At just $1 a box, Kraft Easy Mac easily compares with ramen as a quintessential “college food.” Tons of articles offer deluxe mac and cheese recipes, but when you’re a college student relying on dining hall food and a budget of a couple dollars, you’re probably not going to get to try anything super fancy. I can’t blame you, but here’s the thing–using only your dining hall, you actually can upgrade mac & cheese from a boring, cheap staple to a meal worth looking forward to.

Izzy Tice

Some dining halls may not let you “steal” food and take it home, and at others, you’ll probably just get confused stares as to why you’re loading up Tupperware with an obscene amount of cheese. Don't worry, you're not the only one stealing food. After all, you are paying for it, so go ahead and sneak some out if you desire. If you can’t take food out, then bring in a cup of Easy Mac and use the microwave into the dining hall; adapt, improvise, overcome.

After my fellow Spoon writer Adam tried to upgrade Ramen using dining hall food, I was inspired to do the same with Easy Mac. So he and I set to work testing out ways to upgrade mac & cheese.

Izzy Tice

We made these recipes with the boxed version of mac, but you could easily use the microwavable cups too! You may just need to heat your ingredients separately, and then mix them in after heating and straining the mac noodles.


Izzy Tice

What you need:

- Easy Mac (with cheese)

- Shredded Cheddar 

- Grated Parmesan (you can also get this from the pizza section of your dining hall)

- Shredded Mozzarella 


Izzy Tice

If you’re looking for a rich, indulgent upgrade from the fluorescent cheese powder provided in the box, pay a visit to your dining hall’s salad bar; most are full of an array of shredded, crumbled, and grated cheeses. We chose these, but you can mix and match based on your own tastes and what your dining hall provides. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also throw in some Bleu Cheese or Feta Cheese for a distinct flavor.

Izzy's Opinion: 

"Let’s get something straight: I’m lactose-intolerant, and so is Adam. We knew what we were getting into, but we were more than willing to sacrifice ourselves in the name of cheese. This upgrade was very indulgent, with an overwhelmingly-rich flavor, so in the future, I would either add more water or use less cheese. It was really fun to do cheese pulls with, though. If dairy is your thing, go for it. Overall, worth the pain." Rating: 8.2/10

Adam's Opinion:

"Conceptually, I thought it would be an ascending experience considering it's cheese on cheese and I'm a lactose-intolerant fool who can't be stopped. In reality, it was too much cheese and stuck together a lot. We couldn't get lost in the sauce. But hey, it worked fairly well in the end. I would try it again with adjustments, like maybe a splash of milk or more spices." Rating: 8/10

Overall Rating: 8.1/10

Barbecue Mac and Chicken 

Izzy Tice

What you need:

-Easy Mac (with cheese)

- Grilled or shredded chicken

- Barbecue sauce

- cheddar or other cheese (optional)


After cooking the Easy Mac and adding the cheese powder, we stirred in some chicken strips that we had cut into small shreds and mixed with barbecue sauce. At this step, you can also add some shredded cheddar, or any other cheeses, as the pasta is still warm. Once we took it off the stove, we plated it and added a little bit more barbecue sauce, as well as some pepper.

Izzy's Opinion:

"Honestly, I don't hate it. It was a little sweet, but the sauce from the dining hall has added sugar, so it wasn't really a surprise. My dining hall has really good grilled chicken, so it was nice to be able to add actual flavor to the dish. I would probably just add more cheddar cheese or crushed red pepper flakes to make it a ten out of ten." Rating: 9/10

Adam's Opinion:

"This one met my expectations perfectly. A simple combination of barbecue sauce and shredded chicken onto some mac and cheese paired very well. I would totally try this again." Rating: 9/10

Overall Rating: 9/10

Greek Pasta Salad

Izzy Tice

What you'll need:

- Easy Mac, drained, no cheese

- Feta cheese

- Black olives

- Cherry tomatoes

- Bell peppers

- Italian dressing

- Meat of choice (optional)


If you find yourself with Easy Mac and no desire for cheese, this recipe is for you. Unlike the other recipes, you won't need the cheese powder for your pasta, but you can save it for later to make some extra-cheesy mac.

For this, we took some fresh vegetables and other ingredients from the salad bar, put them in a container, poured some dressing on top, and went back to the dorm to cook the pasta. After the mac has boiled, we just drained out all of the water, dumped the entire container of ingredients into the pot, and finally added some salt and pepper. You can eat this warm, or chill it in your mini fridge for up to a week.

Izzy's Opinion:

"I didn't like how it looked, and I disliked the taste even more. It was just kind of... sad. My dining hall doesn't always have the freshest veggies, and we didn't have the resources to properly cut up the broccoli or tomatoes into smaller bites. With the right ingredients, this could be a good healthier option, but we ended up dumping the rest of it out." Rating: 2.4/10

Adam's Opinion:

"Before even taking a bite, I wasn't looking that forward into trying this upgrade. The dining hall vegetable quality changes from time to time, and visually it was not my favorite. I gave it a low rating because I felt like it had potential, but needed much more improvement for things like seasonings, dressing, and the size and texture of the vegetables." Rating: 2.5/10

Overall Rating: 2.45/10

Wild Card Round: Hawaiian Mac

Izzy Tice

What you'll need:

- Easy Mac (with cheese)

- Pineapple

- Ham


Once the Easy Mac is thoroughly cooked with the cheese mixed in, we chopped up some ham from the salad bar and stirred it in so it would be warm. Next, we drained some pineapple from the fruit bar, and made sure it was very dry before adding it in small chunks.

Izzy's Opinion  

"Thanks! I hate it." Rating: -0.2/10

Adam's Opinion

"It was a fun idea. It wasn't fun feeling the different textures, the pineapple juice, and the dry ham in my mouth. I don't think I would ever do this again, but I give it one point for being edible. Although if you're into it, by all means go ahead." Rating: 1/10

Overall Rating: 0.4/10

One-Ingredient Upgrades

pork, meat, barbecue, bacon, beef, sauce, sausage, chicken
Jocelyn Hsu

If you don't feel like "cooking" anything super fancy, here are some simple additions for when you try to upgrade mac & cheese to make it seem a little less sad:

-Sprinkle on bacon bits

-Add a little bit of hot sauce

-Add more cheese

-Use spices like garlic (powder or minced)

-Mix in some crushed red pepper for more heat

vegetable, pepper, onion
Gabby Quintana

-Eat it with chicken (fried, grilled, or strips)

-Throw in vegetables like broccoli or tomatoes (fresh or roasted)

-Mix in butter to make it more rich and indulgent


Before you try to upgrade mac & cheese, or any dish, make sure you would eat the ingredients alone first. For example, the combination of canned pineapple and lukewarm ham from the dining hall is kind of (very) gross. Four cheeses, however, sounds delicious. Know your dining halls, and scope out your salad bars and soup toppings to find new things to add to everyday  meals.

"College foods" like Easy Mac shouldn't be boring or make you feel unsatisfied. Swiping a couple of toppings from the dining hall or picking up some basic spices from the store can make eating in college much better. Easy Mac is easier to prepare than most other pasta options at the store, and at just a dollar a box, it's more affordable, too. Don't be afraid to experiment with toppings and upgrading otherwise boring meals so you can upgrade mac & cheese.

Finally, if you're lactose intolerant, know that four kinds of cheese will catch up to you, so you better be willing to sacrifice yourself in the name of Easy Mac.