Cooking Tips

How to Improve Your Boxed Mac and Cheese

From tuna salad and caramelized onions to kielbasa, you can elevate boxed mac from simple to sophisticated.

Published Mar. 23, 2021.

Boxed mac and cheese is a pantry staple for everyone from college students to hungry toddlers to their parents.

I’ve eaten my fair share, mostly out of convenience and budget. Short of making homemade mac and cheese, it had me wondering: Could I bring the boxed stuff up a notch?

What inspired this thought was the mention of Trader Joe’s French Onion Macaroni & Cheese (which you can find in their freezer section) in a meeting. Could simply adding caramelized onions to my box of Annie’s make that big of a difference?

So, I tried both. I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

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The Trader Joe's version was pretty good, but there was a feeling in my brain that adding my own caramelized onions would be better than this frozen version.

I had some leftover caramelized onions, made using Lan Lam’s superquick method in her Caramelized Onions recipe, so I added them to my white cheddar Annie’s. They definitely elevated the humble mac, and added the wonderful sweetness that comes with them.

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Now that I had gotten a taste of next-level boxed mac and cheese, I couldn’t stop. My first instincts were to add in some frozen veggies, pieces of leftover rotisserie chicken, cream cheese, or maybe some toasted breadcrumbs.

But I knew that our experts on staff would have some more great ideas. Here are some of their suggestions.

  • “I love boxed mac with chopped broccoli and tuna salad all mixed in together.” — Amanda Luchtel, Test Cook, Cook’s Country
  • “It will come as a surprise to no one that I add bacon or sausage to mine. I once made mac and cheese with Impossible brand sausage, and it was quite delicious.” — Morgan Bolling, Deputy Food Editor, Cook’s Country
  • “My hubby and I have enjoyed adding in crispy pancetta, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil/parsley at the end. I also sometimes stir in smoked salmon and capers. This combo is best with white cheddar.” — Carmen Dongo, Test Cook, Books
  • “My son sometimes stirs in a little canned chipotle in adobo, or sometimes just chipotle powder, for a spicy, smoky version.” — Scott Kathan, Deputy Editor, Cook’s Country
  • “We always add real cheese to our boxed mac and cheese. We also often sauté garlicky spinach and stir it in. Also, blistered cherry tomatoes make a nice addition!” — Steph Pixley, Deputy Food Editor, Books
  • Flat Iron Pepper Co. pepper flakes or Trader Joe’s Ghost Pepper flakes are my #1 go-to regardless of the recipe. If I am feeling low effort, just mixing in some Boursin cheese makes it 10 times better. I also love microwaving cut and peeled butternut squash then blending it to a puree and mixing it in for a sweeter, more autumn mac and cheese, then topping it with chili crunch.” — Emily Rahravan, Assistant Editor, Books
  • “Stir in a dollop of plain whole-milk Greek yogurt at the end. It makes it tangy and supercreamy.” — Brenna Donovan, Associate Editor, Books
  • “I had leftover keema from recipe testing, and the results were amazing. Also, you could melt butter in a skillet, add your favorite spice blend, add panko, and toast. Then sprinkle over top.” — Lan Lam, Senior Editor, Cook’s Illustrated
  • “My standards are chopped browned hot dogs or kielbasa stirred in and butter-toasted panko on top. Sometimes chopped drained kimchi stirred in too!” — Jessica Rudolph, Associate Editor, Cook’s Country

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