Hack your mac: photo of mac and cheese with roasted broccoli and some sriracha and black pepper.

I first fell in love with Annie’s mac and cheese, specifically Annie’s Alfredo Shells & Cheddar, shortly after it’s debut in 1998. It was a fractious love affair, however. At one point, I turned up my nose at boxed mac and cheese of any ilk (this was in my nutrition perfection phase before ever going back to grad school to study nutrition).

After years apart, I realized that Annie’s tasty little shells could have a place in my life…only I realized I didn’t feel satisfied for long after eating them. There wasn’t enough substance. Determined to have my comforting cheesy shells and good nutrition and satisfaction, too, I decided to hack my mac.

Broccoli and spice (and everything nice)

I’ll start with my favorite hack. Start some broccoli florets roasting (toss them in extra virgin olive oil, salt and granulated garlic…I get mine from Costco…and roast for about 30 minutes at 425 degrees, tossing once or twice). Then, get the water boiling for the shells. I try to time it so that the broccoli is done first. Prepare the mac and cheese according to the directions on the box, then squeeze in some sriracha and some freshly ground pepper and stir to combine. If you’re not sure of your heat level, start with just a little sriracha, stir, taste, and add more if desired.

(How did I think of adding sriracha to mac and cheese? I didn’t. I got that little tip from a short Q&A with actress/comedian/rapper Awkwafina in the August issue of Oprah magazine. Don’t know who Awkwafina is? Go watch “Crazy Rich Asians” right now…she plays best friend Peik Lin. Then Google the episode of “Saturday Night Live” she hosted last season. Then watch “Ocean’s Eight.” Seriously, do it.) Oh, and if you love sriracha, then you really need to read the “Dear Sriracha” cartoon from The Oatmeal. Never heard of The Oatmeal? Don’t blame me if you fall down the rabbit hole that is his website, which you will if you love cats, or dogs, or gently twisted humor.

Extra crispy, please, with a side of kale

This version makes a nice side dish to roast chicken (or baked chicken breasts) and a salad or cooked green veg. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F and butter an small casserole dish (an 8×8-inch square works). Prepare your mac and cheese according to package directions, then stir in a little more milk than what the packaged called for, along with an egg and 1 cup of thinly sliced kale. Spread the mac into the casserole dish and sprinkle some breadcrumbs (preferably panko) and a little grated Parmesan cheese on top. Bake for 20 minutes.

Fig and prosciutto

Before you declare me weird, hear me out: my absolute most favorite pizza in the world (well, after a really good pizza Margherita) is the fig pizza that makes a brief appearance every August at Tutta Bella. So why not apply those flavors to mac and cheese. Prepare your mac and cheese and stir in 1/4 cup of thinly sliced dried figs and 3 slices of prosciutto, diced. Top with a little grated Parmesan.

Super sneaky

Sometimes you want the vegetables you slip in to be less obtrusive than broccoli. Cooked cauliflower (roasted or steamed) and cut into roughly mac-size pieces works well, because it blends with the pasta visually. Or, stir a half-cup of canned pumpkin into the mixture right after you incorporate the cheese. Make it a more of a meal by adding some shredded rotisserie chicken.

Galloping gourmet

Want to seriously dress up your mac? Add more cheese. Some sharp cheddar is nice, but so is some creamy goat cheese. Bonus points for a sprinkling of chopped or slivered fresh herbs (I like basil in the summer, sage in the fall).

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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