15 Instant Mac And Cheese Brands, Ranked From Worst To Best

If there's a more satisfying boxed meal than a packet of macaroni and cheese, we'd love to meet it. From our vantage point, the cheese-coated noodle dish remains the peak of our instant meal food pyramid. In fact, macaroni and cheese is one of those foods (like pizza), that a subpar or even bad variation of the dish remains somewhat palatable to our at-home cravings.

So when we went in search of brands producing our favorite cheesy pasta dish, we had no idea the rollercoaster of emotions we were about to submit ourselves to. We more or less expected to enjoy each one relatively the same amount, but we exited the experiment more attuned to the dimensions of quality and flavor lurking in the pasta aisle and have stepped away from our time taste-testing macaroni and cheese with hard-set opinions and non-negotiables.

Of course, there's the age-old debate between powdered cheeses and the ominous liquid packets, but we also test-drove (taste-drove?) vegan, gluten-free, and even a package that included pre-cooked noodles. In any case, peak over our shoulder and copy off our test so you can score a perfect mark the next time you find yourself with a mac and cheese hankering.

15. Upton's Naturals

Had we known that Upton's Naturals plant-based macaroni and cheese, or Ch'eesy Mac (the apostrophe feels decorative) came pre-boiled we might have left the box on the Whole Foods shelf we found it on. But the temptation of its cluttered, mismatched branding left us curious enough to reach for the hot red package featuring an illustration of a Prohibition-era gentleman (or per 2010s bartender) with a bow-tie, and pencil mustache looking stoically into the middle distance.

Upton's Naturals, like a smattering of other boxes on this list, courts the vegan shopper, but what confounds us still is how the brand felt like what the instant macaroni and cheese world needed was an easier assembly; as we pulled out the moist baggie of pre-cooked pasta noodles we, for a moment, thought we had taken home a faulty box. After reading the cooking instructions we discovered that the soggy noodles were intentional and all we had to do was heat a frying pan and toss both the packet of sauce and cooked noodles as if we were concocting some kind of Easy Bake Oven pasta dish.

By the time we unloaded the contents of the duo of pouches, our expectations had hit rock bottom, and the dark, mustard-colored sauce did not prove us wrong. Smelling like a hospital dining hall, the overly processed goo at least meets its match with an equally unappetizing, synthetic-seeming noodle. 

14. Kroger

In every way the Kroger brand mac and cheese attempts to ape everything Kraft's version executes so well — the slightly arched elbow noodles, the screaming orange satchel of cheesy dust, and the preparation instructions all suspiciously emulate the Kraft mac and cheese model. However, without even a close inspection, the Kroger macaroni and cheese feels amiss. Firstly, the noodles themselves are inconsistent, and the pack of cheesy flavoring appears oddly muted in color, almost as if it'd been cut with flour or some other pale, powdered starch.

From there, the experience worsens as both the noodles (which cook dubiously quickly, about three minutes ahead of their suggested boil time), and the dusty cheese both give off an impression of plastic reminiscent of burnt Barbie parts or an overheated blow-dryer. Barely edible, and even off to the naked eye, it's hard to imagine even the most trusting of children being fooled by this knock-off impersonation of Kraft's immaculate product. Kroger's mac and cheese is the equivalent of a Hollywood Boulevard Spiderman: We can determine who it's dressed up as but the costume itself feels sad, tattered, and padded where muscles should be. Avoid the Kroger macaroni and cheese at all costs.

13. Daiya

Something of a plant-based catch-all, Daiya makes everything from vegan burritos to ice cream bars, so a box of macaroni and cheese (or "cheeze" in this case) fits seamlessly in its wide-ranging animal-free product line. In fact, the brand offers multiple options, with dairy-free riffs on alfredo, cheddar, white cheddar, and four cheese, plus meatless bacon along with jalapeno, and gladly welcomed a potential game-changer to the lineup of our macaroni and cheese selections.

Firstly we noticed how Daiya's rice-flour elbow noodles are chubby, and ridged which excited us after eating countless amounts of shells and scrawny elbow noodles. To our delight, they cooked easily to a perfect al dente and impressed as a gluten-free alternative pasta. The liquid sauce (in this case, alfredo style), on the other hand, and tastes alarmingly salty and without any dimension besides the initial pungent punch of nearly sweaty-smelling aroma. (Coconut oil, onion and garlic powder, and sugar are among the ingredients.) We do have to admit that whatever chemical or binding agents Daiya used to create the nasty coulis does indeed, unfathomably, mix into the boiled pasta with uncanny creaminess and even produces a cheese-pull as its stirred in. But, no matter its visual virtues, on the tongue Daiya's submission to the mac and cheese aisle smacks of something acrid and barely palatable.

12. Simple Truth

One of a handful of Kroger private label brands, Simple Truth corners the organic customer while also keeping prices low (our box of its Organic Mac and Cheese totaled under $2). Generic in every way from the box's exterior, we were a little jolted to learn that the boxed pasta included a pouch of liquid cheese rather than the slightly more prevalent powdered cheese dust, considering how the packaging itself resembles the Kraft mac and cheese.

The "sauce" a word we now feel is necessary to put into quotation marks is a matte, stiff brick more suitable for a desk's stress ball than the finishing touch of a pasta dish. After draining our pasta we had to fight with the foil bag of congealed guck to get it into our bowl. When we were finally able to coax it into our bowl we felt obligated to charge ahead — in the name of journalism. Once discharged, the sludge also refused to blend amongst the elbow noodles. Not only was the flavor underwhelming, but the cheese unpleasantly stuck to the roof of our mouth and coated our tongues.

11. Freak Flag

A relative novice to the grocery store aisle, Freak Flag Organics, founded in 2017, made a name for itself with vegan pestos and sauces before branching out into other healthy-ish alternatives of store-bought items like broths, and now macaroni and cheese.

Like many of the brand's peers, Freak Flag offers a small lineup of options including Aged Cheddar, Four Cheese Mac (which we chose), Nacho Cheese, and (brace yourself) Cheese Pizza. Its macaroni noodle of choice looked slightly more curved and circular than the elbow noodle we're used to seeing and the packet of cheeses (mozzarella, white cheddar, parmesan, and Romano) smelled noticeably pungent and was more reminiscent of opening a bag of cheese puffs than any of the other satchels of dusty cheese we ripped open.

Additionally, the cheese blend scattered and remained clumpier than the remainder of the macaroni and cheeses were accustomed to and, even with butter and a touch of milk, refused to completely blend into the pasta. While the cheeses smelled sharp, the pasta overall was exceedingly bland almost as if Freak Flag forgot to add a healthy dosage of salt to the mixture. Moreover, the Freak Flag packing goes a step too far by suggesting its consumer might "top off" their pizza or flatbread with their under-seasoned pasta, solidifying our side-eye of the emerging sauce labels' viability in other arenas of the grocery store.

10. Follow Your Heart

A vegan entry into our small but mighty inventory of grocery store macaroni and cheese, Follow Your Heart has manufactured plant-based food since 1970, way before the vegan boom, and is perhaps best-known (and beloved) for inventing Veganaise, or the first vegan mayonnaise (via VegNews). Though Follow Your Heart mostly specializes in plant-based spreads, "cheeses," and salad dressings, the brand also makes fully composed meals, like the Creamy Caulifredo Supermac we took home (they also offer a Cheezy Carrot variation).

With its mac and cheese (or rather, cheeze), the brands hope to ascend to the peak its somewhat convincing avocado-based imitation mayonnaise has taken them, it but falls unfortunately short. However, not being able to top the biggest hit of your career isn't always a sign of poor showmanship (just ask any Carly Rae Jepsen fan), and we walked away from Follow Your Heart's cauliflower-sauced pasta not entirely unhappy either.

Like a vegan Velveeta, Caulifredo Supermac comes equipped with a pre-made pouch of preservative-heavy sauce, and while the photo we were deceived by on the box led us to believe that the topping would visually resemble something of an alfredo sauce, the liquid that oozed out of the little purse looked more like gravy. Beige and flecked with peppery sprinkles, the cauliflower dressing was also much less dense than the Velveeta topping we're accustomed to and the experience wasn't unlike handling an I.V. bag or Capri Sun. The taste reminded us of salad dressing (zesty and a little acidic) more than a sauce intended for a warm pasta meal. 

9. 365

Whole Foods' flagship brand, 365, not only offers nearly everything you'd need in your daily life from bathroom tissue to olive oil, they once attempted to open entire Whole Foods off-shoot stores dedicated to its house budget brand. But despite the closure of the 365 Markets in 2019, the brand still shines brightly at the Amazon-owned retailer. The 365 label is plastered on a number of Whole Foods products including it's boxed mac and cheese. 

While the 365 macaroni & cheese in no way offended our tastebuds, our main complaint with the boxed pasta is how much milk the package's instructions asked us to add to our pot of boiled noodles and cheese dust. We had to cook down the sopping wet elbow noodles until the excess milk evaporated, but after it did we half-heartedly enjoyed our bowl of mac and cheese, though we believe its overall existence subsides on broke college students and the convenience of its availability.

8. Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel is famous for its blocks of cheeses, so it only makes sense that the brand carries a macaroni and cheese line. In fact, it offers four macaroni and cheese flavors — parmesan and white cheddar, cheddar and Havarti, sharp cheddar, and sharp white cheddar.

Immediately we fell for the small ridged elbow noodles we know would cling to the packet of gooey cheese included in the box. Like the macaroni and cheese standard, Velveeta, Cracker Barrel opts for the viscous, squirtable cheese as opposed to the cheesy powder most of the macaroni and cheese we encountered included. Though Cracker Barrel's mac and cheese offering is packed with about 100 more calories than most of its competitors, those calories are well spent as the forkfuls of elbow pasta were vibrantly flavored with distinctly sharp cheddar cheese flavor.

Though we thoroughly liked the pasta as-is, we did sprinkle about a teaspoon of black peppercorns into our bowl after a couple of bites and the results tasted like an indulgent, extra creamy, hyper-American hybridization of fettuccine alfredo and cacio e pepe.

7. Banza

We've arrived at the second gluten-free brand on our list. Banza's chickpea mac and cheese line features three different flavors including Elbows and Classic Cheddar, Elbows and White Cheddar, and Shells and Classic Cheddar. When we prepared a box of the Elbows and Classic Cheddar, we noticed first how the pasta noodles are squatter and more curled into themselves than most other elbow pasta. As expected, the chickpea pasta caused the water to foam more than its glutenous counterparts. After boiling, we sampled a noodle on its own and found it to taste not so much like legumes but slightly earthy and not unpleasant. Banza's noodles do in fact have that textural and mouthfeel of wheat-based pasta.

When drenched in bright yellow cheesy dust (and milk), the flavor notes we picked up on while taste-testing the raw noodle were nearly drowned out, but we were fine with that. Though Banza could reasonably rest on the laurels of being a gluten-free favorite, the brand concocted a seriously commendable cheese powder that adheres to the chickpea-based noodles. We can't honestly say we'd ever opt for Banza over wheat-based noodles, but whenever we're hosting a celiac-afflicted guest, they'll be the label we look for.

6. Goodles

If there's a brand that will catch your eye immediately as you round the corner of the pasta aisle, it's the arrestingly bright branding behind the newcomer which launched in 2021. Reminiscent of the happy packaging behind other neophyte brands like Magic Spoon and OmSom, Goodles courts the youthful shopper via bright colors, pop-art graphics, and the (vague) promise of clean eating.

Six flavors round out the Goodles line of macaroni and cheese: Cheddy Mac (classic cheddar), Mover & Shaker (pepper parmesan), Shella Good (white cheddar), Twist My Parm (Asiago cheese), Vegan is Believing (plant-based), and Down the Hatch (spicy). Considering each box contains 21 nutrients, it's no surprise Goodles mac and cheese claimed a Clean Label Project Purity Award. We picked out the Shella Good box due to its universal appeal and boiled the tiny pasta shells, before stirring in the packet of dry-aged cheese powder with a tiny bit of butter and milk. Before even adding the dairy, we were happily taken aback by how visually creamy the cheese dust blended into the pasta shells.

However, while the pasta tasted good, it lacked dimension and after a couple of bites, we caved to the urge to crack black peppercorns into our bowl, which left us much more satisfied with our meal. Consider opting for the Down the Hatch variety for a welcome blast of heat.  

5. Cheetos

We bet it's already stopped you dead in your tracks while cruising down the grocery store aisle, but if you haven't encountered the holy hybridization of Cheetos and macaroni and cheese, we're happy to tell you that, yes, it is good as you're imagining.

Lately, we've been living in a Cheetos renaissance; just this year a (temporary) Cheeto statue was erected in Canada, and just prior to the pandemic Forever 21 and Cheetos collaborated on a capsule collection of Flamin' Hot-themed gear (via Marketing Dive).

Now, by tip-toeing over to the pasta section, Cheetos hopes to lead its consumers from the sidelines of snack foods to the main stage of their dinner plate. With the only twisted noodle we found in a box of instant mac and cheese, the fusilli pasta captures the disposition or je ne sais quoi of the Cheetos brand and their lovable, exuberant, burn-out mascot, Chester the Cheetah. The traffic-cone orange cheese dust taps into the yeasty quality of the brand's beloved puffed snack, and blends over every spiraled pasta effortlessly.

This endorsement does come with one enormous asterisk: While the original Cheeto's Macaroni and Cheese gratifies the urge to indulge in a comforting bowl of easy-to-make pasta, the Cheetos Flaming Hot Mac and Cheese flies too close to the scorching hot sun, and by too faithfully imitating the spicy chip winds up just tasting bizarre as a citric-acid laden companion to pasta.

4. Velveeta

It turns out that the same company produces what we consider the polemic opposites of our macaroni and cheese childhood memories. Kraft, the American-cheese giant, makes both Velveeta and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and so for our entire lives, we were under the false impression that the king and queen of the macaroni and cheese aisle were fierce competitors when the two brands have actually been coconspirators the whole time.

While we're sure your preference between the two labels lies mostly in whichever box your mom (or dad) brought home from their grocery store trips, we've never been able to completely put out of our mind how strange it is to squeeze out an entire serving of liquid(ish) cheese over a pot of cooked pasta shells. Merely imagining the oozy sauce packet waiting, dormant, in the box of dried shells can send shivers up our spine.

However, we admittedly love the undeniably silky texture of the disconcerting sauce — so like many pleasures in the present era (airplane travel in a climate crisis, the iPhone we're addicted to despite knowing full well how its made), we're able to separate our pleasure from our trepidation of the "liquid gold" squeeze cheese. Flavor-wise, our adult palates were a little underwhelmed by what we remember as an immense treat within our household, but overall, with a little bit of hot sauce, Velveeta Shells and Cheese still sings as a formidable macaroni and cheese choice.

3. Trader Joe's

We're sure none of our readers are strangers to the magnetism of the snack-food giant Trader Joe's, but, since it's so easy to get lost among the mango strips and peanut butter cups, we were admittedly unfamiliar with its mac and cheese selection. We assumed TJ's sold a house brand of macaroni and cheese and were proven right when we found its Organic Shells and White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese in the store's dry-foods section.

We were taken aback by its confusing packaging: a Simpsons yellow box with wheat illustrations and a drawing of a young woman in a sunhat, wielding a rake. Looking more like the dust jacket of an Edith Warton novel than a ploy to get a shopper to pick up a package of macaroni and cheese, the odd choice of branding ultimately proved to be a red herring as Trader Joe's winning streak continues with its instant mac take.

Consisting of tiny, ridged shells and a bag of white cheddar granules, this one follows the standard instructions of boiled shells plus packet plus milk equals dinner, and, for once, we didn't feel the need to also toss in a pad of butter (though it didn't hurt). We found the white cheddar packet to be more flavorful than most of the other electric yellow cheese packets and the milk and butter soaked into the shells perfectly. Without the addition hot sauce or black pepper, the pasta dish still satisfied and we're happy to welcome Trader Joes' macaroni and cheese to our ever-expanding repertoire of the store's offerings.

2. Kraft

We could simply close our eyes and conjure the tangy, cheesy smack of the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese from our childhood. So, when we unsealed the familiar package of Kraft's mac and cheese, we were pleasantly reminded how the brand's elbow pasta can more accurately be described as ulnas, as its hollowed-out noodle only curves slightly in the shape of a slight smirk (or frown), which allows for the youthful, absentminded joy of using the noodle as a tiny straw to suck in air between bites.

As an adult, Kraft's powdered cheese packet still tastes as vibrant and flavorful as it did when we ate it alongside a glass of chocolate milk and a coloring book, and the aforementioned "ulna" noodles, though smaller than we remember, allow for the right amount of cheese sauce to enter their blank space, making the mouthfeel of the pasta ideal and left us questioning why our adult selves so often feel gravitated to the siren song of pasta shells opposed to these, non-descript but delicious noodles.

1. Annie's Homegrown

Any parent will tell you that Annie's Homegrown label is a dependable name to look to for kid-friendly pantry items adults actually look forward to eating. Sort of like the Pixar of the food world, the brand honed in on what kids will eat without protest (fruit snacks, cereal, crackers), and what adults with kids-taste still crave.

In 1998, Annie's revealed its inaugural item, Shells and White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese, and in the over 20 years since, the brand grew to support over 30 macaroni and cheese products alone.

We took home the original Shells and White Cheddar rendition and were instantly reminded of why Annie's disrupted the macaroni and cheese aisle when it was released. The box consists of small ridged shells and a packet of white cheddar cheese the maker is advised to blend with milk and butter (optional).

Just like we remembered, Annie's signature flavor soars without the crutch of any outside ingredients, and the parcel of white cheddar coalesces into a creamy consistency without much prodding. We're thrilled that Annie's continues to expand its mac and cheese line since it's clearly the gold standard on the market today.