It’s hard to deny the nostalgic pull of a great bowl of mac and cheese. Some may call it a juvenile indulgence or overly basic — but to those naysayers, we say, nah. Cheese. Tastes. Amazing. Even in powdered form.
Macaroni and cheese has a deep history in our culinary past. A recipe for the dish appears in some of our oldest surviving cookbooks. It’s a fast, satisfying way to deliver some nourishing starch and lush protein into the system. It’s warming and, perhaps, the epitome of comfort food.
As easy as it is to whip up some pasta and cheese in any kitchen, boxed mac ‘n cheese has become a staple of many pantries across the land. So, we had to ask ourselves, which boxed mac and cheese actually deserves a place on that pantry shelf? And, that’s a legit tough question. Different boxes have different pluses and minuses. You have to consider powdered cheese mix versus the creamy packets of processed cheese. Then there’s shells vs. macaroni vs. every other pasta shape debate.
With so many choices out there today, we decided to do you all a solid and break down our absolute favorites.
10. Whole Foods 365 Organic Macaroni & Cheese
Whole Foods brand 365 is a damn good box of mac and cheese. It’s fairly cheap by Whole Foods’ standards. But, it’s not breaking any new ground. It’s a good, standard box of mac & cheese to have on hand, but there is a plainness to it. You won’t be dancing in the streets with comfort food glee, but you will be pretty satisfied, in the end.
9. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
We have to admit, Kraft’s original box of macaroni and cheese will always have a place in our hearts. It’s likely the box we all grew up with. And, admittedly, there’s just something about the neon orange cheese powder that mixes perfectly with that extra splash of whole milk and a little pat of butter.
If there is a failing here, it’s that the noodles are imbued with a hint of cardboard. Though, you can kitchen hack through that and boil the macaroni in a nice veg broth to amp up the flavor a bit.
8. Back To Nature Organic Macaroni & Cheese
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Back to Nature’s Organic mac & cheese edges out the original Kraft version, but only barely. The noodles aren’t as small and cardboard-y and the cheese powder isn’t quite as artificial-forward. But, really, we’re splitting some fine hairs here.
7. Trader Joe’s Organic Shells and White Cheddar
This is the first big step up in the ol’ mac & cheese department. First, we’re getting into shells territory (technically Orecchiette if you wanna get all Italiano about it). But, it’s this nuance that makes all the difference. The mini shells make for a wider delivery system for the cheese sauce. Second, while Trader Joe’s doesn’t quite elevate the cheese sauce to new heights, it’s perfectly passable and has a very savory bite to it.
So, yeah, if you’re a Trader Joe’s acolyte, you can’t go wrong with his choice.
6. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Deluxe
The cheese powder versus cheese sauce debate divides us all. Some swear by the neon powders, others will ride hard for the pillowy packets of creamy cheese sauce. We tend to believe that they can both be good in their own ways. There’s a time and place for everything, right?
Kraft’s Mac and Cheese Deluxe hits very close to the bullseye with their sauce. It’s creamy but doesn’t quite hit the depth and savoriness of classic Velveeta. Plus, the large elbow pasta isn’t as good as shells.
5. Horizon Organic Cheesy Mac
There’s something oddly satisfying about Horizon’s Cheesy Mac. They haven’t reinvented any wheels here. It’s just a good standard of cheese powder-based mac and cheese. The noodles are solid and a little bigger. The cheese powder is well-balanced and smooths out nicely when you mix it. It feels like the perfect box to sit in the middle of all this mac and cheese.
4. Annie’s Shells and Real-Aged Cheddar
One notch up from the Trader Joe’s version — and about one foot away from it on the shelf in the store — is Annie’s Mac & Cheese. And, we have to admit, it is that little bit better. Annie’s figured out that using top-end, organic products in the pasta and the cheese just makes it taste better.
The mini shells don’t have that dreaded cardboard scent and the cheese package really does shine when mixed with whole milk and butter. There’s a smoothness here that you rarely get with other cheese powder options that are equal parts welcoming and comforting.
3. Velveeta Shells and Cheese
Velveeta came hard at the classic Kraft mac and cheese in the mid-1980s and changed the game. Their cheesy sauce packets made us all question what role, if any, cheese powder had in our lives.
As mentioned above, shells are just a straight up better delivery system for a cheese sauce. And, yeah, Velveeta is the Frankenstein’s Monster of the cheese world. But, like the Monster, if you love it, it’ll love you back. The shells have a nice heft. The cheese leans heavily into savory and lush flavors. What’s not to love?
2. Annie’s Organic Grassfed Macaroni & Cheese
Okay, one last cheese powder entry needs to be on the list. There’s a depth to the cheese on this one that deserves a mention. The grass-fed California cows that the cheese comes from does come through here. The cheese sauce is a little bolder and lusher when you add a little cream and butter.
Is it really better tasting? Who knows. Maybe there is a sense of self-aggrandizing at play knowing the milk doesn’t come from factory farming. But, who cares? If it tastes better and is better, then what’s wrong with that?
1. Annie’s Creamy Deluxe Aged Cheddar
Lastly, we have to go with Annie’s. It’s a cheese sauce packet that hits the perfect balance of creamy and savory. It’s shells, not macaroni. Which, again, is an A+ cheese delivery system.
Hack alert: The real highlight here is that you can cook the pasta off in some broth til al dente, then add the cheese sauce and bake it for 20 mins on 375F. It adds a whole new dimension to the shells and cheese experience and it actually works well here. Trust us and try it. You can even get fancy and grate some fresh parm and crack some black pepper over the top.