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

When you’ve got to get dinner on the table in a hurry, there’s rarely a more welcome sight than the boxed mac and cheese on your pantry shelf. Yet, it’s not always as exciting as you’d like it to be.

Never fear: There are 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, these ideas are for you. They go with any kind of mac you prefer, 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.

RELATED: 18 casseroles that'll keep the whole family full and happy

The Recipe Rebel

Hack #1: Bacon + chipotle

This bacon chipotle mac and cheese is spicy, smoky and salty. Simply make mac according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, crisp four slices of bacon. Once pasta is made, stir in 1/2 teaspoon chipotles in adobo and then crumble in bacon.

Hack #2: Sausage + baby spinach

Boil pasta. As it’s cooking, heat precooked sausages, such as chicken-basil, until warmed, according to package directions. Drain pasta, but don’t rinse. 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 sauce according to package directions. Serve sausages on the side, or slice and mix into the pasta.

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

Shutterbean's homemade Sriracha mac and cheese offers great inspiration for dressing up boxed mac. Make mac according to package instructions, and then mix in 1/2 to 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger and 1 tablespoon Sriracha hot sauce, or to taste. Sprinkle with chopped green onions and panko (Japanese breadcrumbs).

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Decadent dishes: Loaded stovetop mac & cheese, garlic monkey bread

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Decadent dishes: Loaded stovetop mac & cheese, garlic monkey bread

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Hack #4: Green chiles + chicken

Liven up boxed mac with chiles and chicken. 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, as does pre-made 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 to taste. Feel free to experiment with the add-ins, using baked beans in place of canned beans or spicy stewed canned tomatoes such as Rotel in place of the salsa.

Top Notch Mom

Hack #6: Chicken + buffalo sauce + panko

A from-scratch version of Buffalo chicken mac and cheese from Top Notch Mom inspired us to adapt it for the box. Make mac according to package instructions, then add chopped, precooked chicken (poached breast or shredded rotisserie works well) and 1/3 cup purchased Buffalo sauce. Sprinkle panko on top.

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

Try this modified take on tuna noodle casserole. Boil pasta according to package directions. Halfway through, add 1/2 cup (or more, to taste) frozen peas. Drain pasta and peas and make sauce as directed. Mix pasta, peas and sauce, along with drained canned tuna, and put into an ovenproof casserole dish. Sprinkle top with shredded cheese and breadcrumbs; broil 3 to 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted.

Hack #8: Chili + green onions

Want to know how to make chili even better? Mix it with creamy mac and cheese. You can use leftover homemade chili or canned.

Hack #9: Kale + chopped turkey

Another one-pot mac meal — prepare mac according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, sauté chopped kale with chopped garlic. Once mac and cheese is made, mix in sauteed kale and chopped cooked turkey.

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

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

Hack #11: Broccoli + ham

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

Weldon Owen / TODAY/iVillage

Hack #12: Muffin tin mac and cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C). Grease a mini or standard size muffin pan with nonstick spray. Fill each prepared muffin cup to the rim with the macaroni mixture. Sprinkle the muffins with panko breadcrumbs. Bake until the tops are golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Hack #13: Fried mac and cheese

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

RELATED: Try these 50 delicious comfort-food recipes

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