Life

We Tasted A Whole Ton Of Boxed Mac & Cheese To Find The Absolute Best

I am not afraid to call myself the foremost global expert on boxed mac & cheese. Not like that’s some incredible thing to brag about, but still… I’m the guy. It’s me.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. I actually like boxed mac & cheese. A lot. I’ve had boxed mac meals that I’ll remember longer than certain middling pasta dishes in Italy.
  2. I still eat boxed mac. Some might say too often. Probably at least five times a month. And I generally like it more than the fancier versions at restaurants where the chef has a butchery chart tattooed on his forearm.
  3. I can place it in a very broad context. I get to taste some incredibly elevated dishes as a food writer and have traveled to 50+ countries as a travel writer. So when I talk about this dish, I’m able to reflect on it both globally and on the massive food spectrum from “mass-produced slop” to “haute cuisine” — I will now wedgie myself for typing all of that.
  4. I care enough about the dish to brag about my authority on it. Who the hell else would do that? What a dork! But I stand by my dorky brag.

Anyway, don’t expect any expert quotes here. I’ll be relying on myself as a resource and you should be damned glad to have me. Because I have some serious thoughts about what makes a good boxed mac & cheese:

  1. Noodles that stay al dente AF. Boxed mac is cheap. Sometimes that means that the noodles are terrible. I have no idea how much money a brand can save by ditching cheap-but-good noodles for slightly-cheaper-but-trash noodles but I guarantee that the purchasing agents at some of these brands know. And they occasionally opt for slightly-cheaper-but-trash.
  2. Cheese that hits you in the sharp cheddar pleasure centers. Aged, sharp cheddar should have pieces of calcium lactate in it. Those “flavor crystals” ignite your salivary glands in a way that few foods can. Good mac and cheese can have a similar effect — it sounds crazy, but it’s true. That’s the goal, to hit the salivary glands like a proper sharp cheddar.
  3. It can’t have a bunch of mess-ups in the name of cost. Remember that for a box of mac to sell at your grocer for $1.75, it has to wholesale at around $0.88. This means it probably gets made for a raw materials cost of $0.44 (grocery markups are usually 100% up and down the supply chain). The result of this cheapness is that (at least) one wrong decision is often made in the name of price.
  4. It can’t have a bunch of mess-ups in the name of being the new, cool kids of mac. We’re in the midst of a Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) revolution. Barriers to entry are lower than ever and brands can advertise on social media. It’s a boom that mac & cheese has very much been part of, as chefs who grew up with Kraft think “Maybe this is a category that I can improve and profit off of!” The problem is that trying to overthink boxed mac often makes it worse.

If you read all of that and you’re still interested, well, you’re in the right place. Because I bought up every dang box of mac & cheese I could find on the grocery store shelves and prepared them all to the exact specifications outlined on each respective box. Note: That means a ton of butter and milk and a generally soupy mac in many cases. In reality, I think the right preparation is probably something like Cliff Booth does it in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood — pasta water, maybe a little butter, and the cheese packet. (Add a little bulk powdered cheese and a white cheddar cube if you want to overload it.)

Okay, preamble over — on to the rankings!

GENUINELY HORRIFYING

31. Kraft — Triple Cheese (Instant Microwave Edition)

Mac And Cheese
Steve Bramucci

Price: $4.74 (4 Pack)

Tasting Notes:

Holy hell, this is poison. I mean literal death. And I love Kraft. Spoiler, it ranks very highly here. And yet… yuck. Pasta is not meant to be microwaved and…

How much do I have to write? It’s gross. A slurry of mealy-yet-soggy noodles in a cheese sludge. No more explanation needed — I feel like if I go on any longer I’m going to just use the word “sludge” over and over, which is dull.

The Bottom Line:

Seriously, do not buy this under any circumstance. When the end of the world comes and we all storm 7-11 for food, take the gum first. Grab the frozen burritos. Eat cigarettes. These are not meant to enter a human body under any circumstance.

I’ve never un-recommended a food more strongly since the Cup Noodle pumpkin flavor.

AGGRESSIVELY BAD

30. ANNIE’S — Macaroni & Classic Cheddar With 12g Added Protein

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price:. $4.49

Tasting Notes:

What a f*cking mess. Whatever method they used to add protein to this was the wrong one. A little packet of toasted walnuts to sprinkle on top would have been waaaayyy better. Also, how desperate are you to get 12g of protein in your body if you need your mac & cheese to deliver it? Buy some pistachios!

Okay, the taste — yeeeech. You know that line from “Rapper’s Delight” where he says “the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mush, and the chicken tastes like wood”? No? Well, I queued it up for you.

This mac fits all three of those descriptors — soggy, mush, and tastes like wood. Yes, I cooked it right. It’s HARD to mess up noodles with gluten in them, but Annies did it!

The Bottom Line:

This mac & cheese fails the number one rule of transforming non-healthy foods into semi-healthy foods: IT STILL HAS TO TASTE GOOD.

29. FREAK FLAG — Kale & Cheddar

Mac and Cheese
Amazon

Price: $14.99 (6-Pack)

Tasting Notes:

This is wretched. Again, there have to be better ways to consume kale quickly. Like, considering the amount of actual kale, maybe… just freaking bite a piece of kale? One leaf should do it. And then eat your regular mac and cheese, y’know? Doesn’t that make more sense than dumping chlorophyll-infused cheese powder on noodles and having the whole thing look vaguely green in an off-putting way and tasting of strange health food powder made from seaweed?

Look, I often add kale to my boxed mac. All the time. Mac & cheese & kale is pretty much standard at hipster restaurants. But making the kale into a powder is the wrong call. It just doesn’t even come close to working.

The Bottom Line:

Someone should have stopped this somewhere along the way to say, “Team, this just doesn’t work — flavor-wise — so let’s go back to the drawing board.”

28. CHEETOS — Flamin’ Hot

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $1.34

Tasting Notes:

If we’re being honest, this should be filed under “unranked” — it’s so far outside the parameters of what we’re trying to do here. Still, I like being complete, so here goes:

From my — clearly anguished — tasting notes:

“Here I am, taking boxed macaroni & cheese incredibly seriously. A man in the middle of his career intellectualizing food that he’s been eating since he was six. And then into the mix we throw this… neon pink mac & cheese that tastes exactly like a neon red snack it’s made from. But this is meant to be a meal and is therefore far more embarrassing than even a bag of flaming hot Cheetos, which is already a relatively embarrassing snack for an adult human to eat.”

“Am I supposed to review this? How? It is precisely what it promises. There is no cheese flavor anymore, it just tastes ‘flamin’,’ which is the worst type of spice — more acrid and scalding than any sort of chili pepper flavor. To be more precise, it tastes of spice conveyed via chemicals that are not particularly fit for human consumption, with a slight overtone of instant ramen — a flavor note I have always gotten from Flamin’ Hot Cheetos products. As if there is perhaps a little bit of chicken seasoning inside the whole mix to give it a false sort of heartiness.

I could go on, but that would be futile. The packaging is truthful here and tells you what you need to know.

The Bottom Line:

These are for the person who looks at the grocery store shelf, sees Cheeto Flamin’ Hot Mac & Cheese, and says, “Yes, I want to eat that.” If you are that person, you will not be disappointed. The rest of us should stay miles away.

27. CRACKER BARREL — Sharp White Cheddar

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $3.68

Tasting Notes:

I’ve never eaten at a Cracker Barrel but it sounds like a place that would be absolutely overloaded with salt. So I was precisely 0.00% surprised when I discovered that this is overly salty. It does have more of true white cheddar taste than Kraft or Velveeta — which I like — but really… the flavor here is 99% just salt.

I feel like even these noodles and the box are probably made out of salt — the way Catherine Zeta-Jone’s character made trinkets out of cocaine in Traffic. It’s silky and smooth and the noodles are al dente but what reasonable human would prefer this salt bomb when there are so many options on the market?

The Bottom Line:

From my tasting notes: “Salt. Salt. Salt. Salt.” Clearly, I’m a food reviewing talent to be reckoned with.

DEFINITELY NOT PARTICULARLY FUN TO EAT

26. FULL CIRCLE — Mac & Cheese

Full Circle mac cheese
Full Circle

Price: $1.99

Tasting Notes:

Considering that this is a pretty straightforward entry and the straightforward entries do well in this ranking, there’s actually so much about this brand that I don’t like. The powder is sort of grainy and the cheese tastes faker than most of them. Yes, I realize that this effect could be some sort of switcheroo and that my palate is calibrated to something more fake so an un-fake product seems to taste fake but… whatever. I don’t like the cheese.

Fake or real, what cheesiness there is gets delivered with a whole lot of salt. The noodles are fine and springy in a way that I enjoy but that graininess is hard to get over upon multiple bites. It might seem small but it’s definitely something that would make me specifically avoid this brand, which is saying a fair bit in a genre where almost every product is at least “passable.”

The Bottom Line:

Eating this is like voluntarily getting sand in your teeth. Though, feel free to take that with a grain of salt… Of which this brand contains waaaaay too many.

25. FREAK FLAG — Four Cheese Mac & Freak

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $2.99

Tasting Notes:

This mac is like the “Seven-minute abs” convo from Something About Mary. The competition is doing three-cheese? We’ll do four!

But the four cheeses are the wrong ones. It’s too funky and just generally un-harmonious. It’s a nice concept but it’s not working — in part because mac & cheese really only needs one cheese: sharp cheddar. Anyway, this is odd on the palate, it’s confusing and muddled and the gorgonzola notes push it in the wrong direction.

The Bottom Line:

A mildly good idea with a specifically bad execution.

24. CHEETOS — Mac ’N Cheese Cheesy Jalapeño

Mac & Cheese
Cheetos

Price: $1.79

Tasting Notes:

Another really interesting idea with sloppy execution. I often dice up jalapenos or serranos in my boxed mac. But powder-fying them takes away everything about the peppers that is green and bright except the color itself, which is the one part that you don’t want.

Anyway, I’m happy to see rotini getting some shine (my favorite noodle!) and they stay al dente, but the spice and cheese and color don’t quite work. Copy this with a better mac and real jalapenos and you’re in for a treat.

The Bottom Line:

Solid idea made bad because of the limits of factory-produced food.

23. WHOLE FOODS 365 — Macaroni & Cheese

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: No Price Listed

Tasting Notes:

These noodles beg to get soggy. This is wild because all the other organic noodles I’ve ever tasted in my life do a great job staying al dente. But these… well, you need to track them with a 10-digit timer to make sure you get them cooked right. I haven’t messed up noodles in decades and I messed these up.

Even if you didn’t make that mistake, the powder is too fine. Rather than clumping in a way that makes them feel extra cheesy like Kraft, this powder feels like it’s trying to polish your teeth. The cheese taste doesn’t taste chemical-y, but it doesn’t have any piquancy or sharpness either. It’s bland.

The Bottom Line:

This mac & cheese is trash. You had GLUTEN to work with! You had DAIRY! How could you possibly mess these up this bad?

The Bottom Line:

It’s so hard to get me to say “meh” about mac, but I said it here.

22. CHEETOS — Bold And Cheesy

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $1.34

Tasting Notes:

I guess what I have to say here is that these taste exactly like Cheetos and what I have to say about that is that Cheetos probably should not be turned into an entrée. It is a lot of Cheeto-ness, which is distinctly different from “cheesiness.” This cheese actually tastes like Cheeto dust. That tastes a lot better on a puffed corn tube than it does on rotini.

The Bottom Line:

Cheetos are the right form factor for Cheetos cheese. Not pasta.

THE LONG, UNINSPIRED MIDDLE

21. FULL CIRCLE — Cheddar (Gluten Free)

Mac & Cheese
Steve Bramucci

Price:

Tasting Notes:

These are pretty “fine.” The noodles aren’t the best gluten-free entry on this list, but they’re not terrible. The cheese is a little too powdery. The flavor is just okay. Not much more to say — with such a saturated market, there’s literally no reason you can’t do better.

The Bottom Line:

This product is not offensively bad but nothing should compel you to purchase it.

20. KRAFT — Deluxe Sharp Cheddar

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $3.06

Tasting Notes:

All of my complaints about “sauce” mac & cheese vs. “powder” are evident here, so I might as well lay them out once, so I can re-reference them:

  1. Liquid sauce macs always read a bit too salty to me. You get some of that classic Kraft boxed dinner taste but you also get some really strong sodium.
  2. While I like the creaminess of fake cheese, it’s almost a bridge too far — you taste the fakeness more because the cheese is too silky.
  3. The noodles are the wrong size. Mac & cheese should be coated with sauce (with a tight noodle that’s almost like bucatini) not filled with sauce, which happens when you use a broader noodle. It throws off the golden ratio.

The Bottom Line:

Not terrible. But I am definitely confused by people who buy this over traditional boxed Kraft boxed mac. It’s worse in literally every way.

19. WALMART GREAT VALUE — Shells & Cheese (Three Cheese)

Mac And Cheese Ranking
Stephen Bramucci

Price: .43¢

Tasting Notes:

As I was leaving on an international trip, I raced to Walmart because some cornball on OTHER SITE REDACTED who copied our blind tasting format named this brand the best. As a person who actually writes about food, I’m here to tell you — it is not. Not even particularly close. Even considering the absurdly low price.

The noodles stay al dente, which is nice, but there’s a general fakeness and cheapness that permeates every part of this product. It has some residual cardboard taste. The cheese is grainy in an offputting way. It’s mac & cheese that’s been pushed way too hard to be cheap.

The Bottom Line:

Not trash. Just too cheap — with small but noticeable flaws (to the refined palate!) that signal as much.

18. CRACKER BARREL — Sharp Cheddar Mac & Cheese Dinner

Mac and Cheese
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $3.68

Tasting Notes:

It’s not as bad as the Cracker Barrel “Pure Salt” flavor but it’s still overly salty and the silkiness is still weird and chemical-feeling to me. You’d have to really like Cracker Barrel to seek this out. Do people stan that brand hard? Hard enough to want to but this with 17 better options on the market?

The Bottom Line:

Not putrid. But still salty with an overly broad noodle and fake smoothness.

17. TRADER JOE’S — Mac & Cheese

Mac And Cheese Ranking
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $2.99

Tasting Notes:

This is the first brand that truly feels like it was made for small children. It’s just so mild. So delicate on the palate.

WHAT IS THIS, MAC & CHEESE FOR ANTS?!?!?

There’s not much wrong with it in any technical sense. The noodles are fine but overall everything is just too light and the flavors are faint. The cheese doesn’t really have any punch. That’s probably because TJ’s didn’t use some cool weird chemical that’s horrible for me but nevertheless — it doesn’t taste the best.

16. VELVEETA — Shells & Cheese Original

Velveeta
Stephen Bramuci

Price: $3.53

Tasting Notes:

I like Velveeta. I make sloppy joes with Velveeta singles twice or three times a year and Velveeta nachos once a year when I’m ready to indulge. But, once again, these “cheese sauce” macs are uniformly oversalted. And this is coming from someone who has lived and worked in the food industry (where we all blow our palates out with salt) and who definitely enjoys salt in the right measure.

This is the highest-ranked of the liquid cheese bunch simply because Velveeta is comfort food for me and ignites a sense memory. It’s creamy, sure, but these cheese sauce macs have a type of creaminess that hits the uncanny valley — they approximate creaminess with chemicals but the texture reads more “space-age polymers” than “tasty food I like eating.”

The Bottom Line:

The best of the “cheese sauce” macs. But that’s not saying much.

15. BANZA — Mac & Cheese Made With Chickpea Pasta

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $24.99 (Six-Pack)

Tasting Notes:

The two major problems with gluten-free pasta are 1) they don’t taste like anything gluten and 2) they don’t stay al dente. For those of us who love pasta and particularly love gluten, those are big hurdles. For what it’s worth, I think the latter is a bigger problem than the former. This pasta doesn’t taste strictly like flour-and-egg-based pasta, but it definitely stays al dente. Impressively so. And once you have the cheese mixed in, you’re really not missing much.

It’s less salty than most of its competitors and still has that sharp cheesy flavor that hits you in the back corners of your mouth. I’m declaring it right now: this is ar GF brand that can box it out with the gluten brands.

The Bottom Line:

I really like this one a lot. It’s not going to hit anyone’s number one but it’s definitely one to grab if you’re staying away from gluten. Very functional.

SOLID BUT NOT ICONIC

14. TRADER JOE’S — Rice Pasta & Cheddar

Mac And Cheese Ranking
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $7.99

Tasting Notes:

As I try to veer a (tiny little bit) away from consuming 13 pounds of gluten every day, I’ve gotten very into this brand. The cheese is — mysteriously — better than the non-GF version by TJs and the rice noodles definitely stay al dente. (Note: they will get soggy and start to melt together, so you have to keep them really al dente, which I don’t mind.)

There’s actually a mysterious thing that happens in that the noodles sort of… give off a rice liquid in the pot. So when they’re hot and you add butter and cheese and milk, they all congeal and the sauce is incredibly silky. It’s a weird — and welcome — feature. That said, this pasta does carry some “rice” flavor to it. It’s not going to fool you into thinking it’s regular pasta.

The Bottom Line:

A very solid gluten-free product with an incredibly silky sauce. That said, it’s definitely made with rice and you do taste that.

13. ANNIE’S — Shells & White Cheddar

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $3.29

Tasting Notes:

White cheddar is an interesting conceit in mac & cheese. Typically, white cheddar is aged longer and therefore sharper. But in this case, it means that there’s an absence of cheddar flavor and instead leans more into other white hard cheeses, like Parmesan or Asiago.

Also, while the powder is a little finer in this cheese, it actually dissolves less readily — so you can get a little bit of grainy mouthfeel. On top of that, shells aren’t really the right form for boxed mac & cheese — they take longer to cook and they can be a little stiff. Overall, this is more of an Italian dish than true ‘merican mac & cheese.

The Bottom Line:

Fine for what it is, but the white cheddar obsession in the mac & cheese market, if well-intentioned, is misguided.

12. GOODLES — Asiago and Parmesan

Mac & Cheese
Steve Bramucci

Price: $15.96 (Pack of 4)

Tasting Notes:

Goodles is an upstart brand big on IG and co-owned by Gal Gadot and this is their “three cheese” or “white cheddar” flavor. It features two hard cheeses — asiago and parmesan. As such, it’s a very good version of the product (which has become a very established mac & cheese subcategory). So good, in fact, that it’s practically not mac & cheese. It pretty much veers into being an instant Italian meal.

(In fact, Goodles, which — spoiler — fared very well in this ranking, also has a cacio e pepe flavor that I’m not reviewing because it’s fully an Italian dish and not what American diners know as mac & cheese at all.)

All of that said, this tastes really good and wisely uses spirals. Whatever is good for us about these (that’s the conceit of Goodles — like Freak Flag and other brands) isn’t something you can taste. The flavor actually is rich with hard Italian cheeses, which is — again — really tasty.

Alas, I’m a cheddar cheese loyalist when it comes to mac and cheese. If I want parmesan with noodles, I’ll make it myself.

The Bottom Line:

Great for what it is. But the product is sort of tangential to what we know as “boxed mac & cheese.”

11. KRAFT — Three Cheese Shells

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $1.12

Tasting Notes:

I’m not exactly sure what market segment this is trying to fill. It tastes mostly like the regular Kraft mac & cheese, although it’s done with a shell which is kinda-fine but certainly not better. I find it endlessly fascinating that they called this “three cheese” but make absolutely no mention of what three kinds of cheese there are. Not on the box, not on the website.

These cheeses are known only as cheese one, cheese two, and cheese three. Do they think salt is a cheese? That’s my bet.

The Bottom Line:

This is fine but if you’re going with Kraft I don’t think this is any more cheesy or flavorful than the OG. Unless you are a zebra and spend your days at the salt licks of the Sahara and therefore need a little more salt in your life in order to taste something. In that case… maybe.

10. ANNIE’S — Shells And Aged Cheddar

Mac and Cheese
Steve Bramucci

Price: $1.29

Tasting Notes:

What’s different from this and the main Annie’s flavor? The idea that it’s aged? Shells? Are there people who really look for shells? I don’t like them as a mac & cheese form factor (have I said that yet? Should I mention it a few more times?). Part of the shell often stays overly al dente.

Besides that gripe, these are pretty solid — the cheese flavor is good and I like that they just zeroed in on cheddar.

The Bottom Line:

Solid but also pretty forgettable, especially with so many Annie’s varieties on the market.

9. CAMP — Classic Cheddar Mac’N’Cheese

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $19.99 (Three-Pack)

Tasting Notes:

This brand is… sort of idiotic in its marketing? It calls itself “plant-based” to mean that the noodles are gluten-free and made with some interesting veggies. Carrots, for example. But… wheat is also a plant, fam. Also, two apostrophes is too many for mac & cheese. Who does your packaging?

That said: This tastes an awful lot like Kraft while still being “healthy.” It’s the best gluten-free brand I’ve found and, as you can see, I’ve tried them all. My partner and I have probably about 10 arguments per year about how often I make mac & cheese and I feel like this is going to be the brand that helps me win the war.

There’s some slight graininess to the cheese, but this definitely doesn’t need a consolation contest to compete. The noodles still fall apart a little bit but it’s something a true Italian might notice, definitely not your kids or your drunk friends at the kicker. The cheddar taste is nice and strong and unlike Trader Joe’s GF option — which is also really good — it doesn’t taste quite so strong of its alternate products used to make the noodle.

The Bottom Line:

The best gluten-free mac & cheese on the market.

8) ANNIE’S — Mac & [EXTREME] cheese (shells & white cheddar)

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $1.29

Tasting Notes:

You have to respect Annie‘s for taking a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese marketing scheme from the 80s, “Kraft cheese and macaroni!” — which was deemed too decadent for them — and applying it to a wholesome organic foods brand.

This is exactly the same as the other Annie’s white cheddar flavor but with more cheese. It’s EXTREME. But in lowercase, because it’s Annie’s and super polite. Jabs aside, it’s really tasty and does a better job approximating white cheddar than any other brand except Goodles.

The Bottom Line:

More cheese is, generally speaking, better. If there’s a saturation point, Annie’s hasn’t found it yet.

7) GOODLES — “Shella Good” Aged White Cheddar And Shells

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $13.57

Tasting Notes:

As I referenced before, I think the people who make macaroni and cheese are confused about the true difference between white cheddar and orange cheddar, which is really just dye. But even on store shelves, white cheddar is usually aged more and therefore sharper; orange cheddar is more basic, for the mainstream palate.

So you would think that white cheddar flavors would have a sharper cheddar taste, right?

Wrong. Instead, they taste like hard cheeses — parm, asiago, pecorino — but the cheddary-ness is lost, This flavor, in particular, really resembles more of an Italian grana padano than it does any sort of cheddar. Still, some of the qualities that Goodles gets right are in evidence here. The noodles are high quality, as is the cheese. And the flavor balance is on point.

If I want “white cheddar” mac & cheese, I’ll order the superb Hoosier Hill Farm white cheddar powder. But if I can’t have that, this is a solid second option.

The Bottom Line:

A quality product that doesn’t seem to fully savvy what the hell white cheddar actually is.

THE TOP SHELF

6) KRAFT — Macaroni & Cheese

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: .99¢

Tasting Notes:

As the person who has probably eaten the most boxes of Kraft macaroni & cheese (“Kraft Dinner” in Canada) currently alive, I can say with authority that you’d have to be a little bit insane to make this to the specifications on the box. Four tablespoons is just way too much butter for the amount of noodles and a whole cup of milk turns it into soup. I would go with about two tablespoons of butter and no milk or just a capful — that gives you the cheesiness that hits you in the back of your taste buds. If you’re going to use the specified level of butter, find a non-salted butter because again this becomes too much salt.

What works here is the cheesiness. It’s sharp and distinct and its own flavor. Whereas the powder from many brands in the field tastes dusty or grainy, this cheese clumps a little, which is actually good. It’s sort of like how we don’t notice pepper in our food but if we forgot to wash our spinach right, we’d notice the grain of the residual dirt no matter how many other ingredients were added (obviously this has happened to me). The fineness of the grain matters. Not sure if that all makes sense but the way this powder can clump if not mixed is really tasty to me.

As for the noodles, they are fine but warning — they go from al dente to soggy fast. I boil these for about five minutes. Eight, which the box recommends, sounds literally terrifying but I am aware that this is a food mostly consumed by kids.

The Bottom Line:

Incredible cheesiness and the recipe that defined the genre, but to experience it at its best you should modify it from the instructions on the box.

5) ANNIE’S — Mac & [EXTREME] Cheese

Box Mac
Stephen Bramucci

Price: $2.49

Tasting Notes:

Kraft was stupid to ditch its extra cheese plan from the “Kraft CHEESE and macaroni”-era. Cheese tastes good and more cheese tastes better. Considering that most of these cheese products are made out of whey protein and dried milk solid, it’s not exactly like they increase the calories a ton. The noodles are al dente and there’s a taste of sharp cheddar and the sort of overload of cheese that you want from a totally indulgent boxed product meant to hit some comfort notes.

The Bottom Line:

These are great. Macaroni instead of shells would have been even better.

4) BACK TO NATURE — Organic Crazy Bugs Macaroni & Cheese Dinner

Mac and cheese
Walmart

Price: Currently Sold Out

Tasting Notes:

This brand seems to have some serious distribution problems. That’s a shame because it’s incredibly tasty. The website boasts a mac version of this product but I’ve never seen it and even this one I had to get online. Maybe the brand is defunct? Or were they part of some mysterious class-action lawsuit that also killed the very similar tasting Kraft Organic? (The now defunct Kraft Organic — like Back to Nature — paired organic noodles with non-organic cheese, which seems to present a tricky marketing conundrum.)

Anyyyyway, this is really good. Those shapes hold cheese beautifully and stay al dente nicely. They even have some true Italian spring to them. And the cheese is excellent product that isn’t powdery and has some bite.

The Bottom Line:

Really good… if you can find it!

3) KRAFT — Spirals

Mac And Cheese Ranking
Stephen Bramucci

Price: .99¢

Tasting Notes:

I had a real Kraft Spirals phase when I was about ten. Whereas I think shells are the wrong form for powdered cheese, spirals work great. The noodles are better at staying al dente and the cheese is classic Kraft — it’s comfort food for kids who grew up in the ’80s.

From my tasting notes after 20-some boxes: “I have a feeling this is going to be ranked pretty high — it’s not as good as that mythical Kraft Organic that disappeared from stores, but it’s pretty close.”

The Bottom Line:

This beats the OG Kraft simply because there’s more margin for error when cooking the noodles.

2) ANNIE’S — Macaroni & Classic Cheddar

Annie's Mac & Cheese
Annie

Price: $3.29

Tasting Notes:

As we’ve seen, Annie’s has way too many flavors. That said, the OGs are fantastic. I sort of hate to say that something is “better than the Kraft” — I have a lot of loyalty there! — but… this is better. The macaroni stays al dente longer and the flavor is not quite as salty. It actually has more calories but less sodium than Kraft, which is more or less in line with what I expected from the taste.

As hinted at above, there was a time when Kraft had an organic noodle paired with non-organic cheese but they didn’t clarify that on the box and the product probably got them in some trouble before disappearing altogether. For years, I could get it from Canada on Amazon and then for a while on eBay. Now it’s gone — everywhere. Anyway, that was the best mac & cheese I’d tasted for decades. It would’ve done really well in this ranking.

This is reasonable facsimile of that. It’s like Kraft but slightly less artificial in ways that won’t bother someone who is fine with artificial stuff but will please someone looking for something more natural.

The Bottom Line:

Silky and cheesy and al dente and a little bit sharp — this is a sterling product and I’d happily give it #1, if I hadn’t found…

THE CROWN JEWEL

1) GOODLES — Cheddy Mac

mac & cheese
Goodles
mac & cheese
Goodles

Price: $13.57 (Four-Pack)

Tasting Notes:

Our winner shocked me for a whole bunch of reasons. Not the least of which is that they apparently use the same iridescent food packet supplier as the guy I get my psilocybin gummies from. More to the point, every other mac on this list that has tried to “sneak” healthiness into the dish has failed miserably. Those are some of the lowest-ranked boxes, and then here we are with a “healthy mac” at number one. What a world!

To be clear, the reason I usually hate foods that sneak vitamins in is not that I don’t like vitamins. In fact, sneaking vitamins into beloved foods is one of my own favorite cooking tricks. The problem is that with CPG foods, it’s done so clumsily that you taste the healthy stuff and the food almost separately, as if someone crumbled a multivitamin over French fries or ground up a fiber caplet on top of a nacho. But somehow it works here! The noodles taste ever so slightly of chlorophyll — because they have broccoli and kale snuck into them (way smarter than putting it in the powder) — but it’s not overly noticeable. It’s more like if someone boiled some spinach and kale in the same water they used to boil the noodles. I could care less about how healthy they are (I can’t imagine they’re all that good for you) but that added flavor layer actually works.

Like mac & cheese with a “smack of kale.”

The cheese powder is incredibly cheesy. Like Kraft cheesy. Hit’s you hard on the sides of your tongue and not overly powdery. The noodles stay al dente. I could go on but I don’t have to, beyond saying this with complete certainty…

The Bottom Line:

This is the best boxed macaroni and cheese on the market right now. Period. End of discussion. Trust me.

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