I Tried 7 Frozen Mac & Cheeses & One Was The Absolute Best
Since the early days of U.S. history, macaroni and cheese has been there to comfort those who call this country home. In the 1930s, Kraft launched its boxed mac and cheese, as a way for the population affected by the Great Depression to have an affordable way to consume something more luxurious than bread.
But, even before then and ever since, mac and cheese has found its way into almost every aspect of American culture. It transcends race, religion, political ideology—everything but lactose intolerance. It's at our cookouts, our potlucks, on every parent's stove, and most importantly, in your freezer.
Frozen mac and cheese is the perfect way to get that creamy satisfaction any time of day. But taste isn't the only thing to consider when you're searching the freezer aisle for your next cheesy noodles fix.
"Frozen mac and cheese can run the gamut of being quite healthy to being very unhealthy," says Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, CDN, who along with sister Lyssie Lakatos, RD, CDN, are known as the Nutrition Twins. While varieties made with real cheese provide protein for muscle, as well as energy-stabilizing benefits, the sisters note that many brands are also high in calories from fat and carbs. They may also promote inflammation and disease from all the refined grains, saturated fat, and sodium. Moreover, some may contain carcinogenic chemicals called phthalates that leach into the food from their plastic packaging.
To make the best choice, the Nutrition Twins offer these tips: "Try to find a mac and cheese with at least 15 grams of protein per serving. To keep the sodium in check, try to find options with less than 650 mg of sodium per serving. Also choose a mac and cheese with less than 10 grams of fat and less than half of that from saturated fat."
With that in mind, I recently set out to find the best-tasting frozen mac on the market, rounding up seven different options from the freezers at Trader's Joes, Whole Foods, and Giant. Then, I went home and cooked each according to the directions on the box. I evaluated each product by taste, as well as appearance and preparation method. In other words, it had to taste good, look good, and be easy enough to cook in order to win. Here's how each brand fared, ranked in descending order from worst to best. Let's get started!
Giant 3 Cheese Gourmet Mac & Cheese
The Prep: To make this product, turn your oven to 375 degrees and cook for one hour.
The Look: The cheese broke under the plastic wrap while in the oven, and formed weird little pockets of yellow liquid in the corners. It just really isn't the most attractive presentation.
The Taste: If this is "gourmet," then we need a new word. The lengthy cook time both overcooked the pasta and undercooked the cheese. This comes as a surprising disappointment, as both Giant and Giant brands have been feeding me reliably for the better part of two decades. But, this product was just gross. It gave me the sensation that what I was consuming was both wet and dry, something I can only consider a miracle. But not a miracle I'd like to try again.
The Verdict: Given that every other option here took no longer than 10 minutes and tasted drastically better, I'd just avoid this one. If you're going to spend a whole hour letting a frozen mac and cheese cook in the oven, just make your own mac and cheese from scratch. The time-to-quality ratio is way off.
Trader Joe's Gluten Free Mac & Cheese
The Prep: Prep is easy. Just six minutes in the microwave, no mixing, no fuss.
The Look: It looks fine, but the fusilli pasta and white cheddar leave it without that golden sheen off the noodles that we associate so strongly with a frozen mac and cheese, like Stouffer's or Amy's.
The Taste: This is somehow under seasoned and salty, another miracle combo I hope to avoid for the rest of my days. The fusilli is mealy, and the cheese isn't smooth like a cheese sauce should be.
The Verdict: This was another dud. While gluten-free products are important to be available for those with an intolerance or celiac disease, this is not the tastiest answer to those worries.
Banquet Mega Bowls Buffalo Style Chicken With Mac 'N Cheese
The Prep: One of the easier ones on the list, it requires about seven minutes in the microwave, stirring at the four-and-a-half minute mark.
The Look: Not great. You end up with a limp sort of bowl with different colored cheese everywhere. It sort of looks like an industrial accident.
The Taste: It's definitely the best of the ones I disliked, but to be honest, the Buffalo sauce does a lot of heavy lifting here. The flavor of the mac and cheese itself leaves a lot to be desired.
The Verdict: I dug into the Banquet bowl with skepticism, and I should have trusted my gut. This mac and cheese is the best player on a bad team. It definitely stands above the rest of the bad, but "better than bad" and "good" are two very different things.
Stouffer's Macaroni & Cheese
The Prep: 11 minutes in the microwave is a long time. You have no idea how long 11 minutes can be until you're waiting for some mac and cheese. So, it's easy prep, but lengthier than most.
The Look: Fantastic! This is how frozen mac and cheese should look. Stouffer's is the original brand, and it hasn't lost that visual appeal.
The Taste: A little salty, and the pasta is a little mushy, but overall there's nothing to particularly gripe about.
The Verdict: Stouffer's is the classic frozen mac and cheese, and a welcome addition after our previous contenders. It's been around for decades, standing the test of time and standing strong in the whirlwind of the freezer aisle. Even so, there are a few better options out there.
Lean Cuisine Protein Kick Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese
The Prep: The cook time is by far the easiest, with about 5 minutes in total. But, the cheese does break within that prep time, leaving you with a greasier product than you might want.
The Look: It's not unappetizing, but it definitely leaves some room for improvement. It certainly looks like mac and cheese, but the actual tray is noticeably a little greasy. Once you mix it around and get it in a bowl, you'll have an appetizing little dish in front of you.
The Taste: It's…fine. Not awesome, but not offensive, either. The cheese tastes good, but maybe a little underseasoned. The pasta is extremely mushy, and a little mealy.
The Verdict: High in protein and relatively low in fat, this is by far the healthiest option on this list, which bumps it up considerably in the rankings.
Trader Joe's Diner Mac 'n Cheese
The Prep: Poke a hole in the plastic, microwave for six minutes, and you've got mac and cheese. Easy as it gets.
The Look: I mean, it looks like mac and cheese, as it should.
The Taste: It's a little salty, but overall, this tastes great. The pasta ended up properly cooked, with a cheese sauce that's clearly made out of a roux. You end up with a delicious, creamy, and well-cooked product.
The Verdict: Compared to the gluten-free version, Trader Joe's is serving restaurant-quality food here. But, there is another brand that I liked even better.
Amy's Macaroni & Cheese, Made With Organic Pasta
The Prep: Microwave for three and a half minutes, stir, then zap for another two and a half minutes. But, if you want your cheese to cook a little more, an extra minute more will give you a crispy layer on top. Unlike the others, there's no plastic, either.
The Look: It's not exactly a Michelin-star-worthy plate, but there's absolutely nothing offensive about this presentation. You've got little golden bits at the end, with a nice golden color to the cheese sauce. Plus, it actually looks like it does on the box.
The Taste: A very balanced bite. The cheese flavor is smooth, and the whole wheat pasta doesn't have that aftertaste that other whole wheat pasta can sometimes get. The cheese has a smooth quality to it, and there's no overpowering salty quality that some of these other products can have.
The Verdict: This is the perfect frozen mac and cheese. I will admit, this is the one I've been eating since childhood, and my little taste test did nothing but confirm what I already knew. After spending the day finding out that there is, in fact, such a thing as too much mac and cheese, the clear winner was Amy's. From prep time to look to that delicious cheesy goodness, Amy's reigns supreme.