Store-bought mac and cheese brands, ranked worst to best

If there's any comfort food that's universally loved in American cuisine, it has to be mac and cheese. Your mom made it for you when you were too picky to eat anything else as a kid. You microwaved a flimsy plastic container of it in your dorm room when you thought you would die if you ate another packet of ramen. And now, it shows up at your favorite bars and restaurants — even though these days, when you order it with a craft beer, it may be made with gruyére and white cheddar instead of Velveeta or whatever that orange powder was. 

But regardless of how elevated your mac and cheese gets, at its heart, it's essentially an unpretentious food. According to the Chicago Tribune, a significant aspect of the appeal of mac and cheese is the fact that it's so inexpensive to make and that the demand for cheap food "has been a longstanding quest of the American food system." With so many prepared mac and cheese brands on the market today, it's not just an inexpensive food — it's also a convenient and surprisingly tasty one. No matter how much of a culinary elitist you are, you can't deny the weeknight pleasure of digging into a pot of store-bought mac and cheese. If you're trying to find out which kind you should get, check out this ranking of some of the most popular brands.

15. Lean Cuisine Favorites Macaroni & Cheese

We love a boxed mac and cheese. Who doesn't? Part of the appeal is that there is some assembly required. You have to boil the water and cook the pasta. You have to rip open that powdery cheese packet and pour it in. You may even add some butter if you're really feeling like flexing your chef muscles. But Lean Cuisine Favorites Macaroni and Cheese takes that sense of accomplishment away from us, leaving us with nothing to do but stare at the slowly rotating frozen brick in the microwave, wondering how all of our life's patterns became so cyclical.

Not everyone is a fan of frozen prepared meals, and it's not just because of their reputation as "lazy" foods. (Younger generations are actually learning to love frozen meals now: Just think of the on-the-go image portrayed by brands like Daily Harvest.) Frozen meals often just don't taste as good as fresh, especially when it comes to pasta. The cheese in this Lean Cuisine meal is almost plastic-y, and the macaroni is limp, sad, lifeless — a far cry from the al dente delight you can get when you make your own pasta. Our take? You can definitely do better.

14. Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese

Another frozen mac option that just can't hold its own. Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese doesn't cut it for us either. Is it a bit tastier than the Lean Cuisine? Yes. That might be because it's not trying to brand itself as a health food (mac and cheese will never and should never be a health food — full stop). But it still has that floppy, weak-looking macaroni that looks less than inviting. The cheese sauce can be watery, and it's all but sure to be flavorless. And to top it all off, you don't even get much in a single package unless you buy a family size. Mac and cheese is about indulging, but you're not going to be able to fill a big bowl with a normal portion of this stuff.

If you're left with no other options and have to pick up some Stouffer's to cure your mac and cheese craving, the least you can do is upgrade it. By adding protein, spices, and even some breadcrumbs, you may be able to save this less-than-appealing freezer meal.

13. Banza Elbows & Classic Cheddar

We've already talked about the sin of trying to make mac and cheese healthy, so it's not a surprise that Banza Elbows & Classic Cheddar is next on the chopping block. It's made with chickpea pasta, which is what sets it apart from its bleached-flour cousins. The cheese is a "classic cheddar," which is likely an attempt to equate it with more classic mac and cheese options like Kraft. Now, chickpea pasta can be delicious, but is it really the best type of pasta for mac and cheese? Judging by Banza's recipe, no. But while the flavor of the pasta is lacking, the texture of it isn't bad.

However, there is one caveat. Not everyone can enjoy a gluten-heavy mac and cheese without feeling awful (or even getting very sick). This chickpea pasta is gluten-free, so it is a good option if you're missing the mac and cheese of your childhood. And to be fair, we'd rather have this chickpea pasta than whole wheat pasta any day.

12. Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value

Calling all Whole Foods lovers: If you're a regular shopper at Whole Foods, then you know the 365 Everyday Value brand carries just about any essential item you can think of, including mac and cheese. But you won't find the quality you've likely come to expect from the brand when you opt for this boxed product. Yes, it is edible, and it may be okay if you can't find anything else around the house, but it's definitely not going to blow you away. It would probably be best for kids since it doesn't have too heavy of a flavor. The sauce can turn out kind of dry, which lends itself to a clumpy texture that isn't exactly what most people are looking for in their mac and cheese.

This product might not deserve too much hate on the basis of quality apart from the fact that Whole Foods literally prides itself on its high quality. But why would you pay more for a store brand if you can get a better — and cheaper — name-brand product somewhere else? You may want to skip this mac and cheese on your next Whole Foods run.

11. Kraft Original

We all have a soft spot in our hearts for Kraft Original Mac and Cheese. For many of us, it was our first-ever mac and cheese experience, and we'll never forget biting into the tiny tubular noodles smothered in the orange, seemingly artificial cheese sauce and discovering that there was, in fact, beauty in the world. And this culinary mainstay has been around for a while: Kraft launched its boxed mac and cheese product in 1937. Consumers could purchase the product for just 19 cents, and it would serve four people. Since the country was in the midst of the Great Depression at the time, this food was bound to be a success.

Despite a myriad of changes to the economy since that time, Kraft is still one of the most popular boxed mac and cheese products out there. But do we love it because it's actually the best option or because we've had it all our lives? We'd argue that it's the latter. While we'll always have love and respect for that iconic blue box, we owe it to ourselves to extend our reach and try some of the newer (and dare we say better) products on the market.

10. Simply Nature Organic Macaroni & Cheese

Perhaps the best word to describe Simply Nature Organic Macaroni & Cheese from Aldi is ... neutral. It's definitely not bad, but it's not exactly packed with flavor either. Like many of Aldi's products, it's a relatively obvious rip-off of the standard Kraft Original, but the "cheese" might be slightly sharper in this iteration of the boxed classic. Make it for your kids, and they're probably going to gobble it up. Adults, we won't judge if you eat it straight from the pot after a long day of work when you just can't be bothered to make a real meal. But you're not going to convince anyone it didn't come out of a box from a budget store, even with the most elaborate upgrades and enhancements. If you're already at Aldi, you shouldn't turn it down if you're craving mac and cheese. But we wouldn't go out of our way for it.

9. Marie Callender's Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese

Marie Callender's Vermont White Cheddar Mac & Cheese is one frozen mac and cheese option we actually don't hate. There's a lot to love about this product, despite the fact that it comes in a frozen brick. First of all, the sauce is super creamy, and the cheese has a sharper flavor than you may be used to in a store-bought mac and cheese. It may not remind you of traditional mac and cheese, but it does taste good. Add in the texture from the bread crumbs, and this definitely isn't your basic powder cheese packet mix.

But alas, Marie Calender's couldn't manage to rank any higher than this because of the same soggy pasta issue. Even though the noodles in this dish might be better than other frozen pastas, there's still the age-old problem: It often gets too soft when you reheat it, and that's just not appetizing to most consumers out there.

8. Kraft Deluxe White Cheddar & Garlic Herbs

As a mac and cheese staple, you had to expect to see a Kraft product again ... but we're more excited about this one. The Kraft Deluxe White Cheddar and Garlic Herbs is putting an elevated twist on the classic box meal. The white cheddar has a sharper taste than the original, which will likely appeal to everyone who grew up on Kraft but has since managed to refine their taste. The herb flavoring, while not very strong, lends a different, unexpected flavor to the dish that's overall pretty good.

It's still your classic Kraft recipe though: the cheap noodles, the powder, the suspiciously long list of ingredients. None of these traits are what many consumers today are looking for. Instead of buying the cheapest food possible, people want healthy, natural food that aligns with the ethos of clean eating — and that could be exactly where Kraft has gone wrong. If you are willing to let your oh-so-high standards slip, though, this mac and cheese may just be your perfect excuse.

7. Kroger Brand Original Mac and Cheese

If you're looking for your ultimate cheap go-to meal, it has to be the Kroger Brand Original Mac and Cheese. It comes in at under a dollar, and at three servings per container, this is definitely a solid meal option when your rent is due and you don't get paid for a week. Apart from the amazing price point, the quality of the product is pretty good, especially considering the price. Overall, it reminds us of the Kraft brand, but somehow, it just tastes better.

Turns out, Kroger customers absolutely love this mac and cheese, which is how they feel about a lot of Kroger's other products as well. Customer loyalty to the brand is high. According to Grocery Dive, a full 83 percent of the store's customers say they purchase Kroger's private label offerings.

6. Annie's Shells and Real Aged Cheddar

Does your local grocery store have a specially designated health food section? If so, there's a good chance you'll see Annie's Shells and Real Aged Cheddar there. You can get this stuff in a box, but it's also offered in single-serving microwavable cups if you want to take your mac on the go. We have to admit, there's something about shell pasta that might be even better than macaroni. It just has a more interesting texture. And the aged cheddar flavoring in this product is perfect for a palate that's slightly more refined than those of the Kraft lovers.

But while Annie's purports to be healthier than other brands out there, it turns out that isn't the full story. While the company's products may be labeled "natural" or "organic," there isn't too much clarity about what that means in many cases. It also turns out that Annie's mac and cheese is just as unhealthy as Kraft mac and cheese in many ways. That doesn't mean you shouldn't eat it, of course — it does taste good. Just make sure you don't fool yourself into thinking you're actually eating healthy when you pop open a box of this stuff.

5. Trader Joe's Organic Shells and White Cheddar

Pretty much anything Trader Joe's has a chance of winning a spot at the table considering what a huge fan following many of its products have. The Trader Joe's Organic Shells and White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese is no exception. For a so-called "healthier" mac and cheese option, this boxed product may be one of the cheapest on the market, which you've probably already come to expect from Trader Joe's. Even though it may come in a box, you shouldn't be expecting the orange cheese sauce you've been used to for all these years since the cheese in this product is a creamy white color.

While this mac and cheese is flavorful, it's also possible to use it as a base for a more interesting pasta dish. Adding peas, bacon, or even some garlic could easily take it to the next level. But even on nights when you can't convince yourself to do anything more complicated than boil some pasta, you're not going to be disappointed with this choice.

4. Evol Truffle Parmesan Mac & Cheese

We know what we said about frozen mac and cheese, but when it comes to the Evol Truffle Parmesan Mac and Cheese, you can ignore those criticisms completely. This stuff is downright delicious. Parmesan isn't the typical cheese you'd use in a mac and cheese dish, but we can't get enough of the unexpected flavor. And it may seem like everyone is obsessed with truffles these days, but they do provide a rich, earthy tone that's melt-in-your-mouth amazing, especially when combined with cheese. The dish is also topped with panko bread crumbs. We weren't expecting them to be particularly crunchy, considering it's microwaved. But we were wrong, and the crunch is real.

Evol might not be the cheapest brand out there, but there's a reason for that. The company offers higher-quality frozen meals than you might not be used to if you grew up in the era of Kid Cuisine (no hate, we're still fans of the Carnival Mini Corn Dogs). The company's claim to help you "bring down the broken food system by heating up a frozen burrito" might be an exaggeration, but it does offer frozen food like this mac and cheese that you can actually look forward to at the end of a long day.

3. Velveeta Shells and Cheese

The blue Kraft box may be the most well-known boxed mac and cheese product, but if you ate a lot of mac and cheese growing up, you probably had some Velveeta Shells and Cheese in your pantry from time to time as well. The original flavor is the most well-known, but the company has now expanded to include all kinds of flavors, like bacon, queso blanco, and even broccoli. But none of those add-ins can overpower the flavor and texture of the bright-yellow Velveeta.

It may come as a surprise, but Velveeta was once seen as a healthy product to feed to your family. Consumers loved the velvety texture of the highly processed cheese, but they also loved that it provided them with an inexpensive way to feed the people in their households. These days, we know better than to think these shells and "cheese" are healthy, but we've never quite gotten over that silky smooth texture that makes every bite feel like a warm hug.

2. Modern Table Vegan Mac

When you think of mac and cheese, you probably don't often equate it with veganism, and that makes sense. How could anything smothered in animal product ever be considered vegan? However, as veganism has gained in popularity, there are more and more companies popping up to create vegan versions of all your favorite abjectly non-vegan items. Mac and cheese is high on the list, since vegan cheese is something that can be difficult to make at home. Perhaps the first well-known vegan mac and cheese brand was Daiya. While we love the eco-friendly ethos and save-the-animals philosophy, we just couldn't get behind this brand's products.

That's where Modern Table mac and cheese comes in. This stuff is taking vegan mac and cheese to a whole new level. The lentil pasta is surprisingly un-lentil-like, which means you don't have to trick yourself into pretending it's normal pasta. There are three different flavors, but we're most in love with the three-cheese option. Even if you're not vegan, this stuff is definitely worth a try.

1. Back to Nature Crazy Bugs Macaroni & Cheese Dinner

One of the parts we like best about mac and cheese is the fact that it takes you back to your childhood when things were a bit simpler — and also a lot more fun. That's what the Back to Nature Crazy Bugs Macaroni and Cheese Dinner is all about. The recipe is pretty simple: organic pasta and cheddar cheese. But there's so much about this box meal that earns it a spot at the top of the list. Most notable is the shape of the pasta. Not only is it fun and guaranteed to make adults smile just as much as kids, but it's also perfect for holding onto all that delicious sauce. The cheese makes its way into all the little crevices and makes every bite creamier. For some reason, the pasta takes a bit longer to cook than other mac and cheese brands out there, but if you're committed to having the best, it's worth the extra time.