Chicken Pesto Pasta Salad with Whole Food Ingredients

Nothing says fresh quite like the vibrant flavors in this easy pasta salad.It’s my go-to meal prep option when the weather gets warm. I love that it’s full of chicken, pasta, fresh veggies, cheese, and pesto, so I’m getting both flavor and nutrition. And I especially love to bring it to summer BBQs and potlucks and for my homemade packed lunches.

I Like to serve it as a main dish most of the time

Not only is this protein and veggie-packed salad flavorful, but it’s also easy to make. True, it could be served as a side salad, but it’s truly a main dish, with enough protein, carbs, healthy fats, and fiber to fuel you through the day. It also works well as a side dish.

For this reason, I love to make a big batch to keep on hand for quick, easy meals that my whole family will eat. It’s truly a game-changer when life gets busy and I love that my kids clean their plates when I make it even though they don’t love vegetables.

Close up view plate full of chicken pesto pasta salad

Recipe Highlights

This chicken pesto pasta salad is a recipe I make on repeat when the weather gets warm. Here are a few reasons why:

  • With minimal prep time and just 12 minutes of cooking time, the entire dish comes together in just about 30 minutes, meaning I can get in and out of the kitchen fast. 
  • It calls for simple ingredients, including store-bought pesto sauce
  • It tastes great served warm or cold, so it comes in handy on my busiest of days. 
  • I can easily mix and match the ingredients to satisfy different preferences and use up any extra protein or veggies I have on hand. 
  • Leftovers store well so I can prepare a big batch once and enjoy it for days. 
  • It features seasonal ingredients, making it budget-friendly and nutritious.
All ingredients for chicken pesto pasta salad in separate bowls arranged together in a cluster

What You’ll Need

  • Diced cooked chicken – use leftover grilled chicken, shredded chicken, chicken breasts, precooked chicken breasts strips, or  rotisserie chicken. 
  • Cavatappi pasta – any small to medium-sized pasta shapes such as penne, rotini, or bow-tie pasta will work. Use gluten-free pasta, if needed. 
  • Fresh mozzarella – I use ciliengine or mozzarella pearls. However, you can also use a large ball of fresh mozzarella and cut it into bite-sized pieces
  • Persian or mini cucumbers – may sub English cucumbers
  • Grape or heirloom cherry tomatoes
  • Red onion
  • Pesto – I use this homemade basil pesto, but any store-bought pesto will taste great
  • Parmesan cheese – for the best taste and texture, buy a block of parmesan and grate it yourself.
All ingredients for pesto pasta salad in a stone mixing bowl, two spoons tossing ingredients together

Ingredient Highlight: Homemade Pesto

While you can use store-bought pesto sauce for this recipe, I much prefer using our homemade pesto. Unlike many pre-made options, our pesto recipe is:

  • Light, flavorful, and easy to customize
  • Full of healthy fats
  • Uses walnuts instead of pine nuts
  • Dairy-free, Paleo, and Whole30-friendly
  • Great to prepare ahead of time and easy to use with a variety of recipes like basil pesto chicken.

Homemade Pesto Recipe

How To Make It

  1. Combine the cooked chicken and pasta in a large bowl. 
  2. Add the remaining ingredients, and mix gently to combine. 
  3. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and additional parmesan, if desired. 
  4. Serve immediately, or transfer the chicken pesto pasta salad to the fridge to cool. 

Tip!

For the Best Texture

Be careful to cook the pasta just to al dente according to the package instructions. Then, immediately rinse it with cold water to stop the cooking process. Otherwise, the pasta is likely to become mushy.

Close up view pesto pasta salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh basil and Parmesan cheese

Change It Up

Here are some ways I like to customize this recipe:

  • Swap the chicken with tuna or shrimp 
  • Add in spinach or baby arugula for extra greens 
  • Combine the pesto sauce with heavy cream or cream cheese to create a creamy chicken pesto pasta salad recipe  
  • Include sun-dried tomatoes
  • Replace the mozzarella and Parmesan with crumbled feta

Make It Dairy-Free

Omit the cheese and use dairy-free pesto to keep this pasta salad dairy-free.

Make It Gluten-Free

Use your favorite gluten-free pasta, cooking it just until al dente. Some of our favorites that we’ve tested in this salad are garbanzo-based cavatappi, gluten-free rotini, and the brown rice and quinoa fusilli from Trader Joe’s. 

Overhead view glass meal prep container filled with a serving of pesto pasta salad

How To Store

Store any leftover pasta salad in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Give the mixture a good stir to redistribute the ingredients before serving. The pesto may darken a bit but it’s still safe to eat and plenty delicious.

The Perfect Side Or Main Dish

This pasta salad pairs well with a variety of main dishes such as grilled flank steak, grilled salmon kabobs, and grilled bacon burgers if you want to add a bit more protein to the meal.
However, it’s also great to serve as a complete meal on its own. If you’re looking for ways to bulk up the meal, try pairing it with sides like cornbread muffins and fruit salad.

Overhead view stone bowl filled with chicken pesto pasta salad

Recipe

Chicken Pesto Pasta Salad Recipe

A light, bright and flavorful twist on pasta salad. Studded with tender bites of chicken and a host of fresh veggies, this salad is great for make-ahead lunches or a light dinner.

Prep: 20 minutesCook: 12 minutesTotal: 32 minutes

Servings: 11 cups – 8 (1 ¾ cup) servings 1x


Instructions

  1. Combine cooked and cooled pasta and chicken in a large mixing bowl. 
  2. Add mozzarella cheese pearls, cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, pesto, and Parmesan cheese. Mix gently to combine. 
  3. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and additional Parmesan, if desired.
  4. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

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Notes

For gluten-free, we’ve tested and like these brands of pasta when served cold: Banza, Barilla Gluten-Free, and Trader Joe’s Brown Rice & Quinoa Fusilli.

Nutrition Information

  • Serving Size: 1 3/4 cup
  • Calories: 340
  • Fat: 17 g
  • (Sat Fat: 6 g)
  • Sodium: 350 mg
  • Carbohydrate: 22 g
  • (Fiber: 2 g
  • Sugar: 2 g)
  • Protein: 24 g
  • Cholesterol: 65 mg

Dietary

© The Real Food Dietitians

The photos in this blog post were taken by Rachel Cook of Half Acre House.

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