15 Easy Ways to Upgrade Boxed Mac & Cheese for Last-Minute Dinners

Just when you thought mac & cheese couldn't get any better...

July 16, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Let me get one thing straight: I have loved boxed macaroni and cheese for as long as I can remember. From the bright orange Kraft mac and cheese dinners my dad "cooked" when my mom was out of town, to the countless microwaveable single-serve Easy Mac cups I consumed in college, and fancied-up shells and white cheddar from Annie's that now fill my pantry, this gloriously convenient invention has always been a part of my life.

And while you can often catch me whipping up a batch of the stuff in its purest form (including last night, when I had zero desire to prepare a full dinner), there are times when I like to experiment with different combinations of ingredients. Some are based off my cravings (spicy, bright and herby, or totally carbo-loaded), and other times they're based off whatever leftovers are in my fridge. Sure, adding extra ingredients can take away a bit of the simplicity, but incorporating them is easy and rarely takes more than a few minutes—in fact, you can usually finish the prep while the pasta water boils. Most importantly, they pay off big time in terms of flavor.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to upgrade boxed mac and cheese in three ingredients or fewer:

1. Broccoli + Shredded Chicken

This combination's got comfort food written all over it, and it couldn't be simpler to whip up, especially if you've got some leftover roast chicken from the night before. Simply steam or sauté broccoli florets while the noodles boil—or better yet, let that pot of water do double duty and toss the broccoli in there. After draining the noodles and mixing in the cheese, stir in the broccoli and shredded chicken (both yellow and white cheddar work well here) until everything is nice and warm.

2. Bacon + Peas + Egg

Take a cue from the Italian-Roman classic spaghetti alla carbonara. The method is simple: Cut bacon into one-inch pieces and fry it up until crispy while the water boils. Next, crack two eggs into a bowl and stir in the powdered cheese mixture with a fork. Once the noodles are ready, stir in the egg-cheese mixture (along with a splash of milk or pasta water, depending on the instructions) until combined. Toss in the bacon and peas (I use frozen; no need to cook them separately, they'll easily heat up in the warm cheese) and there you have it, a fuss-free proto-carbonara ready in mere minutes.

3. Garlic + Pickled Jalapeños

For those of you who love punched-up flavors and a bit of heat, this is a combination you need to try. Fry up a a few cloves-worth of minced garlic until golden brown (or if you don't want to dirty an extra pan, use garlic powder) and mix that into the macaroni (I like the yellow cheddar varieties for this one), along with pickled jalapeños, coarsely chopped.

4. Mushrooms + Thyme + Grated Gruyère

For a comfy weekend vibe, I drew some inspiration from this dreamy baked eggs recipe. Sauté sliced mushrooms (any kind you like!) in a pan with a knob of butter and fresh thyme, chopped. Once the instant mac is ready to go (try this one with the white cheddar varieties), mix in the sautéed mushrooms and grated Gruyère. Or, if you're feeling extra cozy, transfer the mac and cheese to a casserole dish, sprinkle the Gruyère on top, and toss the whole thing under the broiler for a few minutes to create a bubbly, browned crust.

5. Pesto + Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Stuck with a tablespoon or two of bright, basil-y pesto? The yummiest solution is to mix it into your pot of mac and cheese. Then, for a bit of sweet, umami-packed flavor, add chopped sun-dried tomatoes in there, too. Sprinkle the end result with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan for a perfect finishing touch.

6. Kimchi + Bacon + Chopped Scallions

We have to thank cook and food writer Caroline Choe for introducing us to this sublime, Korean-inspired combination. Ever since she dreamed up her recipe for Kimchi Macaroni & Cheese, her family, friends, and co-workers haven't been able to get enough of it—and there's no reason it can't work for boxed mac and cheeses (particularly the yellow cheddar types). The key is to sauté the kimchi to cut down the acidity before mixing it into the cheesy macaroni, along with crispy bacon bits, and garnishing with chopped scallions.

7. Cherry Tomatoes + Basil + Mozzarella

Sure, you've heard of the traditional caprese salad, along with its cousins, the caprese grilled cheese and a grilled panzanella twist. But have you ever thought to work those ingredients into your instant macaroni and cheese? Maybe not—but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Simply mix in halved cherry tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, and chunks of melty mozzarella for a light, bright upgrade.

8. Spicy Italian Sausage + Onions + Marinara

One of my go-to pasta recipes is as straightforward as it is satisfying. First, sautée diced onions, then add broken-up spicy Italian sausage to the pan. Once everything is cooked through, incorporate a cup or two of my favorite canned marina sauce (it's Rao's). That, plus a little bit of penne pasta, is a weeknight no-brainer, but I think it might be even better mixed into the sharp cheddar of instant macaroni and cheese.

9. Chicken Nuggets + Buffalo Sauce

Although I may not be a personal fan of Buffalo sauce (I know, I know, you don't understand how or why), I have a few friends that would actually drink the stuff. My best friend's favorite way to consume this spicy, tangy stuff is a Buffalo chicken sandwich—aka, breaded chicken slathered in Buffalo sauce and stuffed in a hoagie. If that sounds delicious, you'll definitely want to try mixing in crispy chicken nuggets (just heat up the frozen kind in the oven or microwave) and a few dashes of Buffalo sauce into your sharp cheddar boxed mac and cheese.

10. Ground Beef + Kidney Beans + Chili Powder

Nothing hits the spot quite like a steaming-hot pot of chili on a football game day or chilly winter night—that is, except for chili drowning in a bowl of cheddar cheese and noodles. For this combination, it's easiest to crack open a can of pre-made chili (I love Trader Joe's turkey chili) and mix it right into your favorite sharp cheddar-flavored instant mac. But if you don't have one in your pantry, mixing in a few ingredients—cooked ground beef, drained kidney beans, and a few dashes of chili powder—will yield a similar result. Top it off with a dollop of sour cream and chopped green chilis for a bit of extra punch.

11. marinated Artichokes + Roasted Garlic + Sautéed Spinach

Spinach and artichoke dip is "Old Reliable" at any party I host (or attend)—it's never the first thing that comes to my mind to make, but if it's there, I can count on there never being any leftovers. Here's how to bring the party vibes to your grilled cheese: Drain and chop a handful marinated artichokes, sauté a small heap of baby spinach with minced garlic and olive oil, and add 'em both in to your cooked mac.

12. Miso + Mushrooms

Sharp cheese? Umami. Miso? Umami. Mushrooms? Umami. Put 'em all together and guess what you get? A whole lot of nutty-cheesy-earthy-creamy...umami. I was inspired by this miso-mushroom wonder from recipe developer, Yi Jun Loh. When you have a bit more time to make his miso cream sauce, I urge you to do so.

13. Peppadews + Mayo + Hot Sauce

What can't pimento cheese improve? ... I'll take that silence as my answer. Chop up jarred peppadews, pimentos, or even roasted red bell peppers, then add them to your cooked mac and cheese with a swirl of mayo and a few dashes of hot sauce. Top with crushed Ritz crackers for bonus points—you absolutely won't regret it.

14. Lemon zest + Parsley + Buttery Bread Crumbs

Sizzle some bread crumbs (panko or regular, whatever you've got on hand) in a big knob of salted butter, add some zested lemon to the pan and let it toast for a second, then finish with some parsley. Tumble it all on prepped mac and cheese and dig in.

15. Olives and/or Anchovies + Cherry Tomatoes + Parsley

Puttanesca is one of our favorite pastas, fully of briny olives and anchovies, sweet tomatoes, and herbs. While puttanesca doesn't traditionally include cheese (even on top!), I'm all about experimenting. Just tear up some olives (green, black, or both), slice some cherry tomatoes, and chop up some parsley to sprinkle on top, and mix it into your mac. Also feel free to throw in some capers (drained water or vinegar-packed, or rinsed and drained salt-brined) if you have 'em on hand.

What's your favorite way to upgrade boxed macaroni and cheese? Tell us in the comments below!
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Monica B. May 25, 2023
I grew up with sliced hardboiled eggs in my mac n cheese. The yolks swirled with the cheese to make it richer and the whites added additional texture . The best. My mom also did sliced hotdog, another tasty version. Also she would add additional shredded cheese and bake it with breadcrumbs into a macaroni cake that we could slice.
Phyllis January 24, 2023
Easiest and of Annie's, can of tuna, handful of frozen peas, big spoonful of sour cream. Movie night o the couch dinner!
Lynn December 31, 2020
We call it MAC SUPREME, caramelized onions, some ground beef or sausage, fennel seeds or caraway seed, a touch of garlic, some rosemary and lots of freshly ground pepper and some of whatever cheese is in the fridge. Heaven!! Always can manage to make a pot, great for when you feel like the flu is coming on and you just want to nest and rest. A large pot - 2 or three boxes- will nurse you through ( at least) the first 24 hours.
Happy New Year, lets put the lid firmly on this 2020 crap year and kick it to the curb.
We are done here!
Sue S. September 27, 2019
I use the "deluxe version" with gooey cheese rather than powdered, add HANDFULS of cheddar and whatever other cheese I happen to have, toss in a large chunk of cream cheese, half a cup of sour cream, stir until blended, then cram it all into a casserole dish, top with buttered crackers crumbs, and bake for 20 minutes at 375. The only way to make it richer or more decadent would require caviar, lobster, and gold leaf. :D
C. N. September 13, 2018
Definitely mix in a can of tuna and sometimes chopped tomatoes on top
Lauren September 10, 2018
My boyfriend loves when I add crispy little cubes of browned pancetta to white cheddar shells (like Annie’s, but I use King Arthur’s powdered cheese for the same effect).
Lynn September 9, 2018
Make macaroni and cheese following package directions, then add browned ground beef and onions, then 8 ounces tomato sauce.
Cindi T. September 9, 2018
I have never thought of most of these ideas, so thanks for that. I, too, guiltily live boxed mac and cheese. My favorite add-in is a can of tuna, some relish, and a scoop of mayo. I'm going to head home and make some right now.
John W. September 9, 2018
I substitute sour cream for the milk when making Mac n cheese from a box. Yum! I like to top it off with freshly ground black pepper, red chili flakes, and a drizzle of olive oil (truffle or smoked). OR just mix in some chipotle in adobo sauce.
Erin A. September 12, 2018
Subbing in sour cream is such a greta idea! Also, truffled olive oil? LOVE.
Noreen F. September 30, 2019
I rarely have sour cream in my fridge, but I always have plain yogurt for smoothies, and that works just as well as sour cream.
Kate R. September 9, 2018
I love to shred some baby brussel sprouts on the mandolin, Toss the tangled mess in a Tupperware with olive oil, garlic and S and P. Lay them out all nice and scattered on a sheet pan and blast them in a scorching oven till they are super crisp and yes...some are charred. Now if you top your mac and cheese with that gorgeous goodness, you will never go back to breadcrumbs again!
Erin A. September 10, 2018
Oh my goodness, that's such a good idea Kate! Crispy Brussels are my absolute favorite.
Kate R. September 10, 2018
I am the President of that fan club! I put them on pizza with lemon slices and smoked spaghetti cacio e pepe with them...mashed potatoes are ready to propose to them when they share a plate...they even make a SERIOUS vegetarian burrito with cojita cheese, salsa verde, pickled onions and cheddar, cause you can never have enough cheese😜
Doug L. September 8, 2018
i like to mix in cooked ground sausage, chipotle powder and some finely diced bread and butter pickles and some grated gruyere and top it with homemade buttery croutons and a light sprinkle of black pepper.
fitzie September 6, 2018
My daughter thought she was an abused child if we didn't have Kraft dinner with frozen peas and tuna once a week.
Erin A. September 10, 2018
I totally resonate with that, fitzie.
Cory B. September 6, 2018
Leftover roasted butternut squash, baby kale, brown butter + nutmeg (maybe some gruyere in that one too)

Breadcrumbs + oven crisped prosciutto (so it's a little crunchy) + chopped herbs

Or you could go with the classic "makes boxed mac & cheese 10x better" move: A LOT of sriracha (I'm just being honest!)
Erin A. September 6, 2018
Yes to all of these!! Especially the Sriracha :)
Elizabeths July 22, 2019
I substitute the butter for bacon fat.It adds the most wonderful Smokey flavor! I just pour the grease from the pan into a jar after I make bacon, and then store it on the countertop. You can use it in popcorn as well as a substitute for butter,if you have a stove top popcorn maker. It tastes really good in a lot of things substituted for butter and if you put just a little bit in the bottom of your pan when making eggs it’s amazing!
Eric K. September 5, 2018
These ideas are so great! I'm feeling major #4 vibes right now. 🍂
Noreen F. September 5, 2018
In college I lived on boxed mac and cheese mixed with canned tuna and peas. It's still comfort food to me!
Cindy L. September 5, 2018
Peas go with everything
Erin A. September 5, 2018
Same here, Noreen!
Cindy L. September 5, 2018
I'm thinking of adding ground pork. What kind of flavourings would you suggest? Maybe bbq sauce?
Erin A. September 5, 2018
Ohhh, bbq sauce sounds delicious! You could even throw some mixed bell peppers, fire-roasted tomatoes, or hot sauce in there too.
Cindy L. September 5, 2018
Doug L. September 8, 2018
ground pork would be good with some Szechuan chili oil and/or scallion oil and fried shallots.