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Creamy Macaroni Salad with Peas

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Loaded with colorful veggies and a creamy dressing, Macaroni Salad with Peas is a quick and easy make-ahead side dish that’s perfect for your Easter meal, backyard cookouts, or potluck dinners.

Toss together tender pasta and sweet baby peas with diced onion, red bell pepper, and plenty of sharp cheddar cheese. Mix it all up with a creamy Parmesan dressing and garnish with fresh thyme to create what I think is the best ever macaroni salad.

macaroni salad with peas in a white bowl on a white countertop with a green napkin.

Why you’ll love this salad recipe

  • Great make-ahead dish — make it up to two days before you need it
  • Easy to transport — pack a bowl of Macaroni Salad and Peas in your cooler for a delicious picnic side
  • Simple — if you can boil water, you can master this recipe!
  • Lovely texture — chewy noodles, soft peas, crunchy veggies, and creamy dressing combined in every delicious bite!

Behind the recipe

Macaroni Salad with Peas is a classic Southern recipe some think was originally modeled after potato salad. Instead of mixing potatoes and fixings with mayo, one genius cook had the idea to try the recipe with pasta instead.

Obviously, it was a hit! Macaroni Salad with Peas has been gracing church potluck dinner tables ever since.

The classic macaroni salad my Mom used to whip up in our kitchen was tossed with a sweetened mayonnaise dressing. Although it was delicious, my preference is something a bit more savory.

For today’s cold macaroni salad, I added minced garlic, white wine vinegar and Parmesan cheese to the mayonnaise to make a tangy dressing that compliments the sweetness of the green peas in the salad.

ingredients for macaroni salad with peas on a table.

Ingredients

  • pasta — Although it’s technically called macaroni salad, any shorter firm pasta like macaroni, rotini, or even ditalini pasta works. I had extra rotini noodles in the pantry, so that’s what I used.
  • frozen baby peas — If you can find them, baby peas are preferred over the larger frozen peas.
  • ham — This is a great recipe for leftover Easter ham or you can use deli ham, too.
  • red onion — be sure to see my tip below for toning down strong onions
  • red bell pepper — I like to add red bell pepper for the sweet flavor and the color it adds to the dish. You can use any color bell pepper, or leave it out completely.
  • fresh thyme leaves — for garnishing and a little freshness!
  • sharp cheddar cheese — I like to use New York cheddar and dice it into small cubes. You can always use shredded sharp cheddar cheese.
  • mayonnaise — the base of the dressing. If you don’t like mayo, substitute Greek yogurt or sour cream instead.
  • white wine vinegar — adds acidity to the dressing (hint: you may substitute lemon juice in a pinch)
  • Parmesan cheese — in the dressing, but if you like sprinkle some on top of the salad when serving as well.
  • garlic — adds flavor to the dressing
rotini macaroni pasta with peas in a glass bowl on a table.

The secret to creamy macaroni salad with ham and cheese

The biggest problem you can have when making any type of macaroni or summer pasta salad is that the pasta soaks up all the dressing and the salad gets too dry. Here are 3 steps to help prevent that from happening:

  1. Drain the cooked pasta in a colander and rinse under a stream of cool running water to stop the cooking.
  2. Toss the drained pasta with a tablespoon of olive oil to give it a little barrier from absorbing too much dressing.
  3. Last, chill the pasta and other ingredients before tossing with the dressing.
rotini macaroni pasta with sharp cheddar cheese in a glass bowl on a table.

Instructions

  1. Cook the macaroni or rotini pasta per the package directions. During the last minute of cooking, add the frozen peas.
  2. Drain the pasta and rinse under cool water, then drain well and place in a large bowl. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and toss to coat.
  3. To the bowl, add the diced ham cheddar cheese, red onion, and bell pepper. Toss gently with a rubber spatula to combine. For best results chill the ingredients and pasta before adding the dressing.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and minced garlic. If the dressing seems too thick, you may add a bit more vinegar or milk to thin it out slightly.
  5. Pour the dressing over the pasta and stir until well coated. Garnish with fresh thyme leaves and more Parmesan cheese, if desired.
stirring dressing into macaroni salad with peas in a glass bowl.

What goes with macaroni salad with peas and ham?

FAQs

Can you freeze macaroni salad?

Technically, you can freeze macaroni salad, but after thawing the taste and texture may be altered. My recommendation is to just make it fresh!

How long does macaroni salad last?

Macaroni salad (without eggs) may be stored in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days.

Why is my macaroni salad dry?

Pasta is made of starch which will absorb some of the cooking water as well as the dressing you toss it in. The pasta may have been undercooked or too warm when you added the dressing.

How do you moisten macaroni salad?

If your leftover macaroni salad does get too dry, you can stir in a little milk or add more mayo until it is creamy again.

macaroni salad with peas in a white bowl on a white countertop with a green napkin.

tips

  • I recommend sharp cheddar over mild for the best flavor in this salad.
  • Dice or shred cheese from a block. Pre-shredded cheese has potato starch and other additives, plus a block of cheese is actually more economical.
  • Give the salad a quick stir before serving.

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Yield: 8 servings

Classic Macaroni Salad with Peas

macaroni salad with peas in a white bowl on a white countertop with a green napkin.

Loaded with colorful veggies and a creamy dressing, Macaroni Salad with Peas is a quick and easy make-ahead side dish.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 11 minutes
Additional Time 30 minutes
Total Time 56 minutes

Ingredients

  • 8 oz. rotini or macaroni pasta
  • 1 cup frozen baby peas
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup diced deli ham
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, diced (4 oz.)
  • 1/4 cup red onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Dressing

  • 2/3 cup low-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Bring 4 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a large pasta pot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook per the package directions, until al dente. During the last minute of cooking, add the frozen peas.
  2. Drain the pasta and rinse under cool water to stop the cooking and cool off the pasta. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and toss to coat.
  3. To the bowl, add the diced ham cheddar cheese, red onion, and bell pepper. Toss gently with a rubber spatula to combine. (Note: After this step, it is best to refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until completely chilled, before adding the dressing.)
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and minced garlic. If the dressing seems too thick, you may add a bit more vinegar or milk to thin it out slightly.
  5. Pour the dressing over the salad ingredients and stir until well coated. Garnish the top with fresh thyme leaves and more Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Notes

  • Macaroni salad may be made up to 2 days in advance. Stir before serving.
  • Although it is perfectly fine to freeze macaroni salad, it is not recommended as the texture and taste may be altered once thawed..


Tips for preventing dry macaroni salad:

  1. Drain the cooked pasta in a colander and rinse under a stream of cool running water to stop the cooking.
  2. Toss the drained pasta with a tablespoon of olive oil to give it a little barrier from absorbing too much dressing.
  3. Last, chill the pasta and other ingredients before tossing with the dressing.

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Nutrition Information:

Yield:

8

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 254Total Fat: 13gSaturated Fat: 4gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 7gCholesterol: 32mgSodium: 942mgCarbohydrates: 21gFiber: 2gSugar: 3gProtein: 13g

Did you make this recipe?

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sheila thigpen in her kitchen

Sheila @ Life, Love & Good Food

Recipe Developer, Food Photographer, Home Cook, Wife, Mom, Nana

Sheila Thigpen is the publisher of Life, Love, and Good Food — a Southern food blog — and the author of Easy Chicken Cookbook and The 5-Ingredient Fresh and Easy Cookbook. After 20+ years in the publishing industry, she retired in 2018 to focus on her own creative endeavors full time. She and her husband live near the beautiful Smoky Mountains and have a precious little granddaughter who has stolen their hearts. As an influencer, Sheila has collaborated with brands like Kroger, HERSHEY’S, Hamilton Beach, Garafalo Pasta, OXO, Smithfield, Valley Fig Growers, and more.

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