15 Ways to Change up Your Mac and Cheese

15 Ways to Change up Your Mac and Cheese

Boring-shmoring: These mac and cheese variations will make you want to try a new one every night.

Other than my mom’s creamy noodle kugel, until I was in my 30s, I never had anything but plain ol’ macaroni and cheese. It almost always looked the same: elbow macaroni, cavatappi if we were daring. A sauce made with a roux of butter and all-purpose flour, milk stirred in slowly until it thickened, and cheddar cheese until it melted. Buttered breadcrumbs on top, then baked. Or, sometimes, when I just needed a hit of familiar comfort, I’d cook up a boxed mix. Maybe I’d sneak in some crumbled bacon or a pinch of paprika, but otherwise, my mac and cheese experience was as ordinary as they come. Still delicious, of course, as mac and cheese usually is. 

Holy cow, what I missed! 

These days, there’s virtually nothing you can’t add to mac and cheese (I’m not so sure about chocolate chip cookies, but … possibly?). You can doctor up a box with simple pantry ingredients for a quick weeknight dinner or take your homemade mac and cheese to the next level by rolling it inside a meatloaf and smoking the whole thing in your charcoal grill. You can try a luscious four-cheese stovetop version from Italy or opt for one without any macaroni. And of course, you can have more mac and cheese for dessert. Because why not. 

It’s a whole new macaroni and cheese world, people.

Jump ahead to:

Recipes that start with a box >>

Next-level mac and cheese recipes >>

Recipes from around the world  >>

Macaroni and cheese recipes without the macaroni >>

Macaroni and cheese for dessert >>

Recipes that start with a box

There’s no easier way to whip up weeknight mac and cheese than with a box. I mean, it involves practically no prep time at all. But sometimes, I want to make it feel like more of a main dish. That’s where add-ins enter the picture.

Southwestern Mac and Cheese

I can almost guarantee you have all the ingredients you need for this recipe in your pantry right now. And it couldn’t be easier: Take a box of the classic-style mac and cheese (Kraft, Annie’s, Horizon — the kind with the packet o’ cheese powder) and add a can each of black beans and corn, some salsa, and a little extra shredded cheese (optional, but yes, you want this). 

Creamy Macaroni-and-Cheese Ham Bake

When I’ve got some leftover cooked protein like ham, I put it to good use. Here, it helps transform a simple box into a hearty, satisfying dinner. Extra-creamy thanks to the sour cream and cottage cheese you mix in, it all goes into a baking dish and gets topped with soft breadcrumbs tossed with melted butter. When this comes out of the oven, crispy-lidded and bubbling around the edges, the aroma is just heavenly.

Buffalo Chicken Mac

My husband loves hot wings, but I’m not such a big fan. Instead, I love the idea of tossing leftover cooked chicken in buffalo wing hot sauce, then stirring it into a prepared batch of deluxe macaroni and cheese dinner (the kind with the ready-made cheese sauce). Baked in a casserole dish with a little extra sharp cheddar on top, it marries the lip-tingling effect of eating wings with cozy, creamy comfort.

Next-level mac and cheese recipes

Regular elbow macaroni in a rich cheese sauce aren’t indulgent enough for you? No problem.

Smoked Mac and Cheese Stuffed Meatloaf

We all know mac and cheese is great comfort food. Meatloaf, too. When you roll homemade mac and cheese inside a ground beef-based meatloaf mixture, coat it in barbecue sauce, and smoke the whole shebang in a charcoal grill, you definitely need a nap after eating.

Ultra Creamy, Crunchy Cheetos Mac and Cheese

Just one simple swap can make your mac and cheese so delicious you’ll want to eat it every day. We’re talking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Who knew crushing up Cheetos — regular, Flamin’ Hot, or Jalapeno Cheddar — and using them instead of breadcrumbs would be so incredible? If you think panko makes a crunchy topping, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese Pizza

This is the sort of Frankenpizza my husband can get behind: a prepared pizza crust + shredded cheddar cheese + homemade mac and cheese + leftover pulled pork + barbecue sauce + cilantro. It’s certainly not an everyday kind of meal, but sometimes, you just want to take dinner over the top.

Recipes from around the world

America’s not the only country with a tradition of combining pasta with cheese. Besides, who needs Velveeta when there’s taleggio, raclette, Emmentaler, and all those other varieties to play with? 

Pasta Ai Quattro Formaggi (Creamy Four-Cheese Pasta)

Italy knows a thing or two about cheese, and this stovetop mac and cheese recipe has loads of them. Unlike four-cheese pizza, it won’t use mozzarella. Instead, Taleggio forms the base of the sauce. Add in some Fontina or Gruyère, Parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano, and gorgonzola (an Italian blue cheese). Each gets mixed gently into cream infused with thyme and garlic — no need for all-purpose flour. Cook pasta (I like penne), drain, and add to the sauce. Stir until each piece is coated in a rich, creamy glaze.

Älplermagronen (Alpine Macaroni and Cheese)

Another stovetop version, Swiss macaroni and cheese, ups the ante with several add-ins: crisp bacon, fried onions, plus potatoes, which release starch, helping the sauce thicken. This recipe calls for ooey-gooey raclette, but that can be hard to find. Other options include Emmentaler, Appenzeller, Gruyère, Fontina, or another Alpine cheese of your choice. Serve this dish with applesauce — the sweetness contrasts beautifully with the rest of the flavors.


Norwegian mac and cheese includes an ingredient you might not normally associate with cheesy pasta: fish. Here, chunks of cod or another fresh white fish and a handful of green peas go into a casserole dish along with the cooked macaroni. A mild, nutty Jarlsberg cheese sauce gets poured over it all, then it’s sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked until golden brown. It’s a comforting, filling dinner.

Macaroni and cheese recipes without the macaroni

Whether you’re on a low-carb diet or you just want to shake things up a little, sometimes, the key to transforming your mac and cheese is to skip the mac and use another ingredient instead.

Super Cheesy Cauliflower "Mac" and Cheese

Yummly Original

Looking to cut down on carbohydrates, but can’t bear the thought of missing out on a cheesy casserole? Try a version made with veggies. Tender roasted cauliflower stands in for the macaroni, but once it’s mixed with a sauce prepared from sharp cheddar, Gruyère, and Parm and popped in the oven, you’ll never guess you’re not eating baked mac and cheese.

Gnocchi Macaroni and Cheese

Fluffy, pillowy potato dumplings make such a perfect vehicle for a simple cheese sauce it’s a wonder this isn’t every bit as popular as the version made with macaroni. You won’t believe five ingredients can come together to create a dish so tasty. 

Quinoa Spinach Mac and Cheese

As much as I’d like to eat mac and cheese seven nights a week, sometimes, I get a hankering for a version with a little more nutritional value. Enter this satisfying casserole. Protein-rich quinoa replaces the macaroni here, and fresh baby spinach provides a vegetable. That white cheddar sauce and the buttery panko still feel pretty decadent. It’s the best of both worlds.

Macaroni and cheese for dessert

What, you think mac and cheese has to be savory? Think again, my friend! 

Unbelievable Sweet Mac 'n' Cheese

This recipe blows my mind. It starts with cooking the macaroni in lightly sweetened water scented with fresh vanilla beans (swap in a good splash of extract if you don’t have a pod). The milk, too, gets infused with vanilla. Sugar and egg yolks give the mixture a custardy consistency before you add the cheese. Sliced apple and breadcrumbs provide contrast, and the whole dish gets browned under the broiler.

Dessert Macaroni & Cheese

Studded with blueberries and super-creamy thanks to cream cheese and eggs rather than cheddar, this is kind of like a cheesecake with macaroni in it. Now it makes sense, right? Tossing the panko with sugar makes the sweet topping crispy.

Creamy Noodle Kugel

"Kugel" is Yiddish for pudding. While potato kugels are savory, noodle ones are almost always sweet. My mom used to make one almost exactly like this when I was growing up, with cream cheese, cottage cheese, and sour cream. Eggs provide the creamy oomph, and vanilla, cinnamon, sugar, pineapple, and raisins bring the sweetness. Crushed graham cracker crumbs make a lovely, crunchy lid, though my mom always used crushed corn flakes. Either way, I can’t think of a better way to end a meal.

More mac and cheese? Yes, please!

Many of us have faced the challenge of getting easy, nutritious, and varied meals on the table. Well, the tables have turned! With these next articles, your biggest problem will be cheesing — whoops, slip of the tongue — choosing which of the many quick and tasty dishes to make.

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