This Tuna Macaroni Salad was one of the very early recipes I posted on the blog, and for good reason. It is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods, a retro pasta salad that is hard to beat.
Easy to make and even easier to eat, you can also customize it with additional vegetables if you’d like. But for me, the way mom used to make it–with shell pasta and with tuna and Parmesan cheese–is still my favorite way. Try it. I hope you love it as much as we do!
If you like your macaroni salad a little on the spicy side, give my chipotle ranch pasta salad or check out my Green Goddess pasta salad.
For ease of browsing, here are all of my pasta recipes in one place. Thanks for being here. Let’s make this!
Watch my “mom’s best tuna macaroni salad web story” here.
The Difference Between Macaroni Salad and Pasta Salad
I do enjoy a good pasta salad (see my Mediterranean couscous salad): crisp, blanched vegetables and yummy al dente pasta shapes all drenched in a homemade vinaigrette and spiked with whatever herbs and spices strike my fancy.
Macaroni salad or retro pasta salad is the less fancy version of modern pasta salad.
Classic, workhorse pasta shapes like shells or elbows are the order of the day here, and maybe rotini if you’re feeling fancy. The dressing is usually mayonnaise-based and not vinaigrette based.
When trying to decide whether a dish is pasta salad or macaroni salad, ask yourself these questions, which are admittedly subjective, but it’s my list, s there you go:
- Are there tons of vegetables in it? (It’s probably pasta salad)
- Do I see any black olives? (It’s definitely pasta salad)
- Is all the pasta slathered in creamy, mayo-based sauce? (It’s probably macaroni salad)
- Is there pickle juice in the dressing? (It’s probably macaroni salad)
- Is there cheese in it?
- Is it feta cheese? (It’s probably pasta salad)
- Is it Parmesan cheese from a can? (It’s probably macaroni salad)
- Is it Velveeta or American cheese or maybe cheddar? (It’s probably macaroni salad)
So maybe some of those questions are broad generalizations and are based on my own personal preferences. Maybe.
My Mom’s Macaroni Salad
My mom’s macaroni salad is definitely not pasta salad.
This is the macaroni that you take to the covered dish Wednesday night supper.
The one that you make for the little league end-of-season party. The Dish of Choice for the swim team party, the block party, the I’m-sorry-your-aunt-died get-together.
I grew up eating this stuff, and when I make it for myself, I stay pretty true to Mom’s way of making it. And now, I’m going to share it with you.
Use this as a basic recipe template, and feel free to add/substitute to your Heart’s Content. But do try it The Original Way at least once. Especially if you are a fan of celery seed and tuna. You won’t be sorry.
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Ingredients and Equipment for This Recipe
Here’s what you’ll need to make mom’s tuna macaroni salad (and yes, you can leave out the tuna if you don’t like it).
If you don’t need the rundown, you can jump straight to the recipe.
Here’s what you need to make the dressing:
- Duke’s mayonnaise (or a half-and-half mixture of mayo and sour cream if I’m feeling righteous)
- yellow mustard
- sweet pickle juice or apple cider vinegar and a touch of sugar
- sweet or dill pickle relish (mom always used sweet)
- Parmesan cheese (green can here is just fine)
- salt & pepper
- celery seed
Here are the Mix-Ins:
- Medium shell pasta, or use another short shape such as pipette or regular elbow macaroni
- sweet onion
- shredded carrot (my mom uses it, but I generally don’t because I am not a Carrot Fan)
- canned tuna
- little cubes of cheddar cheese, about 1/4″ dice
Why Cubes of Cheese?
Why cubes? Because I add the cheese while the pasta is still somewhat warm. If you use shredded cheese, it could melt.
While that’s not the worst thing, I like to find little bites of cheese in my macaroni salad, so even if the outsides of the little cubes melt some, they generally stay intact.
And who doesn’t like to bite into a substantial cube of cheese every once in a while? Or in every bite?
Jenni Says: Don’t buy already cubed cheese because those cubes are too big and you’ll just need to cut each of those into 8 smaller cubes.
As with most mom-style recipes, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or ingredients to make a retro pasta salad. Here’s a checklist to make sure you have what you need (and you probably do):
- large pot for boiling pasta
- a colander or strainer (I use my over-the-sink strainer all the time)
- a large bowl for mixing up the salad
- a large spatula for folding everything together without smashing the macaroni
And if you’re feeling shoppy, you can check out all my kitchen shopping recommendations.
How to Make Macaroni Salad
There are plenty of ways to make macaroni salad, and probably no one right way, but this is how I do it.
- Mix up all the dressing ingredients in a bowl.
- Cook the pasta, drain well, and rinse so it’s not boiling hot.
- Mix the dressing with the still-warm pasta so it can soak in.
- Chop/mince up additional ingredients.
- Fold them into the salad with a spatula.
Macaroni Salad Q & A
The only ingredient that has gluten is the pasta itself, so use your favorite gluten-free pasta shape in place of macaroni made with semolina.
For best flavor and texture, try to eat your mac salad within 5 days. While it technically won’t spoil for a bit longer, the noodles will get flabby.
Use a vegan mayo such as Just Mayo and leave out the Parmesan or replace with some nutritional yeast. And obviously leave out the tuna. You can up the protein content by adding some beans. Cannelini beans would work well here.
Make It a Meal
Wondering what to serve with mom’s macaroni salad? It makes a great side dish for an old-fashioned burger like a Double Polar Burger with Everything (from Grease!) or a smashed bacon double cheeseburger.
Since the macaroni salad is already pretty carby, you could also choose to serve it with this chicken with mushrooms and thyme. Or you can stick with the salads theme and serve it with coronation chicken salad.
And of course, round out your meal with a retro classic double chocolate cheesecake. You’ve earned it!
More Family Recipes
I love the recipes my mom made as I was growing up back in the 70s, so I have quite a few on the blog.
If you’re a fan of easy, mom-style retro recipes, you may like some of the following:
- My favorite casserole, beefy and tomato-y and creamy Hamburger Macaroni Casserole Supreme
- My favorite Christmas cookie, the perfect pecan slices or Angel Slices. These have a shortbread-type crust, coconut pecan filling, and thin, crunchy lemon glaze. They are perfect.
- My family’s English trifle is the one we grew up eating from the time we were little. It was always an option for Thanksgiving and Christmas dessert, and the simple combination of pound cake, raspberry jam, a little cream sherry, and homemade vanilla custard is still my favorite.
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Tuna Macaroni Salad Like Mom Made
For the Dressing
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 4 Tablespoons yellow or spicy mustard
- 5 Tablespoons vinegar or sweet pickle juice
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- 2 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 Tablespoon sugar or honey (optional and only if using vinegar rather than sweet pickle juice)
- ½ cup “green can” Parmesan cheese optional but nice
For the Macaroni
- 1 pound macaroni–shells elbows or rotini
- 1 medium sweet onion diced (as much or as little as you like)
- 2 ribs celery small dice (ditto)
- 2 carrots peeled and shredded on a box grater
- ¾ cup pickle relish sweet or dill
- 12 oz canned tuna drained and pressed (about 2 small cans)
- ½ cup cheddar cheese cut into 1/4″ cubes
For the Dressing
- Mix together all the dressing ingredients in a large bowl. It should be pretty yellow, so decide if you want to add a bit more mustard or not.
For the Macaroni
- Cook the macaroni until it is done to your liking, and drain well. Rinse with cool water just to keep it from being boiling hot.
- Add the drained macaroni to the bowl with the dressing in it.
- Stir in the onion, celery, relish, and tuna until it is all nicely Mixed Up. I do this one ingredient at a time, just to give the macaroni time to cool off some before adding the cheese.
- Add the cheese cubes last and fold them in gently so they're evenly distributed
- Refrigerate until cold.
- Put in your face.
Did You Make Any Changes?
I really hope you love my mom’s tuna macaroni salad, friends.
It’s one of my favorites, and it’s so comforting and filling and delicious.
Thanks for spending some time with me today.
Take care, and have a lovely day.
What are my qualifications to teach you baking and pastry? As a former working pastry chef and special educator, I marry my passions for both teaching and for baking into explaining techniques, methods, and developing the best possible recipes. For more info, you can read more about me.
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