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America is known for serving up some absolutely stellar comfort foods, from classic chicken noodle soup to bubbling cauldrons of chili and pot roast. But if there’s one American comfort food that seems to be almost universally adored, it’s gotta be macaroni and cheese. After all, macaroni and cheese boasts some of the best attributes you can find in any food: warm, cheesy, creamy, savory, ooey gooey. There’s also no denying the fun and ease of scooping up those mini macaroni noodles with a spoon.
Plenty of restaurants and chains offer their own gourmet, gussied-up versions of the dish. However, one of the most accessible and basic ways to enjoy mac and cheese is by grabbing a box from the grocery store. Kraft’s iconic mac—which debuted all the way back in 1937—is probably the most recognizable and beloved boxed mac and cheese brand. But is it truly the best boxed mac out there right now?
I recently set out to answer that question by trying four of the major boxed mac and cheese brands: Kraft, Annie’s, Velveeta, and Cracker Barrel. Because many grocery chains also have their own house brand mac and cheeses nowadays, I also included the private label version from ShopRite, Bowl & Basket, to see how it measures up to the big names.
I prepared each option exactly as directed and judged each on flavor and texture. While none of the brands I tried were absolutely perfect, I do think the winner is the best that a boxed mac can be.
Here’s what I thought about each option, ranked from my least favorite to the absolute best!
Per serving (about 1 cup): 360 cal, 14 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 940 mg sodium, 47 g carbs (2 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 13 g protein
The preparation for Velveeta’s Shells & Cheese is extremely straightforward. Simply cook the mini shell pasta until tender, drain it, then mix it with the liquid cheese sauce included in the box. A 10.1-ounce box cost me $4.49.
The look: I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something a little off-putting about squeezing that vibrant, orange-yellow cheese goo out of the envelope. However, it easily coated all of the little shells and looked extremely thick, creamy, and luxurious.
The taste: Velveeta was never my preferred boxed mac as a kid, and I’m even less fond of it as an adult. The cheese sauce was very creamy, but it also tasted artificial, wasn’t cheesy enough, and had an aftertaste that I can only describe as slightly bitter. Each bite was almost overwhelmingly salty, which makes sense considering this option had the highest sodium levels. While I did enjoy the shell-shaped pasta because of how it catches the sauce, it ended up pretty mushy even though I boiled it for the absolute minimum time (five minutes).
Per serving (about 1 cup): 310 cal, 10 g fat (4.5 g saturated fat), 800 mg sodium, 43 g carbs (1 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 12 g protein
Cracker Barrel’s Macaroni & Cheese Dinner comes in several flavors. I opted for the sharp cheddar variety. This brand also comes with a liquid cheese sauce and the preparation method was practically identical to Velveeta’s mac. A 14-ounce box cost me $4.79.
The look: Cracker Barrel stood out from all the other brands thanks to those big, textured noodles and the massive volume of mac it produced. I liked that Cracker Barrel’s liquid cheese sauce wasn’t quite as vibrantly colored as Velveeta’s, but it did look a little thinner and less creamy once combined with the pasta.
The taste: Cracker Barrel’s mac was definitely a step up in terms of taste and texture from the Velveeta mac, but it was still plagued by some of the same issues. On the positive side, these were my favorite noodles from the whole taste test. They were chewy and boasted plenty of little ridges to grab onto the sauce. However, the cheese flavor wasn’t strong enough for me, though it was slightly sharper than Velveeta’s. I also got some of that same slightly bitter aftertaste. While Cracker Barrel and Velveeta did have the creamiest sauces of all, the flavor was too much of a miss to beat the powdered sauce varieties.
Per serving (about 1 cup): 390 cal, 17 g fat (10 g saturated fat, 0.5 g trans fat), 690 mg sodium, 50 g carbs (1 g fiber, 10 g sugar), 9 g protein
Bowl & Basket’s mac—which is free from synthetic colors—was a little more labor intensive than the liquid cheese sauce varieties. After boiling and draining the pasta, I had to combine it with four tablespoons of butter (margarine can be used in lieu of butter), a quarter cup of milk, and the packet of cheese powder included in the box. A 7.25-ounce box cost me $0.99.
The look: The cheese powder looked pretty pale as I dumped it out of the packet, but turned into a bright orange-yellow sauce when combined with the pasta, butter, and milk. This looked like a very standard, serviceable mac and cheese, even though it doesn’t have the same fame as the name brands.
The taste: In a stark turnaround from the overly salty Velveeta mac, this private label version was surprisingly sweet at first bite. This makes sense considering the dialed-up sugar content in the Bowl & Basket version. Overall, though, the taste was better when compared with the liquid cheese sauce options. I think the combination of powdered cheese, fresh butter, and milk made for a more nuanced and clean flavor. I would have preferred a stronger cheese flavor and less sweetness, but this is still a great, cheaper alternative to the big name brands.
Per serving (about 1 cup): 350 cal, 11 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 710 mg sodium, 50 g carbs (2 g fiber, 10 g sugar), 10 g protein
Kraft Mac & Cheese calls for the exact same preparation method and ingredients as Bowl & Basket’s mac. It contains no artificial flavors, preservatives, or dyes. A 7.25-ounce box cost me $1.39.
The look: This mac was noticeably paler than the Bowl & Basket version, but the noodles were the exact same. The sauce was also a little thin, but I think this actually helped stop the dish from congealing too quickly.
The taste: Like childhood. Out of all the mac and cheese brands included in this taste test, Kraft is probably the one that Americans hold most near and dear to their hearts. It was also the one that I ate the most while growing up, so the nostalgia was fierce when I came back to it as an adult for this taste test. This one also had a noticeable underlying sweetness to it, but it wasn’t quite as strong. Bowl & Basket did get impressively close to the Kraft mac in terms of taste, but Kraft’s cheese flavor was a little stronger and balanced better with the rich butter and milk flavors as a result. I still could have gone for more intensified flavors across the board, from the cheesiness to the saltiness, but this still seems nearly perfect for a kid’s palate.
Per serving (about 1 cup): 370 cal, 14 g fat (8 g saturated fat, 0.5 g trans fat), 520 mg sodium, 51 g carbs (9 g sugar), 10 g protein
Annie’s Macaroni & Classic Cheddar boasts some of the better credentials out of all the options I tried. It doesn’t contain any artificial colors or synthetic flavors, plus it contains real cheese and organic pasta. The preparation method was slightly different from the other powdered mac options. It called for two tablespoons of butter instead of four (though the box notes you can add an extra two tablespoons for a richer flavor). It also directed me to add the butter and milk directly to the warm pan to heat it up, combine it with the cheese powder, and then add back in the drained pasta. A 6-ounce box cost me $2.59.
The look: This was pretty indistinguishable from the Bowl & Basket version, but maybe a touch more orange. Aside from that, it didn’t differ all that much visually from the other powdered mac and cheese options.
The taste: I’m a firm believer that the absolute best mac and cheese is the kind you make yourself or order from a restaurant. But if we view boxed mac and cheese as its very own category of the beloved dish—and I think we should—Annie’s is the best that you can buy. Annie’s mac had the sharpest, most genuine cheese flavor out of all the options in the taste test. The sauce thickened nicely when I combined it in the pan before adding the pasta, and then coated the noodles beautifully when they were reintroduced. Additionally, the flavor was more savory and salty than the other powdered mac and cheeses with that puzzling sweet taste.
To be clear, I didn’t think Annie’s mac is absolutely perfect. I love strong flavors and I could have gone for an even bigger punch of cheese in this option. The texture of a powdered mac and cheese sauce also can’t hold a candle to the liquid cheese sauces I got from Velveeta and Cracker Barrel. Still, I can’t imagine grabbing a box from any other brand the next time I’m craving an easy, tasty, and convenient bowl of mac.