When my kids were little, there were times when we pretty much survived on good old Kraft mac and cheese. Those little blue boxes were a life-saver on more than one occasion, because I knew mac and cheese was one of the few meals that everyone would eat. Plus it was quick and easy to make, and relatively inexpensive too. But as my kids got older and developed bigger appetites, I had to get a little creative to stretch our usual mac and cheese dinners.
My solution was to drain a can of corn or peas and mix it in with the mac and cheese right at the end. It did the trick of making our meals go further, and my kids took the change surprisingly well! In fact, my oldest started preferring it with corn, while my 2nd oldest insisted that it was best with peas. (I started compromising by adding a little of both.)
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Looking back now, I wish I would have explored that little glimmer of culinary creativity I’d had with the corn/peas idea. In fact, if I could go back and live our “mac and cheese phase” over again, I would choose to be a lot more experimental with what I would add to our mac! So if you still happen to be in your “mac and cheese phase” as a family (or maybe you just love mac and cheese!) I thought that today I’d share some quick and easy ideas for dressing up your standard mac and cheese dinner. Because age and experience have taught me that dinner can still be quick, easy, and crowd-pleasing without being boring! :-)
5 Delicious Ways To Upgrade Your Mac And Cheese
1. Start With Something You Like
Like I mentioned above, I’m no stranger to that blue box of Kraft mac and cheese. It’s easy and tastes good! There are plenty of other options for boxed mac and cheese too, like Annie’s (which also comes in organic and gluten-free options.) And if you’d rather make your mac and cheese yourself, I’ve got you covered. I’ve included an easy “gourmet” mac and cheese recipe at the end of this post, so be sure to check that out!
2. Add Some Protein
Adding meat, beans, or other protein sources into your mac and cheese will help make it a more substantial meal. If you’re adding a meat product, be sure to cook it separately before adding it in.
- Bacon bits
- Diced ham
- Canned tuna
- Crab meat
- Feta cheese
- Canned chili
- Black beans
- Pulled pork
3. Add Some Veggies
Adding veggies to your mac and cheese is a quick way to add some more nutritional value to your meal. But plain, unseasoned veggies are sure to make your mac taste a bit bland, so be sure to take that into account. You can always roast your veggies before adding them for tons of added flavor. Or you can season the veggies separately with salt, pepper, and spices, and then stir them into your mac and cheese.
- Frozen corn
- Frozen peas
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Canned pumpkin
- Spinach, kale, or other leafy greens
4. Add Something Fresh Or Flavorful
To add freshness, flavor, or even a bit of spice to your mac and cheese, try adding one of these items. Fresh herbs are sure to elevate your meal, and adding things like hot peppers or salsa can give it an added kick of heat to make things interesting!
5. Add Some Crunch
Soft noodles and creamy cheese can feel a bit boring to some people. One way to add a bit of interest is to top off your mac and cheese with something crunchy! Once your mac and cheese is finished, simply sprinkle one of these items right over the top. Throw the whole thing under your broiler for a few minutes to give it a delicious toasty finish!
- Breadcrumbs (Italian, panko, etc.)
- Slivered almonds
- Crispy noodles
- Crispy onions
- Crushed crackers
3 Examples Of Upgraded Mac And Cheese
Example #1: Southwest Mac
We added corn, salsa verde, and black beans to the macaroni and cheese, and finished it off with a layer of crunchy breadcrumbs. This was a team favorite, and everyone wanted more!
Example #2: Autumn Mac
We stirred in canned pumpkin, chopped fresh sage leaves, and a handful of slivered almonds into this batch. The flavor of this combo was a little more subtle, but we loved the way the pumpkin made the mac and cheese extra thick and creamy.
Example #3: Mediterranean Mac
We added feta cheese, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, and a big dollop of basil pesto to this batch. This was another crowd-pleaser, and I’d personally make it again in a heartbeat!
As you can see, you can create some truly delicious dishes if you’re willing to experiment a little! Give it a try, and let me know what kind of mac and cheese magic you whip up. :-) But before you go, here’s that tasty mac and cheese recipe I promised!
Easy Gourmet Mac And Cheese
Here’s a great basic mac and cheese recipe I found online, if you’re looking to go the homemade route. It’s actually quicker and easier to make than I would have thought, and it tastes creamy and delicious! Give it a try and see what you think!
- 16 oz macaroni noodles
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 dash pepper
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
Start by cooking the macaroni noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain the noodles and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Then stir in the flour, and cook for 3-5 minutes to for a roux. Add the salt, pepper, and milk slowly, and stir well after adding each ingredient.
Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture starts bubbling.
Next, stir in the cheese a small handful at a time until all of the cheese is fully melted.
Then add the drained noodles to the cheese sauce and stir well to coat. Add desired toppings or added ingredients, and serve warm.