Sometimes, the best meals you make aren’t ones you’re going to eat yourself, but are dishes you deliver to friends or family who could use a little help. "After I made this," said chef, food writer, and registered dietician Kristen Carli of Camelback Nutrition & Wellness, "I delivered it to my sister-in-law, who has 3 little ones. This is a great dish to make for new moms or for those that just had surgery."
It’s also, of course, a great dish for your own family — or roommates or visiting friends or whoever happens to be gracing your dining room on a particular night. That’s because this 5-ingredient broccoli chicken mac and cheese is a nourishing, satisfying, and filling meal that delivers plenty of quality protein, carbs, and nutrients, too. Or, in Carli’s words, it’s a "great crowd pleaser!"
The chef (that’s you) will also surely be pleased to find a dish that is remarkably easy to make. If you don’t count the water needed to boil the pasta, (and, okay, maybe some pepper to spice things up as you see fit) this dish really does use just 5 ingredients. Yet, it checks boxes left and right in covering many of the nutrients a body needs. Even better, it has all the right moves when it comes to flavor, too.
How to bake a chicken breast
This recipe calls for working with pre-cooked chicken breasts, but let’s not take it for granted that everyone out there has cooked up enough chicken not to cover the process. When it comes to cooking chicken, you can grill it, poach it, or pan fry it, for starters. Of course, there’s always the option to bake or simply roast it inside an oven. Since baking a chicken breast is about the most reliable, easiest approach when it comes to preparing chicken on a busy weeknight — especially for a recipe like this one where the meat need not be marinated or smoked or flavored in any way prior to use — the oven is our best choice here. If you can manage to avoid some common chicken cooking mistakes with a salt brine beforehand and a quick rest afterward, even better.
To bake a boneless, skinless chicken breast, trim the fat and any unwanted veins or gristly bits. Then, pop the chicken into an oven pre-heated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for between 15 and 20 minutes, checking the internal temperature with a meat thermometer to make sure it has hit 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the minimum safe internal temperature for poultry. Also, you can slice the breast in half and be sure it is white all the way through.
Gather your ingredients for 5-ingredient broccoli chicken mac and cheese
One of the best things about this dish is that it’s made entirely out of shelf, fridge, and freezer items that tend to keep well for long periods of time. It’s also very possible that many, if not most of these ingredients are staples that you already have in your fridge or pantry. You can keep frozen chicken around for months (and boxed macaroni noodles even longer), cheese lasts for weeks, and broccoli and milk keep quite well in the fridge as well.
All you need for this recipe is 1 pound of macaroni pasta, 2 to 3 cooked chicken breasts, 1 head of broccoli, 2 cups of milk, and 4 cups of a 3-cheese blend, divided. If you don’t have macaroni, a similar pasta shape, such as penne or the modern radiatori pasta, would also work fine here.
If you’re feeling creative, this recipe can accommodate lots of variation, too, and especially any nutritious additions you can think of. "You can easily add in more veggies if you wish," says Carli. "Cauliflower or kale would go nicely in this too," and you can also just scale up the amount of broccoli.
Cook the pasta, chop the broccoli, and shred the chicken
First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Then bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta noodles to the water and cook them according to package directions.
In the meantime, as the oven warms and pasta cooks, shred the chicken. You can do this using a pair of forks or a dedicated meat shredding tool in a matter of minutes. Once that’s done, cut the broccoli into florets small enough to be bite-sized. Add both chicken and broccoli into a large bowl and set it aside. Yes, you really will want a large bowl. As you’ll see, large is critical here, since you’ll need room for all the rest of the ingredients and for stirring them together.
Make the cheese sauce for 5-ingredient broccoli chicken mac and cheese
Pour the milk into a medium size saucepan and put it over medium heat, bringing the milk to a simmer. Now add 2 cups of cheese and stir constantly until the cheese is melted, then remove the pan from the heat.
Add this cheese sauce and the cooked pasta to the chicken and broccoli already waiting in the bowl. Then, quickly add the remaining 2 cups of cheese while the mixture is still hot enough to properly melt the dairy. Stir everything well to combine.
And a quick note, as some of you may be thinking about taking a seemingly even easier route here. Don’t cheat with a quick boxed mac and cheese. Honestly, you’d be cheating yourself more than anything else. "I wouldn’t use a boxed mac and cheese," says Carli, as "the homemade cheesy sauce is the best part!"
Bake your 5-ingredient broccoli chicken mac and cheese
Spray a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the mac and cheese, chicken, and broccoli mixture into the dish and spread it out into an even layer. Now bake the dish at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Once that’s done, you can serve and enjoy your easy and ultra-tasty 5-ingredient broccoli chicken mac and cheese!
If you want to dress things up a bit, a layer of breadcrumbs across the top followed by a bit more cheese will make for a nice, golden crust. If you want to spice things up, some black pepper and red chili flakes tossed into the mix will do wonders. But also consider taking it easy and prepping the dish strictly according to the recipe, as you may just be gilding the cheesy lily.