The Canned Pantry Item That Instantly Upgrades Boxed Mac And Cheese

Boxed macaroni and cheese is one of those convenience foods that begs to be upgraded. While there's nothing wrong with going to town on some mac right from the pot, you can also make it more satisfying with one humble addition — a can of tuna. It may not be the first thing you think of pairing with creamy, cheesy noodles, but honestly, it just works.

For those unfamiliar with a good old tuna mac, give it a chance. Savory, meaty, protein-rich tuna (a five-ounce can packed in water contains up to 30 grams) adds a little saltiness, nice texture, and ups the overall satiety factor of what would otherwise be just a bowl of noodles. When paired with the cheese sauce, the fish is surprisingly subtle in flavor. Tuna noodle casserole is one of those mid-1900s American comfort foods that may have been in rotation alongside dishes like chicken à la king, meatloaf, and molded Jell-O salads — you get the vibe. Originally, the dish was probably made with a creamy white sauce and cheese, but later, Campbell's cream of mushroom soup became the go-to for the sauce element.

Boxed mac and cheese plus canned tuna is the shortcut. All you need to do is make your favorite brand according to the package directions. After you have mixed in the butter and cheese packet, stir in the drained tuna. It will be warmed by the residual heat of the noodles, and once incorporated, your easy tuna mac recipe is ready to serve.

What kind of tuna should you use for macaroni and cheese?

At the end of the day, whichever type of canned tuna you normally buy will work well — this is a very flexible preparation. However, tuna preserved in water or its own liquid may be preferred, because it's less rich than the oil-canned varieties. It's better to use canned tuna in oil rather than water when the fish is standing alone — as you would to finish a salad — especially since these brands can sometimes be on the pricier side. If you do opt for oil-packed tuna, you may want to cut back on the butter or margarine that the box calls for so that the taste is not overly fatty. It's also worth noting that tuna in water will have a firmer texture than tuna packed in oil.

Use whole or solid canned tuna steaks if you want toothsome bites, or opt for chunk light if flaky pieces and a more homogeneous texture is what you're after. Additionally, an easy way to dial up the flavor without adding a second of extra work is to use seasoned packets of tuna. Flavors like jalapeño, buffalo, lemon pepper, garlic and herb, or ranch are available at many stores, and would all be delicious here. Adding one small, drained can — about five ounces — per box is a good starting point, though you can always add more or less to suit your tastes.

More pantry upgrades for boxed mac and cheese

The reality is, not everyone is a fan of canned tuna, but there are plenty of pantry-friendly, delicious ingredients that can upgrade boxed macaroni and cheese. If seafood is still an option, try canned salmon, shrimp, or crab instead. If animals of the sea just don't do it for you, there are other canned meats you can buy. Chicken, turkey, ham, or spam would all be great in mac and cheese. For a vegetarian take, canned corn, green beans, peas, mushrooms, or artichokes would all work.

Dipping into your pantry stock is super convenient, but you can also look to your freezer and containers of leftovers for one-ingredient additions. The frozen versions of those same veggies would also be tasty, as would broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach. The same is true for the seafood and meats. Leftover baked salmon, rotisserie chicken, deli meat, or that Thanksgiving turkey you have stashed in the freezer could all be stirred into boxed mac at the very end to make for a heartier meal. Turn back to your cupboard for a simple topper like crumbled potato chips, cracker crumbs, or crispy fried onions to finish up your dressed-up, one-pot meal.