayonnaise! Also, you can also use a sugar substitute, such as honey, stevia or Swerve instead of granulated sugar! If you don't love the tangy flavor of Greek yogurt, you can substitute Sour Cream -OR- simply reduce the amount of Greek yogurt, using 1/2 cup Greek Yogurt and 1/2 cup Mayonnaise.
- 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 (rinsed with cold water), 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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