The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Store-Bought Mac and Cheese
It’s kind of a dream when your editor emails to ask if you’d consider eating a bunch of mac and cheese — for journalism’s sake. That dream recently became my reality, but with one important caveat: I could only try the mac and cheese that purports to be healthy, or at least healthy-ish. My assignment: investigate exactly how healthy these can possibly be, and also determine if any of them were tasty enough to be worth the effort.
I’m happy to report I rose to the challenge, albeit to mixed results. While my own mac and cheese tastes absolutely lean toward the homemade, baked variety, sometimes boxed is just the undeniable best way to go. Boxed mac and cheese tends to be a lot more value-friendly, it’s easy to prepare, and it’s a fast way to make food for kiddos. But lately, a whole new category of boxed mac and cheese has made it to product shelves and freezer aisles — the kind that claims to be truly healthy.
Is mac and cheese healthy?
“There are lots of quick and easy foods to feed kids, but probably the top of the list is mac and cheese,” says Stacey Krawczyk, MS, RD. “In a time crunch, I have definitely used boxed or prepared versions to feed my kids. I look at what all I am serving in that week, and try to balance out prepared foods with simple-made foods. Regardless, I always look to balance out the plate with lots of veggies and focus on portion sizes,” said Krawczy.
Mac and cheese, when made with enriched grains, can provide vitamins and minerals and absolutely be part of a balanced meal. And when you’re making a healthy, baked mac and cheese from scratch, you can determine exactly what goes into it. Of course, most of us don’t often have the time for that kind of thing, so I spoke with some nutrition pros to help us find ways to make the boxed stuff a little better-for-you.
One important factor to consider is the sodium
“Did you know between 95% of children ages 2-13 exceed the recommended sodium limits?” said Meghan Dillon, RD. Packaged goods are a huge contributor to this issue. “I would compare sodium to rule out which boxes or frozen packages of mac and cheese to avoid purchasing,” she says. “And I’d aim to choose a product with a sodium content of 675 mg per serving or less.”
Whole grains are another crucial component
Determining whether the product contains whole grains can be tricky. “Just because an ingredient list states multigrain, wheat, or stoneground it does not mean the product is a whole grain,” said Dillion. Instead, look for terms with the word “whole,” like in “whole grain,” or “whole wheat,” as this correctly identifies if the product is whole grain. “Whole grains provide more nutrients and fiber than their non-whole grain counterparts. Fiber is important because it helps keep us full and regulates digestion,” said Dillon.
So given the task of eating a whole bunch of mac and cheese and finding options that were both healthy and also tasty, here are the four that came out on top:
1. Is Banza Mac and Cheese Healthy?
Banza Mac and Cheese is made with chickpea pasta, which is an excellent way to instantly add some nutrition to the mix (pun very much intended). While this box mix comes in a few varieties, including some fun takes like cacio e pepe, I decided that in the interest of fairness, I’d try the classic cheddar. This is made the way any other boxed mac and cheese is: you boil the pasta, drain, rinse, and then add your milk and cheese powder. One note is that because chickpea pasta gets mushy pretty fast, this tastes best if you undercook it a minute or two. The results were actually pretty delicious: The chickpea noodles tasted like a whole wheat noodle, and the cheese was all I’d hoped for: creamy, rich, and satisfying.
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Banza Mac and Cheese had the most well-rounded nutrient profile of all the mac and cheese brands we compared. “Not only did Banza contain the least amount of calories at 280 calories per serving, the least amount of fat and saturated fat (8 g and 3.5 g respectively), and a moderate amount of sodium at 660 mg per serving, but it also provides a whopping 5 g of fiber per serving (with 2 g of fiber being the average among the brands reviewed),” says Dillon. The average American does not consume sufficient fiber, so choosing this mac and cheese would be a simple hack to increase fiber intake among mac and cheese eaters. It’s also a perfect option for folks who are gluten-free.
2. Is Kraft Mac and Cheese Healthy?
While I’d never imagine the classic blue Kraft box would be among the healthiest boxed mac and cheese out there, I couldn’t possibly deny loving the flavor of Kraft. It’s the most instantly recognizable of mac and cheese tastes.
You have to go into this with open eyes, though: “Kraft Mac and Cheese contains the greatest amount of sodium among all the brands reviewed,” says Dillon. “For this reason, there is likely a more nutritionally balanced option available to choose.” However, that doesn’t make it completely off-limits: just watch your portion control and serve with a big side of broccoli, and it’s a fine treat.
That said, one delicious alternative is Kraft Mac and Cheese Cauliflower Pasta. This variety incorporates cauliflower-based pasta, which no, is not as good for you as actual cauliflower, but does provide ¼ cup of veggies per serving. And here’s the delightfully shocking part: it tastes just like the original stuff, but is better for you! That’s the kind of healthy(ish) life choice I can get behind.
3. Is Amy’s Mac and Cheese Healthy?
I was the most excited about this one because initially I assumed it’d be the closest to traditional homemade, baked mac and cheese. And it was delicious: the cheese sauce had an excellent sharpness, and the noodles were not overcooked. It was also extremely easy to throw in the oven and heat up… but it turns out that the Amy’s Frozen Mac and Cheese is so tasty partially because it’s not especially healthy. “This contains the most calories, fat, and saturated fat of all brands reviewed,” Dillon says. “Despite this, the product provides the most protein, at 18 g per serving.” Figures. So if you’re looking for a high-protein meal, and fat and calories aren’t an issue for you, this is a great option — and it is delicious.
4. Is Annie’s Mac and Cheese Healthy?
This frozen mac can be made in the microwave or oven, but the oven is absolutely going to be tastier and give you that homemade mac and cheese taste. This mac and cheese was not my favorite: the Amy’s had a more authentic cheesy flavor, while this one felt more mild, and the pasta kind of overwhelmed the cheese. It was less creamy than I’d hoped… but it wasn’t bad, and when I doctored it up by adding some extra cheese and butter to the mix, it was actually pretty great. Of course, that kind of defeats the purpose.
When comparing the nutrition of the other options to Annie’s Frozen Mac and Cheese, this brand is nutritionally a pretty great choice. “This product has the lowest sodium of any mac and cheese reviewed at 550 mg per serving, provides 12 g of protein per serving, and provides 33% less fat than Amy’s brand,” said Dillon. So it may be a really smart and healthy choice, but not necessarily the tastiest. Nobody said you were able to have your mac and cheese and eat it too, after all.
How to healthy-up your boxed mac and cheese mix
You definitely don’t need to toss whatever mac and cheese you already have and love, but it may be a good idea to make some modifications and keep it healthy as best you can. Here are some easy ways to make your mac and cheese a little healthier:
- Dial down the cheese. “Try using only half of the cheese packet included in the box,” says Krawczy. It should still have plenty of flavor, truly.
- Add whole grains. “Add whole grain pasta to the pasta in the box,” Krawczy says. With this variation, you’ll definitely want to use the whole cheese packet.
- Toss in some vegetables. Adding chopped, frozen vegetables to your mac and cheese is probably the best, easiest way to make it a little healthier. Think of options like broccoli, carrots, spinach, kale, peas, and cauliflower. You can roast or sautee these, or steam them first in the water that you’ll cook the pasta in.
- Go for lower-fat dairy options — and non-dairy, too. Try using skim milk, 1% cottage cheese, almond milk, Greek yogurt, or oat milk in place of the box directions’ standard milk and butter.
- Add some lean protein. “Add drained canned tuna, salmon, or chicken to boost the lean protein,” says Krawczy. Vegetarian and vegan protein sources like Quorn frozen chicken are also great.
- Watch those portion sizes. “Serve the appropriate portion size, and balance the plate with vegetables and fruit,” Krawczy says.
Healthy Mac and Cheese Recipes Featuring the Boxed Stuff
There’s so many creative ways to go with this.
This recipe adds riced cauliflower and Greek yogurt to supplement the pasta, and incorporates a more high-protein dairy in lieu of full-fat milk or cream.
This smart spin adds broccoli and cottage cheese to the mix, for a result that is loaded with fiber and maintains an indulgent, creamy consistency.
This recipe involves adding a little extra cheese (ok, probably not the healthiest, but it does sound delicious) and several big handfuls of arugula, spinach, or baby kale — which really does make it a whole lot healthier.
At the end of the day, everything in moderation. We don’t want to deprive ourselves, and we can’t be perfectly healthy all the time. So try to find the best balance for you, and if that’s adding some broccoli into your favorite not-totally-healthy boxed mix? You’re doing great.
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