I believe boxed macaroni and cheese tastes best in a mindless state, when thinking is kept to a minimum and familiarity sounds more enticing than excitement. I doubt any scientist would back me up, but you probably know what I’m talking about, right? Perhaps you’re a bit stressed, and any decision hurts your head, or maybe your kids refuse to eat any other edible substance on earth. No need to explain. The box is there for you when you need it.
Growing up, I assumed that the box required for this particular moment had to be Kraft. But while it remains the most popular brand, the number of competitors vying for your attention continues to grow, making what used to be an automatic choice into something slightly more complex.
Nearly every major grocery store now carries its own version, hoping to lure you with either lower prices or claims of more natural ingredients. We tested eight nationally available boxes, sticking to the most basic version of each, while avoiding flavor options or any other pasta shapes besides the elbow. (Sorry Minion-shaped mac and cheese, your day will come.)
First, some criteria. The pasta needs some kind of texture. Sauce that is smooth and creamy beats gritty and dry every time. And while this should go without saying, actual cheese flavor helps.
We held a blind taste test for the Food & Dining staff, asking everyone to give notes and a final score for each. I prepared for statistical nonsense, with all the brands jumbled up in a random bunch somewhere in the middle. I was wrong. Real differences abounded, and the results were decisive.
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, the original since 1937 and still the most popular brand around, ran away with the taste test. Perhaps familiarity with the flavor profile skewed the results, but it wasn’t even close. To further drive home the point that the company knows what it is doing, Kraft Deluxe came in second.
Of course, no matter how much you try to shut off your brain, no boxed macaroni and cheese compares to your grandma’s cherished homemade recipe. “Good enough” is high praise here. As mentioned above, the less you think about that powdered cheese packet the better.
Check out the full rankings below, arranged best to worst, with some very honest tasting notes included.
1. KRAFT MACARONI & CHEESE ORIGINAL FLAVOR
Is it a huge surprise that the original blue box trounced the competition? The electric yellow sauce was tangy and salty, with a smooth and creamy appearance and an ideal sauce-to-pasta ratio. The noodles themselves also had actual bite. It’s almost as if Kraft has been doing this for a while.
2. KRAFT DELUXE MACARONI & CHEESE
Kraft’s Deluxe line differs from the other boxed options by skipping the powdered cheese packet in favor of a pre-mixed cheese sauce that you simply squeeze onto the cooked noodles – no extra butter or milk required. Instead of earning unanimous approval, it was the most divisive, with tasters giving it both the lowest and highest scores of the test. It all came down to the sauce, which some tasters loved for its velvety smooth texture, while one said it “tastes like nacho cheese sauce at a ballpark, but worse.” Nearly all agreed that these were the best noodles of the bunch, with actual bite and character.
3. 365 EVERYDAY VALUE MACARONI & CHEESE
Though it was close, the Whole Foods house brand managed to sneak into third place. Tasters liked the springy texture of the pasta, but opinions on the sauce were a bit more mixed. Some enjoyed the flavor, even if it didn’t remind them of real cheese, while others found the sauce mild, flavorless and bland.
4. ANNIE’S HOMEGROWN CLASSIC MACARONI & CHEESE
Annie’s has become more popular in recent years, but our tasters believe it has a long way to go before it can compete with Kraft. Most liked the noodles, claiming they had a nice texture. But the sauce was a bit grainy with a muted color. Some detected a little cheese flavor peeking through, but most called it bland and underflavored.
5. CHEESE CLUB MACARONI AND CHEESE DINNER
Despite the name of Aldi’s offerings, tasters found no real cheese flavor in the sauce. There was a lot of sauce, though, and it was decently smooth and creamy. Too bad some of the noodles were so mushy.
6. SIMPLY NATURE ORGANIC MACARONI & CHEESE
Aldi’s organic offering was docked significantly for its dull color. Though smooth, the sauce also lacked flavor, tasting more like butter than cheese.
7. GREAT VALUE MACARONI & CHEESE DINNER
Walmart’s brand did decently on the smoothness front, with one taster commenting that the sauce was as “velvety as a boxed mac can be.” Sadly, the noodles were mushy, and there was not much cheese flavor at all.
8. TRADER JOE’S MACARONI & CHEESE
Poor Trader Joe’s. While tasters didn’t mind the noodles, the sauce was universally panned as gritty, dry and chalky. It was also hard to get past the artificial cheese flavor.