Every night my kids ask for the same thing: mac and cheese! It is their absolute favorite thing to eat for dinner. I'm not going to lie, I love it too. But, I just don't feel great about its lack of veggies, and I do grow tired of the same old thing. So, we decided to shake up our shell mac and cheese by adding two tasty ingredients: broccoli and ham.
Easy Stovetop Mac and Cheese
This shell mac and cheese is incredibly simple to make on the stove AND it can be made in under 30 minutes! Cooking the shell pasta (we love Barilla!) takes the longest, but you can work on your sauce and heat up your broiler while the noodles are cooking.
While we made this dish on the stovetop, we decided to pop our shell mac and cheese dish under the broiler at the very end to give it a nice, crisp and bubbly finish. This is totally optional, but seemed like a no brainer for us since our family loves an added crunch.
What Cheese is Best for Shell Mac and Cheese?
We think that sharp cheddar cheese gives this dish the most flavor and the smoothest finish. However, you can choose any cheese that your family prefers. Delish.com has a great article on The Best Cheeses for Mac & Cheese that is definitely worth checking out! And of course, you can always play around with a combination of cheeses if you want to get creative.
Worth noting is that it's best to grate cheese on your own. Pre-shredded cheese can be hard to melt and prone to clumping when making your sauce.
How to Customize this Shell Mac and Cheese Dish
It's also worth pointing out how customizable this meal is. Broccoli and ham was a great choice for our family, but there are tons of other meat-veggie combos that will work. Bacon, chicken, tuna or ground beef would be tasty in this dish, as would a number of other veggies.
I would recommend picking a veggie(s) that come in a frozen, steam-able bag so you can still save time on cooking the veggies. Good options would be peas or veggie medley (like peas, corn, green beans). You can also put raw spinach or arugula in the pot just as you would the ham. It will cook down quickly in the sauce.
If you'd prefer to omit meat, I'm a big fan of Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles. You can swap the ham for that, but note that you'll have to pan fry the crumbles first (they come frozen). That won't take but a couple minutes.
Why Broil your Shell Mac and Cheese?
We've made shell mac and cheese in lots of different ways. When we've had more time, we've typically baked our shell mac and cheese in the oven for about 25-30 minutes. Yet, on nights when we need dinner on the table ASAP, baking is not the best option.
My sister and I have recently discovered the benefits of using our oven's broiler setting to speed up the cooking process, especially when all you need is to achieve a crisp and bubbly effect. This really cuts down on time but gives you the same crunchy texture and finish that you would have achieved by baking the dish entirely in the oven.
Note: If you decide to do our Mac and Cheese Play Food Craft, set aside some uncooked pasta from the box or buy a little extra from the store.
Steps for Success
>STEP 1: Cook the shells
>STEP 2: Make the cheese sauce
>STEP 3: Combine sauce with pasta, broccoli and ham
>STEP 4: Sprinkle with bread crumbs and cheese and broil!
HAVE A FAMILY COOKING SESSION:
Worth considering is how this might be the perfect time to invite kids to help out in the kitchen (above all, assuming everyone is healthy and properly washing their hands!). We are all spending so much time together at home these days. So, why not make cooking a family activity?! Not only will cooking together help pass the time, but cooking with your kids has some real educational benefits. For example, cooking with kids can boost self-esteem and foster healthy eating habits.
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HOW KIDS CAN HELP MAKE Shell Mac and Cheese
This dish involves many kid-friendly tasks, like measuring and combining ingredients. Here's are some ways for your lil' sous chefs to help make our Shell Mac and Cheese with Broccoli and Ham:
🍅Try the pasta! Let kids decide if shells are done. Hungry toddlers love this job!
🍅Measure! Invite kids to help measure and combine the dry and wet sauce ingredients. We love our Pyrex!
🍅Mix! Let kids bring everything together by blending the pasta, broccoli and ham with the cheese sauce. Kids will love mixing together these colorful ingredients!
🍅Sprinkle! Kids can sprinkle the bread crumbs and remaining cheese onto the dish before placing the casserole under the broiler.
MIMI'S COOKING TIPS:
🍅 If you have the extra time, shred or grate cheese on your own. Pre-shredded cheese can be hard to melt and prone to clumping when making your sauce.
🍅It's really important that your milk is cold when you pour it into the pot with the roux (the butter and flour mix). The combination of the cold and the hot is what makes this work as a thickening agent.
🍅We use shells in this dish, but any pasta that can effectively trap the cheese sauce can work (e.g., macaroni, rotini, penne).
🍅 Door open or closed while broiling? There are very different opinions about this. Typically, people say to leave the broiler door slightly ajar for electric ovens and closed for gas ovens. On the other hand, some say to just do whatever you were taught. Food52 has an interesting answer to this question, and ultimately suggests following your oven's manual.
OUR "KIDIFY" TIPS FOR PICKY EATERS:
🍅Swap the veggies! If your kids don't like broccoli, replace the broccoli with other veggies, like peas, cauliflower or mushrooms. Worth noting is that it's best to pick a veggie you can buy frozen, so you can steam it in microwave to save time.
🍅Change or omit the meat. If ham isn't a family favorite, exchange it for another meat, like chicken, bacon or ground beef. For vegetarians, a meat substitute, like Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles, would work really well in this dish.
🍅"Crunch" it up! Sometimes we sprinkle our macaroni and cheese with crushed potato chips before putting it into the oven. This adds an extra yummy crunch to the dish!
Note: This post contains affiliate links.
Shell Mac and Cheese with Ham and Broccoli
- In medium pot, heat water for pasta. Add 1 T of the salt to water. Once boiling, add pasta and cook according to package. Once pasta is done, strain and set aside. Note: While pasta is cooking, turn on broiler.
- Meanwhile, in a large pot, heat butter on medium heat. Once melted, add flour, mustard powder, and the remaining 1/2 T salt. Whisk together until well combined (this is your roux). Slowly, add cold milk to the roux. Turn heat to high. Whisk mixture frequently until lumps go away. Then stir constantly for 5ish minutes, until you sauce is as thick as you'd like. Add 2 1/2 cups of the cheese and cook until cheese is melted.
- Cook broccoli in microwave according to package. Add pasta, cooked broccoli and ham to cheese sauce. Mix together.
- Pour mixture into 8x10 casserole dish. Sprinkle casserole with bread crumbs and the remaining 1/2 cup of the cheese. Put dish on top rack of oven and broil for 4 minutes.
CHOOSE AN ACTIVITY
CRAFT FOR SHELL MAC AND CHEESE DISH:
Make DIY Play Food Pasta: Mac and Cheese: Make DIY Play Food with actual food! Dye uncooked pasta with food coloring, glue it onto a paper plate, and you have instant mac and cheese play food. It's that easy! This craft guarantees a pretend dinner that your kids will play with over and over again.
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