Introduction: Dressing Up Boxed Macaroni and Cheese (in 20 Minutes or Less!)

Macaroni and cheese is delicious, and making it from one of those boxed mixes is cheap and easy. But you can add a lot of flavor and nutrition with some simple additions. This instructable shows you how to do that and offers some suggestions on add-ins you can try. I also offer some tips and shortcuts to make the cooking process faster and easier.

Let's get cooking!

Step 1: Choosing Ingredients

As with any recipe, the first thing you need to do is choose and gather your ingredients. To make the base mac and cheese you will need:

  • A box of mac and cheese mix (contains noodles and cheese sauce powder). Any brand will work, from the high-end version to the cheap store brand. If you add enough stuff, you can hardly taste the original flavor anyway.
  • Milk (consult package directions for recommended amount, though you may decide to add more or less)
  • Butter (also consult package directions)
  • Water (to boil the noodles)

Now the fun part: the add-ins. Anything beyond the basic ingredients is whatever you think tastes good. Some ideas that tend to work well are extra cheese (of course), vegetables, and some form of protein. I like all three at once to help round out the meal. The amounts for any of these are pretty much "to taste," so add as much as you think looks good. Some more detailed suggestions are:

Cheeses: Pick your favorite, grate it up and toss it in. Grating or chopping the cheese into small pieces first ensures that it will melt fast, allowing you to eat it sooner. I find hard or semi-hard cheeses work best, since very soft cheeses (like mozzarella) tend to stick to themselves more than the noodles, turning the whole thing into a gloppy mess. Some cheeses to try are:

  • Cheddar (any kind)
  • Parmesan
  • Swiss
  • Monterey jack
  • Asiago
  • Your favorite shredded cheese mix
  • Cream cheese (it's obviously not a hard cheese, but doesn't get sticky like some soft cheeses and is really good for making the sauce creamier without watering it down)

Vegetables: Whatever you pick, cut it up small so it cooks faster and mixes in with the small noodles better. Frozen or canned veggies will likely be precooked and diced for you, so you just need to toss it in and heat it. With canned veggies, drain them first. Some suggestions:

  • Mixed vegetables
  • Peas
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Lima beans
  • Asparagus

Proteins: This is a great way to use up leftover meats of almost any kind. The fact that they're precooked saves time, so you just need to chop and heat. Canned proteins also work. A few options:

  • Canned tuna (any kind, drained)
  • Ham
  • Sausage
  • Ground beef (either cooked and crumbled by itself, or formed into anything else, like meatballs, hamburgers, or meatloaf)
  • Chicken
  • Turkey (Thanksgiving leftovers?)
  • Shrimp
  • Crab
  • Tofu
  • Bacon, fried and crumbled (takes some extra time to cook, but everything's better with bacon!)

All of the above are just suggestions; feel free to try something else and see how it works. My favorite combination is cheddar, canned tuna, and frozen peas.

Step 2: Gathering and Preparing Ingredients

For this instructable I'll be making 2 versions. The first will add fresh broccoli, leftover meatloaf and a pre-shredded cheese mix. The second will used canned tuna, frozen mixed vegetables, cheddar, and cream cheese.

Start by gathering all your ingredients. If you have any ingredients that need to be chopped up, start by chopping them. Anything that's very soft, like the meatloaf here, can probably be done while the pasta is cooking. But the pasta cooks very quickly, so anything that takes more than a minute or so to chop up is best done beforehand.

If you have cheese that needs grating or chopping, now's the time to do that as well.

Step 3: Cooking the Pasta and Vegetables

Now we start cooking the pasta. The package ingredients say to boil the water and then add the noodles, but you can save time but putting the noodles in the cold water and then putting it on the heat. The higher you have the heat, the faster it will come to a boil. You can also put on a lid to help it boil faster, but I decided not to do that for this demonstration.

Either way, a minute or two after you put the noodles in the water, you'll want to stir them to keep them from sticking. See the picture where the water looks so cloudy you can't see the noodles unless I stir them up? That's caused by the starch in the noodles. If you don't stir them, the starch makes the noodles stick together. If you do stir them, the starch is basically washed off the noodles and makes the water cloudy, but the noodles stay loose. This is one reason the package suggests adding the noodles to boiling water: the boiling water tumbles around so much that it stirs the noodles on its own and helps keep them from sticking. Either way, it's best to stir it again every couple minutes, or they may start to stick again. If you're using a lid, you can leave it off the pot once the water boils.

If you're using fresh veggies, add them when the water comes to a boil so they have time to cook. At this time you'll also want to turn the heat down to medium-low, otherwise it may boil over. The starch also makes bubbles stay together longer, so it can quickly turn into a thick froth if you keep the heat up. Turning the heat down makes bubbles form slower, so it still cooks but won't boil over.

Once the noodles are soft and the veggies are cooked, drain the whole pot in a colander. Leave that aside for now while you heat the protein.

Step 4: Heating the Protein

Next you heat up the protein. If your protein is one that had not been chilled (like canned tuna), you can skip this step. If you're worried about the protein sticking to the bottom of the pan, melt in a bit if butter first on medium heat. You need it anyway for the cheese sauce. You can see in the photo that some of the noodles stuck to the pot, so I decided butter was a good idea.

Once the butter is melted, dump in the protein and start stirring. If it's pre-cooked and chopped up, you only need to heat it for a minute or so. If it's raw, like plain ground beef, heat it until it's cooked through. Either way, stir frequently so it doesn't burn.

Once the meat is done, put in more butter (refer to package directions for a suggestion, or just eyeball it like I always do) and let that melt. Then pour the noodles back in the pot and stir until they're coated in butter. Turn off the heat at this point.

Step 5: Making the Cheese Sauce

The last part is very quick. Pour in the milk, add the cheese powder, and stir until a sauce has formed. Add the extra cheese, and stir until melted. If it doesn't look cheesy enough, or if you added too much milk and it looks a bit watery, add more cheese. I find grated Parmesan cheese is especially good for thickening watery sauce. If you added so much cheese that it seems to be a bit dry or sticky, add a little more milk.

Step 6: Finished!

Now just plate, serve and enjoy. (Optional: sprinkle a bit more cheese on top for extra fanciness.)

Next up is the second variation I'll be making.

Step 7: Version 2: Part 1

As with the first version, gather all your ingredients before you start. This version is made with canned tuna, frozen mixed vegetables, cheddar, and cream cheese. (Parmesan is included in the photo. While making this one, I initially intended to add it, but during cooking I decided to leave out the Parmesan.) Since for this one nothing needs chopping, I started boiling the noodles before I started prepping the cheese and tuna.

For the cheddar I got a small hand grater and grated it into a small bowl. When grating, the smaller you can get the pieces, the faster they'll melt.

When the water started boiling, I added the frozen vegetables to the pot.

Step 8: Version 2: Draining Tuna

Here's a tip for draining canned tuna. Use a can opener to cut open the top, but leave the cut lid in the can, instead of removing it right away. Then you can press down on it to squeeze out the liquid. Continue to press it while pouring the liquid out into the sink, and keep squeezing until no more liquid comes out. Your tuna will be nicely drained in moments.

Step 9: Version 2: Part 2

And the first photo here shows big frothy mess. I forgot to turn down the heat, so while I was draining the tuna, the pot boiled over and spilled foamy water all over the stove. Don't do this.

Anyway, when the noodles are cooked, drain as before. But this time the tuna doesn't need to be heated, because it's already cooked and hadn't been chilled, so I could put butter in the pot, then add the noodles right back in. No need to wait for the butter to melt all the way, since the noodles are still warm and will help melt it. Stir that up until melted, then add the milk and cheese powder and stir until sauce is formed.

Now to add the cream cheese. If you're not sure how much you'd like, start with a little. It's easy to add more later, but you can't take it out once it's in. Once it's melted, add in the tuna and the shredded cheese and stir once more until combined. Because of all the cream cheese in this one, it turned out super creamy.

Step 10: Finished!

And that's it! Have fun playing with different add-ins and seeing what you like. Maybe you'll find a favorite new way to make mac and cheese.

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