I love pasta salads and I’m a big tuna salad fan, so this classic tuna pasta salad is something I can really enjoy. While this easy tuna macaroni salad is great for picnics and barbecues, it also great for just grabbing as a quick lunch or snack.
Tuna Pasta Salad
This tuna pasta salad is a classic recipe that’s been around for many years. The first time I tried it was at my aunt’s house when I was a child. She always had some sort of pasta salad in her fridge!
I’ve seen this same tuna macaroni salad at potlucks and barbecues over the years, and I’ve had it on this blog since 2010. I make it fairly often and keep it in the fridge to just grab and go. Pasta salads travel well in a cooler, making them great for picnics and barbecues.
RELATED: you might also like this recipe – Nana’s Macaroni Salad
Ingredients for tuna pasta salad
- Elbow macaroni – we use elbows, but you could substitute rotini or penne pasta as well.
- Tuna in water – this is just better for you. There’s no need for all the added calories that come with tuna packed in oil.
- Celery – if you like your pasta salad crunchy, you can add a second stalk.
- Red onion – you could use Vidalia onion if you don’t have red onion, but white and yellow onion might be a bit too strong.
- Frozen Peas – peas add color, flavor, and a little bit of crunch.
- Light mayonnaise – you can use full-fat mayo if you prefer, we like light mayo because there are fewer calories and fat.
- Lemon juice – this should be fresh-squeezed, not from a bottle.
- Salt and pepper – if you prefer additional seasonings go for it! But salt and pepper are all that’s really needed.
Helpful Kitchen Tools
- Large shallow mixing bowl – a shallow bowl allows you to mix and stir without things falling out the sides!
- Medium saucepan – big enough to boil almost a box of pasta.
- Cutting board – remember to use a separate cutting board for produce than you do for meats.
- Chef’s knife – a staple in every kitchen, something sharp to cut your veggies.
- Colander – for draining your pasta, be sure to rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process and remove extra starch.
- Wooden spoon – a rubber spatula works too.
- Storage container with lid – this tuna pasta salad recipe makes 9 cups, so you may need to store the extra in the fridge.
How to make tuna pasta salad
- Start by chopping the onion and celery, juicing the lemon, draining the tuna and measuring out all of your ingredients.
- Put a pot of water on to boil and cook the pasta until al dente, usually 6-7 minutes. Check the back of your macaroni box for specific times.
- When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and rinse it in cold water. This will stop the cooking process and rinse off any starchy residue.
- In a large bowl combine the drained pasta, drained tuna, onion, and celery.
- Mix everything together until well incorporated.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
- Add the dressing to the large bowl of pasta ingredients.
- Stir well to combine everything. It will look quite creamy. The pasta will soak up much of the dressing during the chill in the fridge.
- Cover the salad with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for one hour.
HINT: Don’t be tempted to taste the salad before the chill. The dressing will have a tangy lemon flavor, but this will calm down during the marination in the fridge.
Will this be creamy tuna pasta salad?
This is a creamy pasta salad when you first make it. Because it has just the right amount of dressing that soaks into the pasta, it will become less creamy with time. If you prefer a creamy tuna macaroni salad, you can increase the amount of dressing. Just keep in mind that this will also increase the calories and fat in your salad.
You might like our homemade buttermilk ranch dressing. It would be great instead of the mayonnaise-based dressing in this salad.
Tuna pasta salad variations
- Dill – you can add dill or any other fresh herb that you like. Simply stir in 2 teaspoons of dried herb or 2 tablespoons of fresh herb. Alternatively, you could use our creamy dill dressing instead of the mayonnaise dressing in this recipe.
- Eggs – Hard boiled eggs are also a great addition to tuna macaroni salad. Chop 2 hard-boiled eggs and mix them in at the end.
- Italian dressing – If you prefer an Italian dressing based salad, you can use 1 cup of bottled dressing instead of the mayo-based dressing I have here. Keep in mind that bottled dressings often have preservatives and other additives.
- Colorful additions – If you like a more colorful pasta salad, adding 1/2 cup chopped red or orange bell pepper adds color and crunch.
- Shells – You can use several types of pasta including elbow macaroni, shells, rotini, fusilli, and mostaccioli.
Is this tuna pasta salad healthy and good for you?
- There are 323 calories in this tuna pasta salad recipe. That’s a 1 cup serving, and this recipe makes 9 cups. There aren’t a ton of added ingredients and you are making the dressing from scratch with light mayonnaise, so it’s definitely better for you than using a bottled dressing or adding sugar like some dressing recipes do!
- This salad has 14 grams of protein and 32 grams of carbohydrates. We use light tuna packed in water to reduce the added calories and fat that comes with tuna packed in oil.
How long will this salad last?
You can keep this pasta salad in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
More of our favorite salad recipes
We have a lot of salad and pasta salad recipes, but here are some of our all-time favorites!
- Egg Salad with Chives – hard boiled eggs, mayonnaise, dijon mustard, pickle, chives, salt, and pepper
- Vegetable Quinoa Salad – chicken broth, quinoa, corn, cucumber, tomatoes, cheese, red onion, parsley, olive oil, vinegar, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper
- Broccoli Salad – bacon, cheese, onion, broccoli, sugar, mayonnaise, brown mustard, vinegar, dill, and pepper
- Cowboy Caviar – avocado, tomato, black-eyed peas, corn, scallions, cilantro, garlic, vinegar, canola oil, hot sauce, and pepper
- Chicken Salad with Grapes – chicken, grapes, celery, scallions, mayonnaise, ginger, and salt
- Grilled Corn & Zucchini Salad – corn, zucchini, feta cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper
- Cajun Chicken Salad – Crunchy celery, robust onion, and crisp bell peppers give this cajun chicken salad a crisp texture.
- Mom’s Potato Salad – It’s always a huge hit at parties and potlucks and I wouldn’t host a barbecue without it.
Many people like reusing pickle juice in their tuna salad too!
Tuna Pasta Salad
IMPORTANT – There are often Frequently Asked Questions within the blog post that you may find helpful. Simply scroll back up to read them!Print It Rate It
- 12 ounces uncooked macaroni 3 cups
- 10 ounces light tuna in water 2 cans, drained
- 1/3 cup celery 1 stalk, diced
- 1/2 cup red onion chopped
- 1 cup frozen peas thawed in a bowl of water
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Things You’ll Need
- Place frozen peas in a bowl of warm water to thaw. Drain when thawed.
- Cook macaroni, drain and rinse with cold water.
- Place in a large bowl.
- Add the drained tuna, celery, onion, and thawed peas.
- Toss gently to mix.
- In a small bowl whisk the mayonnaise, juice, and seasonings.
- Add to the macaroni mixture and toss with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula.
- Chill and serve.
Expert Tips & FAQs
This recipe was originally published on this blog on March 20, 2010.
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This was so good and so simple!
It will now become a regular side for summer.
Thanks so much!
Patty H says
Love how light and fresh this tastes with the lemon juice. My daughter and I couldn’t wait to eat it so I’m sure it will be even better after ‘the chill’. Unlike other recipes I’ve tried this doesn’t feel like I’m eating something too heavy. It’s delicious!
You nailed it. Easy and delicious. Also I just fill up the tuna can with mayo instead of measuring. Also large rotelli seem to hold the tuna to it better than elbows.
Very tasty, light and fresh, and so easy! Thanks! : )
I substituted some radishes from the garden which I grated, instead of the red onion. I love, but raw onion does not like me.
And threw in some fresh herbs as you suggested, parsley and dill, too.
Mom made this in the 50’s, it has been in my rep since then with small differences, I will try it with lemon next time. My tipS: open tuna and set to drain as the first step so it is fully drained by the time the pasta is cooked; tip #2 is to add the frozen peas to the boiling macaroni for the last minute, drain them both but omit the cold water rinse. I love this salad warm, I eat it as soon as the macaroni is cooked.
Kim c says
I made this today so so good thank you – the lemon added a great addition- to keep it light – I added more Mayo and spices after it set for a few hours
1/3 cup lemon was WAAYYYY too much lemon juice! Ruined the salad! Ended up adding sour cream to rescue this recipe. Wish i had stayed with how mom taught me…tablespoon of vinegar….would have saved me so much time and a trip to the grocery store!
Amanda Formaro says
Hi Theresa. I’m sorry you were unhappy with the results. I have to ask though, did you read the note in the recipe that said “Don’t be tempted to taste the salad before the chill. The dressing will have a tangy lemon flavor, but this will calm down during the marination in the fridge.”?
Donna Sweeney says
I love this recipe I’ve been making it since I made it with My Mother all of the time growing up. I just finished off the last of a batch yesterday. I also always use the long green onion as well as the Bell Peppers in this recipe. I’ve never used the Lemon juice. I’m allergic to lemons. Everything else yes, right on. & I use mayo… with salt and pepper. Gonna try the dill leaf next time.
Amanda Formaro says
I agree, it’s been one of our favorites for a long time!
Since you are allergic to lemons, I suggest that you try about 1.5 tablespoons of cider vinegar to replace the acid lost when you do not add the lemon juice. I use it in my tuna salad, and one time I forgot the cider vinegar, and the salad was so dull without any acid.
Grew up on this recipe! Good the year round but always have a container of this in the fridge to snack on in the summer. I always add a tablespoon or two of mustard (yellow, djion or your fav) to the mayonnaise. SO YUMMY
Amanda Formaro says
That sounds delicious, Caroline!
Amanda Formaro says
Yum, love the mustard idea!
We grew with one very similar, but we do not use the lemon juice, and use Miracle Whip rather than mayonnaise. We also add chopped tomatoes, green olives, cucumber, and celery seed. YUMMY
Amanda Formaro says
I now put a bit of olive oil and lemon juice in any cooked pasta and refrigerate over night before adding other ingredients. Makes a huge difference! Love this recipe, it was comfort food in my youth. Thanks!
Amanda Formaro says
Thanks for the tip Jo!
Woes will try that the next time
Thanks! Totally needed a quick “pasta/macaroni salad” recipe and found this of which I had most all of the ingredients!
I agree with Cookies & Cups above. I grew up with this salad that my Mom made since the 1950’s in PA. This was an easy meal especially for those Fridays in Lent when we didn’t eat meat. A must to add is “celery seed” in addition to the chopped celery. It gives a unique yummyness to the salad. The salad does not taste like fishy tuna. So if you want to serve the fish protein but not the taste this is a winner for all. I just put this together even in the winter. Can’t wait for it to chill.
My mother passed down a "Julia Child spaghetti" recipe to me that was a blend of pasta, canned tuna, chopped walnuts, chopped black olives, chopped parsley, chopped walnuts, and shredded gruyere. Toss with olive oil and s&p to taste. It is to this day a family favorite, and I've done it with many variations and substitutions. Yum! And pretty healthful, too… Oh yeah, forgot a bit of onion in there as well…
cookies and cups says
This type of salad used to be my favorite growing up…one of those things that my mom would make! Haven't had it in a while, so thanks for the recipe!!
Deeba PAB says
What a small place the world is, and what an amazing coincidence! I love the tuna salad as much as I love the serving platter! Beautiful!!
I have never had tuna in my pasta salad before either and I'm wondering why not? It's a great idea. Another good one Amanda!
Barbara @ Modern Comfort Food says
My Florida seaside town is all about fresh fish, and fishing is one of my favorite hobbies. But I still just LOVE canned tuna. Thanks for another delish looking tuna recipe to add to my growing list!
That looks delicious Amanda. I have never included tuna in my pasta salads, but clearly I need to try it, coz that looks amazing!
Kid Vs. Produce says
This is one of my favorite comfort foods, but I can't recall ever making it for the kids. I totally need to put this in the rotation!
Whenever we make what we call macaroni salad here I use a can of tuna and green peas (thawed frozen peas). It is the only way I really LOVE to eat this salad – but believe it or not…I do not care for Tuna on its own!