Few foods scream "comfort" like a piping hot bowl of mac 'n' cheese. When it comes to the boxed stuff, let's get one thing very clear: Though homemade versions may be undeniably delicious, boxed mac 'n' cheese will always taste like pure comfort.
Growing up, I was a Kraft guy, with some Annie's Shells & White Cheddar every now and then (for good measure). Let me tell ya, the instant I taste that stuff as an adult, I'm rocketed back to my childhood. It's ~peak~ nostalgia. I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who feels this way, which is why I decided to figure out which box is the absolute best, once and for all.
First, we've got the tried-and-true classics:
Next, these were the house brands:
Finally, I landed on these three "fancy" versions of the classics — including a popular one that just so happens to be gluten-free:
Even neater? Somehow my partner was willing to feed me mac 'n' cheese like a small child so I didn't spill it all over myself. If that's not true love, IDK what is.
In order to make the actual taste-testing portion as seamless as possible (aka not waiting 10 minutes between each and every bite), I cooked each box separately...
Then I kept 'em nice and warm in their own cute lil' containers until it was time to eat.
While tasting every box of mac, I jotted down my initial reactions and thoughts on each. To help out my future self, I also assigned each one a rating (based on my super-specific-and-scientific Smiley Method), and I took a stab at guessing which brands they all were — by taste alone.
Spoiler alert: I was often very, very wrong.
After the tasting was complete, I ranked them from worst to best based on the order in which I tasted them. The winner was SO much better than all the others, I'm honestly still astounded by it. Case in point: It was also my partner's fave (obviously he tried them too; he's not an animal), and he also thought it blew the others out of the water. 👀
When the "tasting order" was finally revealed, I a) was surprised down to my core and b) ran to grab the winning mac 'n' cheese...which I proceeded to joyfully eat for dinner.
This is my definitive ranking of boxed mac 'n' cheeses from worst to best.
9. Banza — "Banza, I'm begging you, ENOUGHHHHHH."
It's not that I think Banza is absolutely awful. OK, most of the time it's not great, but when it's served in a deeply flavorful sauce, that bean-y taste can be more or less masked. Since their cheese sauce was subpar at best, all that chickpea flavor was the first thing to hit my tastebuds...and it stayed there for a truly unpleasant amount of time.
Considering this was the most expensive box I tried, it also contained the least mac of the lot. Most boxes weighed in at 7 ounces while this one was just 5.5 ounces.
If you're working around a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, there are MUCH better gluten-free pastas out there. If you're just trying to "eat healthier," guess what?! If you prepare it the same way you'd make Kraft — with 1/4 cup of milk and 2 tablespoons of butter — it's actually more calorically dense than Kraft. Banza just lists the butter as "optional" in the directions, as opposed to brands like Kraft that include it in their overall calorie count.
🧀 Overall score for Banza: 2/10
I'm not a picky eater, but you won't catch me eating this box of mac again. If you're in it for the "gluten-free," find a better gluten-free pasta — and if you're just trying to eat healthier, I truly think cheese-smothered cauliflower would taste better. I'm dead serious.
8. Whole Foods 365 — The price may be more or less right, especially for an organic option...but the flavor couldn't have been more WRONG.
"Puzzling" might be an unexpected word to describe mac 'n' cheese, but it's the only word that makes sense here. After the taste test, my partner described it as a "weirdly sweet blend of some flavors and spices that just don't make sense." My partner was correct! Unlike Banza, I didn't find this one inedible, but I also can't exactly describe the taste as cheesy.
🧀 Overall score for Whole Foods: 4/10
I'm not throwing out the leftovers by any means, but with a questionable "cheese" flavor that can only be described as — puzzling — I won't be purchasing this brand again any time soon.
7. Kraft Original — For nostalgia reason, I'll never quit you, Kraft...but yikes, was your mac 'n' cheese always this basic?
Everything about Kraft's mac 'n' cheese is basic, and I say this as someone who will ALWAYS love it for nostalgia and comfort reasons. The cheese sauce was pretty devoid of flavor but didn't taste as "off" as the Whole Foods version did. The macaroni was just fine too — not awful, like Banza's, but it was certainly nothing to write home about.
If you find yourself preparing a box of Kraft in the not-too-distant future, I'd opt for whole milk (or even half and half) instead of 2%. I noted that this one "mostly tasted like wet pasta," and in looking at all the varieties I tested, Kraft's cheese sauce was definitely the loosest. Subbing in slightly richer milk or cream would do wonders to help the sauce cling to the macaroni...instead of just settling at the bottom of your bowl like the world's saddest bowl of food.
🧀 Overall score for Kraft Original: 4.5/10
That nostalgically blue box of Kraft mac 'n' cheese will always have a place in my heart, but due to a general lack of anything exciting and the loosest, wateriest sauce of the bunch, this one scored way lower than I wanted it to.
6. Annie's Grassfed — I had high hopes for the "grass-fed" version of a product I've always loved, so I'm sad to report that not a *single* element here was exciting.
TBH, the "grass-fed" cheese here tasted remarkably like the conventional stuff, with even less flavor. There was nothing "yucky" about this one — no weird textures, no weird aftertastes, and no off-putting flavors — but it didn't taste like much to begin with. I've always loved Annie's mac 'n' cheeses (shells and white cheddar forever), but I'd consider this flavor an exception.
As you'll find out a little later on, Annie's Original definitely outperformed the "grass-fed" version, though I should note that this one is certified organic, while the original is only "made with organic pasta." You'll pay an extra $.10 for this one, but if "organic" doesn't mean much to you, just reach for the regular box.
🧀 Overall score for Annie's Grassfed: 5/10
There's nothing horrible to report about Annie's Grassfed mac 'n' cheese. On the flip side, there's also nothing all that good to say about it, either. As a result, this one gets a truly middle-of-the-road ranking. If you want some Annie's mac 'n' cheese, just grab the normal box.
5. Trader Joe's — Is it perfect? No. But it's certainly a solid choice, especially at its very budget-friendly price point.
My favorite part of this Trader Joe's mac 'n' cheese was the macaroni itself. The TJ's macaroni held up to the sauce surprisingly well, and it had a more or less delightful chew to it, which was a rare occurrence across these nine boxes.
When it comes to the sauce, it was fine! I was by no means tricked into thinking I was eating actual Wisconsin cheddar, per the packaging, but it was tasty enough. It left a marginally bitter aftertaste if I'm being totally honest, but if I wasn't looking for faults, I probably wouldn't have tasted it.
🧀 Overall score for Trader Joe's: 6/10
It may not be life-changing, but for less than a dollar, Trader Joe's mac 'n' cheese is a very worthwhile option for a quick meal that won't break the bank.
4. Annie's Original — Their "grass-fed" variety may have been an absolute letdown, but sometimes the classics really do reign supreme.
This one really took me back to my Friendly's mac 'n' cheese-eating days — does anyone else remember that stuff?! Well, it was literally just Kraft, and the fact that it elicited such fond memories speaks strongly to my general enjoyment of it. Grass-fed products aside (👀), Annie's tends to nail their mac 'n' cheeses, and this one was no exception. The only reason it's not further down on this list is that the sauce didn't blow me away when it came to its flavor — and every variety in my top three had a seriously delicious (and seriously cheesy) sauce.
🧀 Overall score for Annie's Original: 6.5/10
Of the mac 'n' powdered cheese varieties that you can find at pretty much any American grocery store, Annie's Original takes the cake. IMO, it doesn't really compare with my top pick...but it's a tasty, readily available option that you won't have to search too hard to find.
3. Kraft Deluxe — A rich, creamy sauce that packs in a whole lot of flavor makes this "deluxe" version of Kraft's classic mac worth every darn penny.
I know that the slightly goopy cheese sauce isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but the overall consistency was SO much better than the vast majority of the powdered macs. Those sauces always felt a bit too thin to me, and they had a hard time sticking to the noodles. Here, the rich sauce adhered to every last piece of macaroni. I actually thought that this box would be outrageously delicious baked in the oven and topped with a generous sprinkling of bread crumbs...but it was also pretty awesome all on its own.
🧀 Overall score for Kraft Deluxe: 7.5/10
The noodles were substantial, the sauce was seriously thick and creamy, and each and every bite was packed with cheesy goodness. It's almost identical to my #2 pick, but the other outperformed this one in the flavor department.
2. Velveeta — There will always be Velveeta haters, but IMO, this stuff is just indescribably delicious. What else can I say?
If you've never tried Velveeta, I want you to imagine the richest cheese sauce you could ever imagine. Like, so rich you probably won't even be able to finish your bowl, but still perfectly creamy and full of cheesy flavor. Some people are really turned off by the stuff, and I get it. Nothing about it feels "natural," but just to play devil's advocate, you could say the same thing about powdered cheese 😬. Regardless, if you ask me, Velveeta's sauce was the most flavor-packed of the bunch. There wasn't a single thing I'd change about their recipe, and I will happily die on this hill.
🧀 Overall score for Velveeta: 8/10
The flavor of this stuff was truly next-level. The only reason it's not scoring higher is because, well, there are lots of people who would probably never touch Velveeta (for reasons I ~simply~ will never understand), and I think my true #1 pick is a true crowd-pleaser.
1. Walmart Great Value — It's my hands-down winner, regardless of price point...but add in the fact that a box costs mere cents, and I'll have a hard time ever buying anything else.
The cheese sauce here was an 11/10. When making it, I did notice that it thickened far quicker than any of the other varieties. In the moment, it worried me! But after tasting it, I realized that its thickness helped it to adhere to each and every noodle. Boxed mac 'n' cheese sauces tend to be pretty loose, but Great Value's sauce coated every piece of macaroni evenly, which made for an unparalleled eating experience.
Here I am, days after my initial taste test, and I'm happy to report that the leftovers are STILL absolutely delicious. It's as saucy as it was on day one, the macaroni is still delightfully chewy, and I mean, I'm just really enjoying myself.
🧀 Overall score for Walmart: 10/10
Next time I'm at Walmart, I WILL be buying as many $.34 boxes of Great Value mac 'n' cheese as I can fit in my cart...and I will do my best to not eat one every day — even if I really, reaaaaally want to.