This Homemade Hamburger Helper Recipe is a savory, one-pot meal that’s better than the original boxed version! Made with tender elbow pasta, savory ground beef, cheese, tomato sauce, and veggies, it’s ready in 30 minutes or less!
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A One Pot Pasta Dinner Everyone Loves!
Confession time: I can’t honestly remember the last time I purchased or prepared a box of Hamburger Helper.
It’s not that I never have—like most moms, I’m familiar with the beloved boxed pasta (it’s one of my childhood favorites!). But somewhere along the way, I discovered that it’s actually quite easy to make homemade hamburger helper recipe.
It comes together in one pot, with real ingredients, in roughly the same amount of time. Since then, I haven’t looked back!
Plus, this homemade version is a one-pot meal made with healthy whole wheat pasta for added fibre, and wholesome veggies like red pepper and spinach.
But don’t worry! Everything all cooks down together in the cheesy sauce (hello, comfort food!), so picky eaters won’t even notice (it’s a family favorite here!).
What You’ll Need to Make this Hamburger Helper
Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients for homemade hamburger helper! I’ll discuss lots of easy swaps in the “Tips and Variations” section below, but this is the base recipe:
- Lean ground Beef: Since this is a one-pot meal, I usually use lean ground beef. That helps keep the pasta from being greasy.
- Onion: Almost any beef dish is better with onion! You can dice up fresh onion, or if you’re short on time, sprinkle in about a tablespoon of onion powder.
- Red Pepper: Dice up a medium bell pepper. We use red, but any color is fine!
- Red Pepper Flakes: To add a little heat, add a pinch of red pepper flakes. You can put more in, if you want it to be spicier.
- Garlic or garlic powder: Again, you can use fresh minced garlic, or go with garlic powder if you prefer. Use about ⅓ teaspoon for each clove of garlic.
- Salt to season. I prefer to use red pepper flakes as opposed to black pepper, but you can use both if you prefer.
- Italian Seasoning: Store-bought Italian seasoning blend adds lots of flavor to the dish!
- Spinach: For frozen spinach, thaw it and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. For fresh spinach, just chop it finely.
- Beef Broth: The dish will be cooked in a mixture of broth and milk; I use beef broth, but vegetable broth and chicken broth would both work, as well.
- Milk: For the most flavor, use whole milk. However, you can use skim or 2% if you prefer to do so. Non-dairy milk will also work.
- Pasta: Our favorite pasta for this recipe is elbow pasta, but basically any small shape would be good. Penne, farfalle (bowties), and fusilli are all good hamburger-helper-style shapes.
- Tomato Sauce: You can use plain tomato sauce, strained tomatoes, or pasta sauce, whatever you have.
- Real Cheese: To make this a cheesy, comforting meal, you’ll need plenty of shredded cheese! Try mozzarella, colby, cheddar, or any other melting cheese that you like. Garnish with fresh parsley if desired!
How to Make Homemade Hamburger Helper
For some recipes, I brown the meat separately from the vegetables, but in this recipe that’s not necessary. Browning the meat with the vegetables is a time-saver, and the beef and vegetables blend their flavors together nicely!
Find the detailed recipe down in the recipe card.
- Brown the Beef with the Vegetables. In a large skillet, cook the ground beef, onions, peppers, red pepper flakes, garlic, salt, Italian seasoning, and spinach. Cook over medium-high heat until the beef is browned, breaking it up with a large spoon as you go.
- Add the Sauce Ingredients and Pasta. Add the milk, broth, dry pasta, and tomato sauce to the large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium, and let the hamburger helper gently simmer for 12-15 minutes until al dente, stirring often to ensure that the pasta cooks evenly and doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
- Add the Cheese. When the hamburger helper is done, stir in a cup of your shredded cheese. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the top, to make a cheesy top layer. Cover, and let the hamburger helper sit for 5 minutes before serving. The sauce will thicken slightly, and the top layer of cheese will melt.
Tips and Variations
This is a great recipe to put your own twist on!
- If your family isn’t into red pepper or spinach, feel free to swap out the veggies for others your family enjoys, like mushrooms, shredded carrots, zucchini, or anything else you have taking up space in the fridge.
- Keep the red pepper and spinach, but add even more veggies! Shredded vegetables cooked down in the ground beef are a great way to get more vegetables into your diet.
- Use your preferred pasta. I use high-fibre whole wheat pasta, but really any variety of wheat pasta works fine. If you are using gluten-free or alternative pastas, you may want to reduce the amount of liquid, or add more, depending on the type of pasta.
- Make a dairy-free version by swapping dairy-free milk and dairy-free cheese for the whole milk and shredded cheese. Or simply make the recipe with no milk, substituting additional broth, and leave out the cheese altogether!
- Make a vegetarian version by swapping out the beef broth for vegetable broth, and vegetarian crumbles, chickpeas, or simply extra veggies instead of the meat.
- Swap the ground beef for another ground meat, such as ground turkey, ground chicken, or even ground sausage.
- Stir in some sour cream for an extra creamy pasta.
- Spice it up! Add some hot sauce or sriracha.
You can serve this pasta all on its own—it truly is a meal all in one pot! However, if you’d like to add a few side dishes, these are some great, easy options:
- Broccoli Salad: If you don’t think you like broccoli, try this recipe—I promise it will change your mind! Classic Broccoli Salad is sweet, tangy, crunchy, and fresh, with bacon and cheddar for extra yumminess.
- Creamed Corn: Sweet, Homemade Creamed Corn is a side dish that my kids devour! It’s a fresh, crisp-tender veggie option that’s always a welcome addition to the meal.
- Glazed Carrots: My simple Honey Orange Glazed Carrots are another kid-friendly side dish, made from scratch and lightly sweet.
How to Make Ahead and Freeze for Later:
This is a great recipe to double! You can then freeze half (or bring some to a neighbor or friend in need).
To freeze homemade hamburger helper, spread the cooked pasta into a foil or freezer-safe baking dish, and cover with a layer of plastic wrap and then a lid or a layer of tin foil. The plastic wrap helps prevent freezer burn (thanks Grandma, for that trick!).
To reheat frozen homemade hamburger helper, uncover the dish, remove the layer of plastic wrap, and then replace the layer of foil. Bake the dish at 350°F for about one hour, removing the foil at about the 40 minute mark, to allow the cheese to brown somewhat.
Freezing Note: If you’re planning to freeze and reheat pasta, you can slightly undercook the pasta before freezing. That way, when you reheat it, it won’t turn out mushy.
Reheating Note: if you’re moving a glass dish from the freezer to the oven, it’s a good idea to let the dish sit out at room temperature for a couple hours beforehand to warm slightly. You may not have to cook it as long.
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Easy Homemade Hamburger Helper Recipe
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- ½ medium onion diced
- 1 red bell pepper diced
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes or more, if you like it spicy!
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp Italian seasoning
- ¼ cup frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry (or 1 cup fresh, chopped fine)
- 1 ½ cup beef broth (low sodium)
- 1 ¾ cup milk
- 2 ¾ cups dry uncooked macaroni (1 375g box)
- 1 ½ cups tomato or pasta sauce
- 1 ½ cups shredded cheese
- To a large pot add beef, onion, peppers, pepper flakes, garlic, salt, Italian seasoning and spinach. Cook over medium high heat until beef is browned.
- Add in milk, broth, macaroni and tomato sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook 12-15 minutes, stirring often.
- Stir in 1 cup of cheese. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top, cover and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
- Ground Beef: feel free to swap the beef for ground chicken, pork or turkey. I use lean ground beef so there is not much fat to drain, but if you are using regular ground beef you may want to drain the fat after browning.
- Vegetables: you can swap the peppers and spinach for other vegetables you have hanging around: finely chopped mushrooms, shredded carrots or zucchini, finely chopped kale — once it all cooks down the flavor melds together and you won’t really notice!
- Broth: I use low sodium beef broth so I can control the salt. If you have regular broth you may want to reduce the added salt and adjust as needed. Vegetable and chicken broth may also be substituted.
- Milk: I use low fat milk, but any will do here! Non-dairy milk works just as well.
- Macaroni: any short pasta will work here, but they may require different cook times or amounts of liquid. If you notice the liquid is mostly absorbed but the pasta is not cooked, just add a splash here and there and continue cooking until the pasta is al dente.
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