Few American comfort foods reach the same level of nostalgia and satisfaction as macaroni and cheese. While nothing quite hits the spot like spooning into your family's recipe at home, if you're craving a good ol' bowl of ooey gooey goodness, you can also order mac & cheese at many chain restaurants. However, beneath the golden blanket of melted cheese and perfectly cooked pasta lies a hard-to-stomach truth: most mac & cheese dishes have little nutritional value (but there are some healthy options!). Yes, we've all long accepted that mac & cheese isn't a health food, but we found that some restaurant chain dishes take extravagance to a whole new level.
We identified the worst mac & cheese offenders by looking at the nutrition information at some of the most popular restaurant chains in America. We looked at the total number of calories, and the amount of saturated fat and sodium in each dish. Oftentimes dishes climbed above 600 calories, which is just too high. The recommended daily maximum of saturated fat is about 20 grams, while sodium has a daily recommended max of 2,300 milligrams per day, and many of these dishes soar above those limits. Going over your recommended daily amount of saturated fat regularly has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Read on to find 10 mac & cheese orders at chain restaurants in the U.S. that registered dietitians say are some of the unhealthiest dishes you should avoid. You'll also find some tips and tricks to be able to get a taste of the comfort food without going overboard.
Cheesecake Factory Fried Macaroni and Cheese
According to Tucson, AZ-based Christy Wilson, RDN, owner of Christy Wilson Nutrition, LLC. These crispy crumb-coated macaroni and cheese balls topped with marinara sauce are a "calorie and fat bomb." Although it's listed as an appetizer that serves between 2 to 4 people, the portion is small. So even if two people enjoy this appetizer it's still well over the recommended daily max of artery-clogging saturated fat—and that's without the main dish!
Slim Chicken Mac and Cheese
This side order or mac and cheese "is one of the unhealthiest sides out there," exclaims Mascha Davis MPH, RDN, author of Eat Your Vitamins. The dish provides 73% of the recommended daily value of sodium. "These high amounts of sodium, fat, and calories, when eaten in excess, can lead to a higher risk for health issues such as heart disease and high blood pressure," Davis explains.
Panera Mac and Cheese
The small mac and cheese from Panera is "not only high in sodium, but the fat content is close to the daily recommended value of 20 grams of saturated fat per day," Davis explains. "This small 1-cup serving has an unhealthy fat content that's through the roof."
Noodles & Company Wisconsin Mac & Cheese
This main dish is close to 50% of the recommended daily amount of calories (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). The artery-clogging saturated fat is 100% of the recommended daily maximum, while the sodium is 68% of the recommended daily maximum. The carbs are so out of control that eating this dish would be the equivalent of eating close to eight slices of store-bought bread. I would certainly opt for a small size if you're craving a good mac and cheese.
Romano's Macaroni Grill Signature Truffle Mac & Cheese
This fancied-up mac & cheese is made with penne, asiago, fontina, smoked mozzarella, cheddar, pecorino, truffle oil, and herbed breadcrumbs. Although it sounds delectable, the calories are over 50% of the daily recommended amount (based on a 2,000-calorie diet), the saturated fat is close to 300% of the recommended daily max, and the sodium is 129% of the recommended daily maximum. Eating these sorts of dishes that are so high in these overconsumed nutrients regularly can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, certain forms of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Chick-Fil-A Mac & Cheese
If you're craving this large-sized mac & cheese side, think again. With more calories than you should consume in one meal (remember, this is a side), close to 100% of the recommended daily maximum of sodium, and 150% of the recommended daily max of artery-clogging saturated fat—it's just an unhealthy option. Either make this a sharable side for the table or opt for the small size.
Church's Texas Chicken Baked Mac & Cheese
This side dish has more calories than you should be getting in one meal. The sodium is 120% of the daily recommended max while the saturated fat is 75% of the recommended daily max. If you're going to order mac and cheese, either split the large with the table or order a small to share with a friend.
Uno Pizzeria & Grill Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese
This ridiculously high-calorie dish has more calories than the average American should get in one day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). The saturated fat and sodium are through the roof providing close to 300% and 187% of the recommended daily max, respectively. As a registered dietitian, I would recommend skipping pasta dishes at this establishment as all of them have over 1,000 calories.
Au Bon Pain Macaroni & Cheese
The small-size macaroni & cheese has too many calories and is not well balanced. Although the protein is adequate for a meal, it comes from higher portions of cheese which also increases the saturated fat. Your best bet is to split the small size and a healthy sandwich or protein-based soup with a friend.
El Pollo Loco Macaroni & Cheese
This large macaroni & cheese is meant to be served as a side, but the calories, saturated fat, and sodium are above or close to the recommended daily amounts, setting you up to consume well over the daily maximums before you even eat your main. To put the amount of carbs in this mac and cheese dish in context, those 60 grams are the equivalent of eating four slices of bread. This should be shared between a family or opt for the small to share between two to three people.