Comfort foods can temporarily ease anxiety, creating a sense of security during stressful times. So it’s no surprise boxes of macaroni and cheese are flying off the supermarket shelves these days. “Right now, the world is changing and we have no control over it, yet mac and cheese remains constant, delicious, and nurturing at the same time,” says Janet Freindlich, LCSW, Director at Eva’s Village, which runs a community kitchen in New Jersey. Agrees Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutrition and wellness expert and author of Eating in Color. “Because we can’t socialize outside the home, we’re turning to foods that provide some connection to the past, reminding us of simpler days.”
Right now, the world is changing and we have no control over it, yet mac and cheese remains constant, delicious, and nurturing at the same time.
So we asked Largeman-Roth, along with some of the country’s top chefs, to share ways to perk up this food staple and make it even more appetizing. “Adding ingredients to macaroni and cheese will not only make it more delicious, but it will cut down on the dish’s richness, whether you're augmenting it with a vegetable, protein, or spice,” says Executive Chef Jacob Jasinski, Cara at The Chanler at Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island.
Now pull out that familiar and friendly box (along with a board game or two) and create a fabulous meal and lots of new memories.
Why: “This creamy fruit provides heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, while containing fiber to make you feel fuller,” notes Largeman-Roth. "If you’re looking to lower the saturated fat, swap out the butter for a plant butter, such as Miyoko’s, Melt, or Country Crock.”
How much: 1 avocado, diced
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, place the diced avocado on top and serve.
Why: “Cauliflower is high in fiber and B vitamins, and adds substance to the creamy consistency of macaroni and cheese,” says Chef Simon Bowker, JW Marriott in Nashville, Tennessee.
How much: 2.5 cups of cauliflower, cut into small florets.
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, then soften the cauliflower by adding it to the pasta water for the last four minutes of cooking time.
Ingredients: Dijon Mustard, Breadcrumbs, and Cheddar Cheese
Why: "The Dijon mustard adds acidity and spice, while the breadcrumbs and cheddar make it extra crunchy and cheesy,” says Chef Phil Carmichael, The London Edition, London, England.
How much: 1/4 tbsp. Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup cheddar cheese
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, then add the mustard. Place in an oven-safe serving dish, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cheddar, and bake on 350° for 15 minutes.
Ingredients: Old Bay and Feta Cheese
Why: “Old Bay seasoning provides just enough kick to cut through the creaminess of macaroni and cheese, while the acidity of the feta complements the richness of the cheese sauce,” says Chef John Paidas, Apropros at The Abbey Inn & Spa, Peekskill, New York.
How much: 1 tsp. Old Bay, 1 ounce of feta cheese
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, fold in the Old Bay and feta and serve.
Ingredients: Bacon and Crushed Crackers
Why: “Create delicious macaroni and cheese balls out of leftovers for a great little snack,” says Jasinski.
How much: 1 egg, 1/2 cup of flour, crushed crackers, 1/2 cup of cooked and crumbled bacon
When to add: Remove the leftover macaroni and cheese from the refrigerator, stir in the bacon, form the mixture into bite-sized balls, roll in flour, a beaten egg, and crushed crackers, before frying in corn or vegetable oil until golden brown.
Ingredients: Black Beans and Salsa
Why: “These ingredients add a Mexican flair to the dish, making it more flavorful, plus black beans provide plant protein, fiber, and potassium,” says Largemen-Roth.
How much: 1 cup of cooked black beans, 3 tbsp. of salsa
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, then fold in the salsa and beans and serve.
Ingredients: Chicken, Mushrooms, Onions and Extra Cheese
Why: “Chicken is a great source of protein, mushrooms add earthiness and balance out the creaminess of the cheese and the sweetness of the onion, while cream cheese makes this dish even creamier,” says Chef Jorge Gonzalez at the Bobby Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
How much: 2 tbsp. cream cheese, 1 tbsp. cup smoked cheddar cheese, 1/4 cup caramelized onions, 1/2 cup of mushrooms, 1/2 of a rotisserie chicken, 1 tsp. each of chopped parsley and chives
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, subbing butter for margarine, then fold in the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, onions, mushrooms, and chicken. Top with parsley and chives and serve.
Ingredient: Cheddar Goldfish and Poblano Pepper
Why: “Goldfish add a nice crunch to creamy macaroni and cheese, the bacon gives the dish a smoky flavor, while a mild poblano pepper creates a richness without being too hot for the kids,” says Chef Robert Carr, La Cantera Resort & Spa, San Antonio, Texas.
How much: 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar, 1 roasted and diced poblano chili pepper, 1/2 cup bacon or bacon bits, 1 cup of crushed cheddar goldfish
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, mix in ¼ cup of cheddar, ½ cup crushed goldfish, and the diced pepper. Top with ¼ cup of cheddar followed by ½ cup of goldfish and bake at 350° for 10 minutes.
Ingredient: Frozen Peas
Why: “Peas are sweet tasting and provide added plant-protein to the dish along with a fiber boost,” says Largeman-Roth. “To customize the dish to suit your dietary needs, you can swap out whole milk for low-fat, unsweetened almond, or oat milk.”
How much: 1 cup of frozen peas
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, add the peas to the boiling pasta water for the last three minutes of cooking.
Ingredients: Dried Mustard, Sour Cream, and Cheddar Cheese
Why: "The dried mustard adds a bit of tang while the sour cream and cheddar cheese make the dish even more creamy and savory," says Chef Anthony Sicignano, The Breakers, Palm Beach, Florida.
How much: 1 tbsp. of sour cream, 3/4 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese, and 1/2 tsp. of dried mustard
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, then add the sour cream, ½ cup cheddar cheese, and mustard to the mixture. Stir well, place in a casserole dish, top with ¼ grated cheddar cheese, and bake for fifteen minutes at 375°.
Why: “Broccoli is low in calories and adds protein, fiber, calcium, vitamin C, and iron to your meal,” says Largeman-Roth. “Plus pasta in boxed macaroni and cheese is fortified with additional iron, B vitamins, and folic acid.”
How much: 1/2 cup per serving
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, toss in the steamed broccoli and serve.
Ingredient: Green Chiles
Why: “Green chiles add heat and flavor, while the breadcrumbs make for a nice crunchy top,” says Chef Peter O’Brien, Anasazi Restaurant at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
How much: 1 cup heavy cream, 1/4 cup roasted, seeded, and peeled green chiles, 1/3 cup breadcrumbs
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, fold in the chiles and heavy cream, place the mixture in a casserole dish and top with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350° for 25 minutes.
Ingredient: Cashews and Nutritional Yeast
Why: “For this vegan recipe, discard the powdered cheese and make a sauce out of the cashews, almond milk, and nutritional yeast,” says Chef Meredith Haaz, The Ranch 4.0 in Westlake, California. “The yeast gives the sauce a cheesy flavor and contains protein, B vitamins, and minerals.”
How much: 2 cups of cashews, 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast, 1/4 cup almond milk, 2 tsp. of Dijon mustard, 1 tsp. of onion power, 1 tsp. of garlic powder, juice of half a lemon
When to add: Soak the cashews for two hours in room temperature water, drain. Cook the pasta according to the instructions. To make the sauce, place the cashews and all of the ingredients into a blender and puree until smooth. Add to the pasta, mix, and serve.
Ingredient: Shredded Beef and Pimentos
Why: “Turn macaroni and cheese into a snack by making pimento bites,” says Chef Teddy Folkman, Timbers Kiawah Ocean Club & Residences, Kiawah Island, South Carolina. “If you don’t have short ribs, braise whatever beef you have with some tomato sauce and water.”
How much: 1/4 cup of shredded beef, 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese, 1 tbsp. cream cheese, 1/4 cup chopped pimentos, pinch of chili flakes
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, then fold in all the ingredients. Place the mixture in a casserole dish and let cool for 15 minutes. Refrigerate for an hour, cut into cubes, dredge in flour, eggs, and roll in breadcrumbs before frying each side in canola oil for two to three minutes. Serve with a side of tomato sauce.
Why: “The combination of cayenne, mustard powder, and nutmeg create a sweet yet savory flavor with a slight kick,” says Chef Michael Greenstein, Blue Pig Tavern, Congress Hall, Cape May, New Jersey.
How much: 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1/2 tsp. mustard powder, 1 tbsp. panko breadcrumbs, pinch of cayenne, nutmeg, and parsley
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, substituting the heavy cream for the milk. Add the cayenne, nutmeg, and mustard powders. Top with toasted panko breadcrumbs and chopped parsley and serve.
Ingredient: Parmesan cheese
Why: “Parmesan cheese has a natural savory taste from its time aging, which gives it a punch of richness that powdered cheese just doesn’t have,” says Chef Gerald Sombright, Knife & Spoon at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, Florida.
How much: 1 cup
When to add: Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the instructions, then fold in the parmesan cheese and serve.