We Tried The Lowest Rated Brand Of Mac And Cheese. Here's How It Went

Americans love their macaroni and cheese. It is one of the great foods, after all. It can be the main course or a side dish. At its best, it is creamy, rich, and salty. It is packed with carbs and protein to keep you going during the day, and typically, a healthy dose of calcium too. Mac and cheese can be dressed up or down. It comes naked, relying solely on the noodles and cheese, or topped with bread crumbs, meats, or veggies. Made fresh from scratch, mac and cheese can check every box. While it is delicious, you may not always have time to make mac and cheese from scratch. Thankfully many brands now make instant, or nearly instant, mac and cheese. Who doesn't keep a box of it on hand for quick and easy meals?

Unfortunately, not all store-bought mac and cheese is created equal. And sometimes, you reach for a box, hoping for the warm and comforting envelopment of cheesy noodles, only to be left with disappointment. So Mashed took a poll of 526 United States mac and cheese consumers to answer the great question: what is the worst brand of mac & cheese?

Marie Callender's Mac & Cheese overview

The macaroni and cheese in question is poor Marie Callender's. Unlike mac and cheese giant Kraft, Marie Callender's is not a packet of powdered cheese in a cardboard box, requiring actual pots and pans to be used to make it. Instead, they offer frozen dishes à la Stouffer's (which, yes, in case you were wondering, was voted better than Marie Callender's.) This is a point in favor of the brand, as you can make it without dirtying a single pan.

The directions for cooking it are simple. You just remove the cardboard bowl from the box and place it, plastic cover on, in the microwave for five to seven minutes or in the oven for 55 minutes. The plastic is not removed or vented; amazingly, it does not melt.

A single box of Marie Callender's Mac & Cheese costs $3.49 per box. This is more expensive than some other boxed brands but is still pretty cheap, even for one serving. But we suspect there is a reason for the relative cheapness.

Ingredients and toppings

The Marie Callander's lineup consists of its classic Creamy Vermont Cheddar Mac & Cheese Bowl, which can be purchased on its own, but is also used as the basis for the Fried Chicken Mac & Cheese Bowl and Kansas City Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese Bowl. The brand also offers the slightly fancier White Wine and Butter Shrimp Mac & Cheese Bowl as well as a Spicy Buffalo Style Mac & Cheese Bowl. While each of these beefed-up varieties has its own toppings, the classic comes topped with a breadcrumb topping. This seems to be an attempt to elevate the dish but is not entirely successful, which we will get to during the review.

The ingredients for the dish start with the pasta, which for the record, is not the traditional elbow macaroni shape and is instead shell shaped. The rest of the ingredients, aside from some nutrient enrichers in the pasta, are pretty basic. The cheese sauce is pretty rustic, consisting of cheese, cream, and potato starch. The bread crumbs are also fairly simple. But then the list gets a little convoluted. There are a lot of ingredients under the "2% or less section," including a host of thickeners and something called "Vermont cheddar cheese flavor," which is somehow not actual Vermont cheddar cheese.

How it tastes

With all this in mind, we wanted to find out how it actually tastes. To get the most accurate account, we sampled the Creamy Vermont Cheddar Mac & Cheese Bowl. We wanted to get the most unadulterated taste of the pasta and cheese sauce without any favors from added proteins. This, we thought, would give us the best idea of its taste.

We also opted to try it both microwaved and baked in the oven. We were honestly shocked by the results of this because they did taste completely different, but not in the way one would think.

The microwave took a full seven minutes to cook completely. Not bad, considering you can just set it and forget it. But when we tried to do less, we ended up with an uncooked center. The bread crumbs suffered in the microwave. They were soggy and limp and not the crispy, crunchy breadcrumbs you would want on top of the dish. They became homogenized within the cheese sauce, which made it kind of lumpy. This aside, the microwaved mac and cheese was noticeably sharper and more flavorful than the one from the oven. The oven-baked one took almost an entire hour to cook. And here's the thing about convenience foods: they should at least be convenient. Sure, the bread crumbs were noticeably more crispy from the oven. But the flavor of the cheese sauce suffered, which after all that waiting was a big disappointment.

Do we agree with the survey results?

So, the moment we have all been waiting for. Is Marie Callender's Mac & Cheese bowl really the worst store-bought mac and cheese out there? Does it really deserve its low ranking? We would not describe it as the worst mac and cheese, but it also definitely was not the best and we likely would not buy it again.

First of all, technically, it is not macaroni; it is shells. Points off right there. Second, the bread crumbs are not doing the meal any favors. Third, the cheese sauce, even with the added "Vermont cheddar flavor" is not all that flavorful. While the microwaved version is fine, it lacks the tang and sharpness one would hope for from a really good mac and cheese.

It is not all bad, though. The noodles were not overcooked. And it was edible. We did not want to spit it out. Plus, since it is a frozen cheese sauce, not one reconstituted from powder, the cheese sauce is much thicker and creamier.

One of the big issues here seems to be that when it comes to store-bought mac and cheese brands, we really are comparing apples to oranges. Sure, it makes sense to put Stouffer's and Marie Callender's up against each other, as they are both frozen varieties, and Marie Callender's is the clear loser there. But is it really fair to put frozen and boxed mac and cheese up against each other? They both have their place in the world, and if you are willing to sacrifice some flavor but admittedly gain some viscosity, you might choose a frozen version.

How could it be made better?

It may not be inedible, but Marie Callender's mac and cheese really could do with some improvements. First, the breadcrumbs on top are a lose-lose situation for this mac and cheese. Either the bread crumbs crisp in the oven and you lose the cheese flavor, or the crumbs get soggy in the microwave. Marie Callender's should get rid of them all together to prevent this issue. Plus, with the versions with additional toppings, the breadcrumbs are even less needed.

Next, we have a structural issue. The bowl it comes in is nice because it is not plastic, but it really does not hold up well in the microwave. It got a little floppy and took on a lot of the steam. Something with a bit more structure would be appreciated so you are not worried about it ripping coming out of the microwave.

Finally, we would recommend using actual macaroni-shaped noodles and forgoing the "Vermont cheddar flavoring" in favor of using a better cheese. The sauce really was not bold enough to justify adding more flavors on top of it. Instead, Marie Callender's should work on making its cheese sauce more naturally flavorful. 

This is the best mac and cheese, according to our poll

According to our survey, the best mac and cheese is none other than the classic Kraft boxed macaroni and cheese. Kraft is actually so good at what they do that the runner-up was also a Kraft-owned brand, Velveeta. We cannot really fault any of those surveyed for picking Kraft over Marie Callender's. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is basically the archetypal mac and cheese in the United States. It claims the hearts of everyone as both a childhood memory and busy parent's go-to meal. A box of Kraft mac and cheese will only run you $0.99 at Target. It may take a little more effort—a pan, some milk, and butter if you are feeling fancy — but really, nothing compares to this aggressively orange and blue box of nostalgia. 

And if you are looking for a thicker, richer sauce closer to that of Marie Callender's, Kraft now makes a line of Deluxe Mac and Cheese, which uses real cheese and is better and thicker than the powdered version. And bonus, it does not take 55 minutes to make.