How to Make Boxed Mac and Cheese Healthier
Alternative recipes, substitutions and easy-cheesy additions for healthier boxed mac and cheese.
We've all been there: idly staring into the depths of the cupboard looking for something to eat. You spot the Double Stuf Oreos (yes, it's spelled Double "Stuf") on the middle shelf, tucked under the Pringles and trail mix. You know that stuf will give you a stomach ache, a headache, or even worse... you'll eat a whole sleeve and STILL be hungry, but what other options do you have?
You walk away, reasoning with yourself that you weren't even that hungry in the first place; but then, something sends you back. Who knows, maybe the food in there has changed? You open the cabinet and are immediately let down by the same contents it held before. You scan it over once more from left to right: chips, salsa, vanilla wafers, boxed mac and cheese, canned soup, Oreos, trail mix.
Discouraged by the same old high-sugar/high-sodium snacks, you walk away—clutching the package of Oreos and reasoning with yourself that you'll "only have a few". 1 minute later, you're regretting it.
Little did you know that there was a potentially healthy meal staring you right in the face! You guessed it: boxed mac and cheese.
Big food brands (*cough cough*... Kraft) have given health-conscious mac and cheese lovers the wrong idea for years. Making healthy boxed mac and cheese can be just as simple, you just have to find the right brand. Luckily for you, I’ve researched boxed mac and cheese brands from grocery stores across the country; and, while this time-consuming process of buying, tasting, and experimenting with different meals/sides/etc. has been exhausting, I’ve finally landed on the perfect brand: Plant Camp’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese.
It's made with pea protein and carrots with key nutrients from spinach, broccoli, and sweet potato; and it's 100% delicious. Plant Camp’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese comes in different flavors like Real Classic Cheddar and Real White Cheddar, and it’s made with all the nutrient-dense veggies you could ever ask for.
Before you try all the other methods listed in this article, I highly recommend giving Plant Camp a shot. Knowing that the ingredients are wholesome makes it all the more delicious; plus, after you try Plant Camp, you might not even need to experiment further.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that mystery packet of powdered cheese doesn't have all the key nutrients we need to stay our best selves. Hang tight, we're going to need to do some rearranging of ingredients.
Out: Butter & Whole Milk
In: Greek Yogurt & Low Fat Cottage Cheese or Ricotta
The instructions on a box of Kraft mac and cheese call for 4 tablespoons of butter (half a stick) and 1/4 cup of milk. In terms of calories, half a stick of butter equals roughly 400 calories and 46g of fat and a quarter cup of milk equals roughly 36 calories and 2g of fat.
On the other hand, you can easily swap in greek yogurt or low fat cottage cheese/ricotta to give that boxed mac and cheese a whole new flavor profile. In comparison, 4 tablespoons of unflavored greek yogurt equals 133 calories and <1g of fat. 4 tablespoons of part skim ricotta cheese equals 70 calories and 4.5g of fat.
Even if you choose to leave in some of the butter and/or milk, try experimenting with SOME greek yogurt or cottage cheese/ricotta at first. There's no need to ruin your taste for this method right away! Start with substituting half of the butter and milk out and see how you like it. Who knows, you mind find that you enjoy it even more than before!
Out: Dairy Products
In: Mashed Avocado
Let's be real. What problem can't avocados solve? According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), "milk and other dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the American diet, contributing to heart disease, type 2 Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease."
With that said, we will still rely on SOME dairy for this method of healthier boxed mac and cheese. The little powdered mix that comes in most boxes generally contains whey protein, cheese culture, milkfat and lactic acid. So, we'll have to settle on removing the just the butter and milk. Instead of those fat-heavy dairy products, I implore you to try using almond milk or oat milk and mashed avocado. Try this recipe!
Avocado-Almond Mac and Cheese (20 min)
(For Standard 7.25 oz Boxed Macaroni)
- Bring 6 cups of water to a boil
- Cook the macaroni for 7-8 minutes
- Drain the macaroni and place into a saucepan
- Add 1 mashed avocado, 1/4 cup of almond milk and pre-packaged cheese sauce into the sauce pan.
- Mix with a wooden spoon and add salt and pepper to taste
- Serve immediately
Add New Ingredients
Method #2 for making boxed mac and cheese healthier involves adding new ingredients. On its own, boxed mac and cheese is a dense combination of carbs, fat and salt (that is, if you follow the directions on the box). Once you add more (healthy) foods and flavors into the mix, you might find yourself eating less of the bad stuff while still feeling full! Here's some delicious & nutritious foods you can add to any boxed mac and cheese to make it healthier:
Roasted Cauliflower or Broccoli
- Preheat your oven to 450°F
- Chop 1 large Cauliflower or Broccoli floret into smaller pieces
- Drizzle olive oil, minced garlic, and salt onto a baking sheet
- Bake for 10 minutes, then move the florets around
- Bake for another 10 minutes
- Add Cauliflower or Broccoli to your already prepared mac and cheese
Frozen Peas or Spinach
The beautiful thing about spinach and peas is that everyone likes to make them their own way. Whether your veggies are fresh or frozen doesn't matter. Just prepare your spinach and peas the way you like it best, and add it right into your favorite boxed mac and cheese. Simple, homemade, alternative.
These green veggies add an earthy, yet sweet flavor to classic mac and cheese. This is a great dish to throw together when your Mom and Dad text you out of nowhere and say they're coming over for dinner. Or, when your significant other is getting on your nerves and you can tell that they're just hangry. No matter what the exact scenario is, make this recipe for the ones you love when you're short on time (and patience) and they will thank you later.
- Bring vegetable stock and salt to a boil in a large pot
- Once Cauliflower is tender, transfer over to a food processor
- Add in 3 tbs of unflavored greek yogurt (and 1/4 avocados if you want to be fancy) and some veggie stock
- Process until it's a desirable consistency
- Add salt and pepper to taste
This is the best method for those who don't particularly like to eat vegetables on their own. Mix the cauliflower puree in with the prepared boxed mac and cheese and enjoy! You won't even taste the veggies! Don't believe me? Try it!
Bonus: Pumpkin Puree (use same method as above)
Make It Fun
The third and final method to making boxed mac and cheese healthier is a simple one: make it fun. Add a theme to mac and cheese night like "Western" (add in peppers, onions and diced ham), "Oriental" (add in soy sauce, bok choy and carrots), "Buffalo" (add in hot sauce, celery and chicken) or even buffet style (place various healthy add-ons in small bowls around the table and go crazy!).
If you go with the buffet style, go around the table and have your family and friends share the add-ons they chose! Discuss, and come up with a winner for most creative/tastiest/and healthiest mac and cheese! In the midst of all the excitement and happiness, your guests won't even be thinking that they're eating a healthier meal.
More often than not, Americans take the simpler approach to meals. Between fast food, microwavable dishes and processed foods, instant gratification is placed at the forefront of our interests. To remedy the quick, thoughtless approach of merely consuming whatever is most convenient, people tend to over compensate and sign up for a Whole Foods rewards card immediately. This is not the best solution. While it is important to eat a balanced diet, it's also important to act within reach so you don't end up resenting the healthier side of life.
I've been there, in an apartment with a fridge stocked with fresh veggies, whole grains, the whole gamut; but, I still ordered Taco Bell. Why? Because it was quick, familiar, and didn't involve me doing anything. Instead of overcompensating for or giving into our love of instant gratification, let's start with something small—like healthier boxed mac and cheese.