Hack your mac: 13 easy ways to make boxed mac and cheese even better

Jolene M. Bouchon
·5 min read

When you’ve got to get dinner on the table in a hurry, there’s rarely a more welcome sight than the boxed macaroni and cheese in your pantry.

Yet, it’s not always the most exciting of meals.

Never fear! There are plenty of truly easy ways to amp up this supper standby, whether you simply want to introduce more interesting flavors to your mac and cheese or turn it into a full-fledged one-pot meal instead of just a side. From the traditional elbow noodles with yellow cheese to the organic, whole-wheat variety with white cheddar, no matter which kind you choose, we promise, once you hack your mac, you’ll never go back.

bacon chipotle mac and cheese from The Recipe Rebel (The Recipe Rebel)
bacon chipotle mac and cheese from The Recipe Rebel (The Recipe Rebel)

Hack #1: Bacon + chipotle

This bacon-chipotle mac and cheese is spicy, smoky and totally savory. Simply cook the macaroni according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, crisp four slices of bacon (we like Al Roker's oven-baked method). Once the pasta is made, stir in 1/2 teaspoon of chipotles in adobo and then crumble in a generous portion of bacon.

Hack #2: Sausage + baby spinach

As your pasta is cooking, heat up precooked sausages, such as chicken-basil, until warmed, according to package directions. Drain pasta, but don’t rinse it. Add pasta back to the pot, and stir in a few handfuls of baby spinach. The residual heat from the pasta will wilt the spinach. Then add in the cheese sauce, according to package directions. Serve sausages on the side, or slice them and mix into the pasta.

Hack #3: Sriracha + ginger + green onions + panko

Make mac according to package instructions, and then mix in 1/2 to 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger and 1 tablespoon of Sriracha hot sauce, or to taste. Sprinkle with chopped green onions and panko for a delightfully crispy topping.

Hack #4: Green chiles + chicken

Liven up boxed mac with a little Southwestern flair. Prepare mac and cheese according to package directions. Drain canned green chilies, such as Hatch chili peppers, and stir in along with precooked chicken — shredded rotisserie chicken works well, so does Mexican stewed chicken, like chicken tinga.

Hack #5: Canned beans + salsa

Want another south-of-the-border take? Prepare mac and cheese according to package directions. Mix in drained and rinsed canned black beans and 1/2 cup salsa, or more, to taste. Feel free to experiment with other add-ins, like using baked beans in place of canned beans or spicy stewed canned tomatoes, such as Rotel, in place of the salsa.

Buffalo chicken mac and cheese from Top Notch Mom (Top Notch Mom)
Buffalo chicken mac and cheese from Top Notch Mom (Top Notch Mom)

Hack #6: Chicken + Buffalo sauce + panko

If you like it hot, make this mac! Cook the pasta according to package instructions, then add chopped, precooked chicken (poached breast or shredded rotisserie both work well here) and then add 1/3 cup of your favorite Buffalo wing sauce. Sprinkle panko on top for added crunch. To make it even cheesier, you can sprinkle some crumbled blue cheese on top, too.

Hack #7: Canned tuna + frozen peas + shredded cheese + breadcrumbs

Try this modified take on a classic tuna noodle casserole. This dish works well with any white cheddar mac base. Boil pasta according to package directions. Halfway through cooking, add in 1/2 cup (or more, if desired) of frozen peas. Drain pasta and peas and make sauce as directed. Mix pasta, peas and sauce, along with as much or as little drained canned tuna as you like, then put it into an oven-proof casserole dish. Sprinkle shredded cheese and breadcrumbs on top, then broil for three to five minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Hack #8: Chili + green onions

Want to make chili even better? Mix it with creamy mac and cheese! You can use any leftover homemade chili, or buy the canned variety and mix it together. Add more beans for extra protein and top with green onions for more flavor.

Hack #9: Kale + turkey

This is a true one-pot mac meal. First, prepare the mac according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, sauté chopped kale with a clove of garlic. Once mac and cheese is made, mix in the cooked greens and chopped cooked turkey.

Hack #10: Chicken + Rotel tomatoes + chile powder + cumin

What’s better than two comfort foods combined into one dish? This recipe for King Ranch mac and cheese mixes the flavors of King ranch chicken casserole with the beloved creamy pasta. Prepare the macaroni according to package instructions. When complete, add 2 cups of chopped chicken, 1/2 can (5 ounces) of Rotel tomatoes (or any canned tomatoes and chiles), 1/2 teaspoon of chile powder and 1/4 teaspoon of cumin. Mix it thoroughly and enjoy.

Hack #11: Broccoli + ham

Turn mac and cheese into a complete dinner by adding vegetables and meat. Boil pasta along with 2 cups of broccoli florets, then make the sauce according to directions. Mix together with cubes of ham or chicken.

Mac-N-Cheese Muffins (Weldon Owen / TODAY/iVillage)
Mac-N-Cheese Muffins (Weldon Owen / TODAY/iVillage)

Hack #12: Muffin tin mac and cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a mini or standard-sized muffin pan with nonstick spray. Fill each prepared muffin cup to the rim with the macaroni mixture. Sprinkle each muffin with panko breadcrumbs. Bake until the tops are golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Let them cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before serving, or else the muffins won't hold their shape.

Fried mac and cheese bites from I Heart Naptime (I Heart Naptime)
Fried mac and cheese bites from I Heart Naptime (I Heart Naptime)

Hack #13: Fried mac and cheese

If you’re lucky enough to have leftover mac and cheese, try this ingenious twist — fry it! First, form it into balls with an ice cream scoop, roll it in breadcrumbs, then deep fry. Or, simply slice into wedges and pan fry.