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Easy Hamburger Helper Substitute! Gluten-Free & Instant Pot Options

I hate when plans fail but sometimes even my best intentions to meal plan fail me. When dinner time is fast approaching and I have NOTHING to make I know I can use my Instant Pot to cook frozen hamburger and make this easy dinner possible!

bowl of homemade hamburger helper substitute

Over the years of our healthy living journey, my “I’m-not-going-to-buy-this-anymore” decisions have hit some nerves.

For example.

Hamburger Helper. I knew it was bad stuff: MSGs, trans fats, HFCS, white pasta, ETC. There’s not much in the ingredient list that grows in the soil or eats things that grow in the soil. It is not real food.

In spite of the intellectual knowledge, I had quite an emotional journey with Hamburger Helper, unfortunately:

  1. As newlyweds, we consumed Hamburger Helper almost once a week.
  2. I graduated to keeping it on hand because it was the only way I could get hubby to cook for a night.
  3. I decided it was no good for us, then was totally tempted by an “almost-free” sale — and I caused a bunch of boxes to be thrown away!
  4. I finally committed to never buying it again. We had a decent stock stored up for the occasional “boys’ nights” that my husband and son would have. Their tradition was to make HH together. TRADITION. We finally ran completely out, and let me tell you, I received some nasty glares from hubby as I offered alternate ideas for a boys’ night menu.
  5. To be continued… (at the end of the post)

Read the next section as a “Throwback Thursday” sort of thing, as it’s the way it all went down circa 2010 or so. 😉 

Keeping Food Traditions Alive

You must understand this about my husband: tradition is vital to his survival. This is the man who loves the very act of putting together a fake Christmas tree because he has fond memories of helping his dad every year as a child. He is the type who wears the same socks (or whatever!) for every sporting event as long as the team is winning. (If you change anything, you’ll cause the team to lose, you see – even if the team is on TV. Do any other husbands think they affect the world like this?)

He’s got a Labor Day weekend camping trip that’s almost 10 years running with his friends, same spot, same menu, same activities.

We had to walk across campus in the snow for every basketball game at MSU wearing only our Izzone T-shirts for 4 years, because that’s how we walked to the first game, and they were on a massive win streak. Seriously.

He and my son make Hamburger Helper when they have a boys’ night. How am I supposed to buck this system by suggesting they make spaghetti!!??

I thought I was going to be in the doghouse big-time.

I mentioned this dilemma at the Sneaky Trans Fats post, and many kind readers offered their “homemade hamburger helper” remedies. Husband was, naturally, very skeptical. More glaring. Katie shrinks into her computer chair and says a silent prayer for a miracle.

Baby Steps Towards a Healthier Dinner

Want to know what a miracle sounds like?


“Mmmmmm, this is GOOD! Really, really good!”

*sigh of relief*

Enduring all the skepticism was worth it! My husband, to his credit, really stepped up to the plate (wearing the proper socks, I am sure) and had a great attitude in front of my son about trying a “new” hamburger helper. I made it as easy as possible by actually getting out all the ingredients for him. It really wasn’t any harder than the box.

The recipe they made that night is still the same one we use today, now with more kids.

kids helping dad make homemade hamburger helper

My kids had a bunch of fun helping brown the beef and measuring the spices when they were younger. There were times I overheard him coaching Daddy on how he holds the measuring spoon and the adult pours the spice into it, and then he gets to dump it in the pan. Too cute!

He loves the fact that Dad lets him get right up to the stove and help cook, which I didn’t do often at that age because I was juggling the toddler at the same time. He’s so responsible about the hot food (and going to make a wonderful husband someday, I might add!).

Would this be healthier with real onion, some colored peppers thrown in, fresh garlic, and whole wheat pasta? Of course. Do I know how to pick my battles? One must if one is to survive in a family. It’s okay to cheat a little, especially when you’re taking a baby step away from something even more unhealthy. This is a good forward momentum move for us.

And how do I know my husband is finally on board with this? He’s ready to call the recipe his own: “I think it would be even better with bacon.”

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Dad’s Cheeseburger Helper

  • Author: Katie Kimball
  • Cook Time: 30
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: 6 servings 1x
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: American


Note: Ingredients often use affiliate links, but obviously you should shop for the best price and try to keep your dollars local when you can.


  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. onion powder or 23 tsp. minced onion
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder (or 1 clove minced garlic)
  • 1 1/4 c. tomato sauce
  • hefty squirt of mustard
  • 1 3/4 c. water
  • salt (Use the code kitchenstewardship for 15% off of your first purchase) to taste (at least 1/2 tsp?)
  • 2 1/2 c. pasta (see note below)
  • 2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese

ship kroger


  1. Brown and drain beef.
  2. Stir in pepper, onion powder, garlic, tomato sauce, and mustard.
  3. Pour in water and pasta.
  4. Bring to a boil and reduce heat;
  5. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the water is absorbed and the pasta is cooked.
  6. Turn the heat off and stir in the cheese.


We have successfully used gluten-free pasta (brown rice), and cut a 1/4 c. of water from the recipe to avoid mushiness.


  • Calories: 800
  • Sugar: 2.6g
  • Sodium: 811mg
  • Fat: 21.3g
  • Saturated Fat: 10.3g
  • Carbohydrates: 97.4
  • Fiber: 1g
  • Protein: 52.5g
  • Cholesterol: 232mg

Keywords: homemade, healthy, hamburger helper, copycat, real food

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I’m grateful that there’s an online source of incredibly high quality meat that I can always count on. A subscription from Butcher Box includes grass fed, organic, pastured, and free range = all the labels important to your family’s health! And I’ve got a special deal for you!

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Gluten-Free Hamburger Helper

Years later we have made great strides in healthier eating and my husband has even mastered other meals with our Instant Pot! Our food traditions have developed into kids cooking night (and as a busy mom it’s AMAZING!). But occasionally it’s fun to get back to our roots and have old favorites.

Now that we find ourselves eating mostly gluten-free we will have made this recipe with gluten-free noodles (using 1/4 cup less liquid then the original recipe calls for). Wanting to change it up a bit more I decided to give this recipe a try with rice in my Instant Pot and it was a HUGE success!

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Instant Pot Gluten-Free Hamburger Helper Rice

  • Author: Katie Kimball
  • Prep Time: 5
  • Cook Time: 30
  • Total Time: 35
  • Yield: 4 1x
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Instant Pot
  • Cuisine: American


The perfect alternative for Hamburger Helper lovers! This homemade favorite has all the flavors you love minus the chemicals and gluten found in the boxed version.



ship kroger


  1. Using the saute function, brown the ground beef in the Instant Pot, drain any excess grease.
  2. Add all the ingredients except the cheese to the pot.
  3. Close lid and run the rice function (low pressure for 12 mins).
  4. Quick release pressure and stir in the cheese.


  • I’m sure brown rice would work just as well, but for 20 minutes on high pressure.


  • Calories: 806
  • Sugar: 5.1g
  • Sodium: 993mg
  • Fat: 26.6g
  • Saturated Fat: 14.8g
  • Carbohydrates: 81.6g
  • Fiber: 3.1g
  • Protein: 56.6g
  • Cholesterol: 161mg

Keywords: hamburger helper, copycat, healthy, homemade, gluten free, rice, easy

I’m so excited to be revisiting this recipe and others in my Better Than A Box eBook I’ve decided to offer it for 40% off! Redeem by using the code HAMBURGERHELPER at check out. HURRY this offer expires on November 1, 2018!

Here’s a free preview of this real food style Hamburger Helper recipe in Better Than A Box

If you can’t see the preview above, click HERE to view it in a separate window or print.

The Rest of the Story…

I promised the final few steps of the story of Hamburger Helper and me to close out the post. The next step, of course, was this dish. My husband and kids could make pasta easily and with less bad stuff. And that was before I even started teaching the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse!

We later figured out that gluten-free pasta worked fine, so this recipe continued on our journey with us.

Lately, though, my husband and I are eating very few grains at all, if any, and we haven’t had pasta in a long time. That’s why we tried the version with rice, a much less processed grain, and I figured why NOT put it in the Instant Pot, another big stepping stone on our journey.

Since it worked great, this family favorite is back in rotation – and believe me, the kids are thrilled about that! Everyone loved it, and it goes fine cold into a lunchbox too (extra mustard so it doesn’t feel too dry).

I hope you enjoy reading about someone else’s healthy living journey – here at KS, we respect WHEREVER you are on the road. Just keep trying to take baby steps, educate yourself about health, and get up when you fall down! <3

Other Boxed Food Homemade Alternatives 

Want to learn more about how your pressure cooker works?

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

About The Author

35 thoughts on “Easy Hamburger Helper Substitute! Gluten-Free & Instant Pot Options”

  1. My family is obsessed with this recipe! We use GF pasts cook for 0 minutes in the instant pot with 8 min natural pressure release and it’s perfect every time! Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Absolutely delicious!!! My 3 and 5 year old ate every bite including my husband who really has a plate for all things processed but this recipe has good ingredients! We threw in in some sauted pepper and dinner was served. Will Absolutely be adding it to the family menu!

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  4. I was looking for an easy recipe for the first time using my new Instant pot, but this recipe was a flop. The rice did not cook. When we tried cooking it for an extra 5 minutes, the rice was still not cooked but the sauce was sticking to the inner pot. Wwhat a mess – ewww! Finally glopped the whole thing into a regular pot on my regular stovetop, trying to rescue a mediocre and now ver late dinner. 🙁

    1. OH my goodness, J, we had a similar experience with a mess at the bottom of the pot! Not sure how I had a good result when we were adjusting the recipe to use rice but I agree, it didn’t go well with the instructions you used. We DID get it to work again though, by adding more water. The recipe has been updated to reflect! I hope our other IP recipes go better for you! So sorry about that! 🙁 Katie

  5. someone may have mentioned this in the above 85 comments, but wholewheat pasta wont work. i made up a few Hélène’s Helpers a couple decades ago and it gums up the dish. same for brown rice, which takes too long to cook in this dish.
    solution…cook starch separately and add at end to heat thru 🙂
    Or throw in leftover pasta from the fridge as another person suggested. I would some extra pasta on purpose, myself…

  6. fyi, wholewheat pasta wont work. i made up a few Hélène’s Helpers a couple decades ago and it gums up the dish. same for brown rice, which takes too long to cook in this dish.
    solution…cook starch separately and add at end to heat thru 🙂
    Or throw in leftover pasta from the fridge as another person suggested.

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  8. I know this is 6 years late but I am wondering if you ever figured out the HH enchilada recipe and if so where can I find it? I used to make it often before I knew how to cook and though I wouldn’t dream of buying another box of it I still crave the enchilada kind every so often. TIA 🙂

  9. I just found your site and am overwhelmed by all the wonderful ideas! No little ones in my house, but there’s a hungry husband and when college grad daughter and friends are here, they can eat a lot, and I want the to eat real food.

    Plus, I’m in law enforcement which makes for some really odd hours. You’ve given me some wonderful ideas Thanks!

  10. Thanks for posting this. I’ve also got one of those suspicious husbands who was raised by the Queen of Crummy Convenience Crap, so it has been a LONG (30-year) uphill battle at times. Also complicating matters is my switch to a primal-type diet (no grains or legumes unless soaked or sprouted, full-fat, restricted natural sugars only, etc…), so I plan to try making this with reduced liquids for the meat sauce, and serve it over spaghetti squash for me, cooked pasta for him. I think this recipe might adapt as a nice base for a quickie-meal with odds and ends of sauteed stuff out of the veg bin in my ‘fridge. (And yes, “pop” is indeed the correct term. Been battling dh on both the word and the need to get rid of it in our house as well since 1985.)

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  12. I’ve made this several times now, and have to share that my husband AND both of my kids love it! (Pretty rare for a one-pot meal that isn’t macaroni & cheese…)

    And I love that it’s as easy as my long-gone Hamburger Helper. 🙂

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  16. Katie, Thank you so much for this post. I am farely new to this, and I think I was a little delusional that all hubby’s were 100% on board.. discouraging because I have recieved numerous raised eyebrows the last couple months. Thank you for being real about it. I had tears come to my eyes… not even kidding. I am encourged and excited. Baby steps

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  18. This recipe was just what I was looking for, thank you! My husband is vegetarian (pescetarian, really – meaning that he eats fish and some other seafood) and he’s constantly buying tofu and other meatless products for me to try to use in my cooking. This time I tried a meatless ground beef-like product (sold at Trader Joe’s) and he LOVED this dinner! I still eat meat (much less than before but I still love it) and I couldn’t even tell the difference. Thanks again!

  19. Thank you for this post. I am way into whole food and clean eating. This is a huge pet peeve for me, that people buy the boxed Hamburger Helper. I have friends that I consider good cooks, but they go nuts for HH. If you have a stocked pantry with seasonings, pasta or whatever you want, HH-type meals are extremely easy to make. You can make better and more imaginative recipes. These meals are great to use leftover pasta, rice etc. You can even gather the uncooked pasta etc leftover from other meals and put them in a canister to use for these types of meals. Expectations that you can add your own veggies to it should be part of the equation. It is easy to even hide veggies in your homemade meal as you can grind up carrots etc. in your processor and add it in the meat mixture.

  20. I made this earlier in the week and we just finished off the last of it. Definitely a keeper!

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  23. Thanks for saving supper tonight, Katie! I didn’t feel good, nothing sounded good, and it was 5:20. By 6, i had a gf dinner (brown rice penne) on the table and bellies are full. I used spaghetti sauce instead of tomato and ended up not crazy about the squirt of mustard so i tempered it with some molasses. I wonder how a dollop of sour cream would’ve done instead of the mustard. 🙂

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