Mac and Cheese

The Homemade Trials: Mac -n- Cheese

I compare boxed mac and cheese to homemade in the categories of time, cost, nutrition, and taste. See who wins!


The Homemade Trials: Mac -n- Cheese

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Let me re-enact a conversation I have probably half a dozen times a week either in person, over email, or through some other medium:

Me: You should really try out X recipe. It’s really delicious and not that hard to do.
Person: Why in holy Hades would you make that? You can just buy it?
Me: Well, it’s just better.
Person: Sure it is buddy. Take a hike.

So after having this conversation a million times, I’ve realized that actually the person isn’t wrong. I’m most likely biased toward my homemade version because, well, I made it.

So after much thinking, I’ve come up with what I hope to be a recurring series here on Macheesmo (maybe once a month like my Guess the Food posts) that I’m calling The Homemade Trials. The idea is simple enough, I make or buy a store bought item, then make it from scratch, and compare the two on a series of criteria.

The Criteria. I picked four main criteria on which to evaluate my pre-packaged item versus the homemade version:

Time: How long does it take to prepare? Do I save any time by buying it pre-packaged?
Cost: When you break down ingredients, is it actually cheaper per serving?
Nutrition: How do the two versions shape up from a nutritional standpoint?
Taste: The only subjective criteria, but at least for me it has to be one because this is food after all people.

I’m No Scientist. Let me state before I go into the super-nerd breakdown of this post, that I’m not a scientist. That said, I do think I have a scientific brain meaning that I tend to think about things in a pretty logical fashion. Feel free to point out errors though if you see them.

The Boxed Mac -n- Cheese. I went with what is probably known as the most popular boxed mac -n- cheese and has been for as long as I can remember.

It is, after all, apparently THE CHEESIEST.

The cheesiest.

I followed the instructions exactly.

Honestly I haven’t made boxed mac -n- cheese for a while although I used to live off the stuff. The powdered cheese product is not something I consider as food by the way.

totally cheesy
Look at all that cheese!

Let’s get into the criteria for this trial because we have a lot of work to do!

TIME. I started a timer when I started boiling water for each version of mac and cheese. While the box might imply that you can make mac and cheese in under ten minutes, if you factor in water boiling, that’s impossible.

The box version of mac -n- cheese clocked in at 19:20.

My homemade version clocked in at 21:00.

I used the exact same amount of water in each case so that difference is entirely because my elbow macaroni took a few minutes longer to cook than the boxed macaroni.

One difference here is that the boxed version is idle time. You don’t have to do anything while you cook the macaroni. For the homemade version though you need to be making your cheese sauce while the water boils.

That said, the boxed version was technically faster so I’ll give the TIME category to the boxed version.

COST. I was pretty sure that the boxed version would destroy me in this department because I use pretty good ingredients (2 pounds of Tillamook cheddar runs $8) for my homemade version. I did try to keep it as simple as possible though.

my version
Real ingredients.

It’s important when doing cost that you do per serving cost to make things fair. The box of macaroni says that it has 3 servings in it. My final version of boxed mac and cheese weighed in at 18 ounces meaning that 1 serving equals 6 ounces of mac and cheese.

This was A LOT closer than I was expecting. The real saver for the homemade version is that it made six and a half servings of mac and cheese while the boxed version just made three by weight.

I actually think that if you shopped around on cheese prices, you could beat the box price.

As is though, I have to give cost category to the BOXED version which I figured would happen.

NUTRITION. This one was a bit tricky for me to calculate, but basically I wanted to measure some basics like calories, total fat, carbs, and protein and see how the two versions stacked up. Again, it’s important to work on a per serving basis.

To do the homemade version, I added up the nutritional info in each of the main ingredients (macaroni, butter, milk, cheese, and flour) to get a total which I compared to the boxed version.

I thought it was important to adjust the nutrition facts for the boxed version according to the milk and butter that I used as well so I started with the “As Packaged” nutritional info and ignored the “As Prepared” column.

I double checked my math on all of these. Keep in mind that we’re talking about mac -n- cheese here so neither are GREAT for you. That said, I was absolutely shocked that the homemade version had less calories. I wasn’t shocked to find that it had more fat though just because I used real dairy.

All the nutrition info makes a ton of sense if you think about it. That packaged cheese mix is mostly salt which is why the sodium is a lot higher in the boxed version. There’s A LOT more protein in the homemade version because of the real dairy as well.

If you add in all the preservatives and random ingredients that are included in Boxed Mac -n- Cheese (Sodium Tripolyphosphate anyone?), I’m going to give the Nutrition award to the homemade version. Even with the tiny bit of extra fat, I think the other categories more than make up for it.

cheese sauce
I think mine is maybe the cheesiest.

Taste. Ok. So this is fairly subjective I know, but I do think it’s important. I also think that at least in this case, I could’ve ran it through 1000 people and I’d be shocked if anyone disagreed with me.

Boxed mac -n- cheese doesn’t actually taste that bad to me. I like it okay. The key to it is to eat it as soon as possible. If it sits for even a few minutes it gets really congealed and strange. Homemade mac -n- cheese doesn’t really have this problem. It’s stays pretty creamy no matter what and even tastes okay cold.

So while boxed tastes okay, the creaminess and cheesiness of the homemade version is just out of this world. It’s not even close.

Taste goes to homemade.

my fave
My biased winner.

The Verdict! So according to the criteria this is a tie. The boxed version won the TIME and COST categories and the homemade version won the NUTRITION and TASTE categories.

The thing to remember is that the boxed version just barely squeaked out a win in the TIME and COST categories where the homemade version completely dominated the NUTRITION and TASTE categories.

So I guess at the end of the day, it comes down to a very simple question:

When it comes to mac -n- cheese, are you willing to spend a few extra minutes and few extra cents to eat a healthier and tastier meal?

I can’t answer that for everybody, but for me the answer is definitely YES.

Here’s the recipe I used:

Homemade Creamy Mac -n- Cheese
Makes eactly 6.5 servings!

8 ounces elbow macaroni
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 Cups milk
8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated
Pinch of salt and pepper


1) Cook elbow macaroni according to package.

2) In a pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Once melted, whisk in the flour to form a roux. Cook for a few minutes on medium heat until the mixture turns a light tan color.

3) Slowly whisk milk into roux. Whisk continually until milk is incorporated. The mixture should get nice and creamy. Try to whisk out any lumps that form.

4) Add grated cheese to sauce and season with a tiny pinch of salt and pepper.

5) Once cheese is melted, stir in elbow macaroni and stir until well combined.

6) Serve immediately!

I’d love to hear what people think about this post and if you have any ideas for future Homemade Trials, leave a comment!

63 Responses to “The Homemade Trials: Mac -n- Cheese” Leave a comment

  1. It would entirely destroy the closeness in time, but home made mac n cheese also lends itself to baking, which would put it even further ahead on taste…

    Made some granola bars yesterday, which got me a "you know they sell those in stores, yes?" from my mom. Ah well.

    oh ps, what does the commentluv checkbox do?

    1. Heya, If you have it checked and enter a website, it'll pull your most recent post and add it to your comment so people will know what you're writing these days.

  2. I love the idea for homemade vs. storebought trials. I'm guessing that homemade will win out mos of the time. I NEVER buy boxed mac and cheese. The orange powdery "cheese substance" is just awful.
    (And BTW, it's "recurring", not "reoccuring")

  3. I'm gonna LOVE these posts!! Particularly b/c you do all that hard math work, and I just get to read it :) Seriously, this is what people need to hear. And I'd say that the presence of nasty chemicals in the store-bought (which are often present for packaging and shelf-life, not for nutrition) must really come into play. It's not just the "positive" consideration of "is it nutritional for you?" but also the "negative" consideration of "is there anything in there harmful to you?" You know? Well, I think you'd have to do mashed potatoes, although I don't know who still buys the flakes. Granola cereal? BREAD – definitely. Pizza? Spaghetti sauce? What about those processed frozen lunches, like fettucine alfredo? I'm looking forward to what you'll post!
    My recent post The New Look

  4. I absolutely love this segment. I have been a silent follower of your site for a long time and actually this is how I got addicted to cooking my own homemade stuff. And when you mention anything homemade, I am instantly all for it. I have had my phase with the Boxed Mac-n-Cheese for all my meals once upon a time and I do agree that it does not taste bad at all, but I have been making my own home style Mac-n-Cheese and it is way way way better! Also, when you plan on making it for a huge crowd, Homemade is the way to go, i feel. I am looking forward to the mashed potatoes too, the real ones v/s the flakes (which I think taste like cardboard mash to be honest!) and also if you could, a segment on real Indian curry v/s the store bought sauces! This is going to be FUN :)

    My recent post Homemade Mayonnaise

  5. What a fun post Nick, you really had me chuckling with the conversation piece, I also get that a lot! Homemade looks great, I gotta say the yellow on the box version is just too much! I'm on my way home to make some homemade pasta with Alfredo sauce for dinner ;-)

  6. FUN! Although I predicted the results ;) I am so happy that you posted the recipe though – my aunt makes a FABULOUS homemade mac n cheese, but it's also an expensive and timely version which I cannot afford to make every time I get the craving. Yours looks and sounds fantastic and I'm trying it today!

    And you definitely should do spaghetti sauce…what about a boxed/flavored rice compared to homemade?

  7. Really enjoyed this post! Thanks so much. I make homemade mac n cheese for dinner (its an extensive recipe), but if its lunch the kiddos & I like the boxed stuff for convenience. I always feel guilty giving it to them though. I will try your recipe for lunch next time. Loved the nutrition info. Thanks!

  8. Awesome post – I gave up ages ago on the boxed version you demo'd, and when my kids were little (during their mac & cheese phase), I wound up using the Velveeta boxed version; it at least didn't have that fluorescent coloring and thin, runny pseudo-sauce, but probably still fell in the category of "Frankencheese"… Lately, I've made from scratch when I want a HUGE batch of a spicy/smokey, baked version to last a while (got the recipe from a friend after hearing her rave about it). Looking forward to trying your "quick" version!

  9. Nick – love the idea of these posts but I do have a comment about your analysis-
    it took you 20 minutes to make boxed mac and cheese?!?!?!?! that seems outrageous.

    yum, I think boxed mac and cheese is something I will never ever give up.
    My recent post Potato Rosemary and Sausage Soup

    1. Unless you boil water in the microwave, it takes around 10 minutes for that amount of water to boil on the stove. So 10 minutes to get the water boiling, plus 7(?) minutes to boil the pasta, plus another minute or two of adding ingredients and stirring all of those annoying lumps out…..
      My recent post What size am I

    2. I used the same amount of water for both, but I also think I used too much water. You could maybe get it down to 15 minutes, but if you used the same amount of water then the homemade would go down the same amount of time.

      1. ah, yea i noticed you said that but i didn't really look into just how much water. I tend to cook that boxed pasta with much less water and also only for like 3 minutes. Im pretty sure it is already partially cooked then dried again cause it seems to cook really fast.
        My recent post Potato Rosemary and Sausage Soup

  10. Since I'm a cheapskate (we buy Aldi's boxed mac'n'cheese) the cost comparison doesn't really apply to us, however, I will say that I was surprised by the fact that the servings weren't that expensive on the homemade version. As far as homemade vs. storebought, I've always been curious about the differences between foods that you 'can' (though not necessarily grow) yourself vs. canned goods from the store. Everyone always talks about how canned veggies have no nutritional value (yada yada), but people used to live on foods they canned themselves and we're here today. Is there a difference? Is there no nutrition left in canned goods? I think this could be useful since budgets are still small and canned goods are really cheap (yeah, we get those at Aldi's too) and have a ludicrously long shelf life.

    I'd also be interested to see a post on mashed potatoes like some of the comments above mine.
    My recent post What Size Am I?

  11. This is great, Nick!
    I actually ate boxed mac-n-cheese the other night (day after traveling, so needed something 'quick') and I would way prefer the homemade version.

    I would love to see you do a trial on Veggie Fried Rice. I just made a super delicious, super quick recipe with broccoli and sweet potatoes with a spicy peanut sauce. Quick and yummy. Would love to see it up against a take out version.

    Love these posts!

  12. I actually made my own homemade mac and cheese last night! i used a recipe that didn't call for baking (though next time i just might), and was surprised at how easy and not time consuming it was. I added in some broccoli florets (boiled with the last few minutes with the pasta shells) and still had time to make the cheese sauce without scalding it. I mixed in some bread crumbs for texture, and it was delish. It made enough for 2 large servings for dinner and 3 servings of leftovers! I used to love the box version, but I don't think I'll be going back anytime soon.

  13. awesome! the only time i ever thought the "person x" side was when you made tater tots. that was the line for me.

  14. I think one of the main advantages of making this stuff yourself is that you can customize it to your taste and your nutritional priorities. If you want to bake the macaroni, use fattier milk, use whole wheat macaroni to increase the fiber content, or whatever, you can do that. I think the main disadvantage of doing it yourself is that it takes practice to be able to cook quickly–the first few times might be a little slow. For me, that is an important part of the tradeoff: are you willing to spend time learning how to cook if it means you can eventually have food that's customized to your preferences? I definitely think so, but I can also see why lots of people don't.

    By the way, Nick, did you hear the Weekend Edition story about how pie might be the food of the year?

  15. Great post! And although I do periodically eat and enjoy boxed mac n cheese (hey, I like instant ramen too) I can't help but think of it as a different animal than homemade. Especially when you bake it with some bread crumbs… mmm… now I need to make some!

  16. You and a certain someone (you know who) have the same method of cooking I imagine… cook it all up and the dish fairy comes and magically does the dishes – I'd factor that into prep time too…. (wink!).

  17. I'm so glad to see you're doing these trials!! I'm definitely sharing this post. I know I don't comment enough, but I love your blog Nick. Glad to see the move went well & that life is good. Keep it up!! :)

  18. Hell yes, I'd make this in a second!!!!!!!!!!! Unfortunately, I don't make ANY Mac/Chz because I'd eat the whole damned thing, and it would settle itself on my axx. I dream about it though.

  19. I love the idea of Homemade vs. Store bought. I recently tried the Homestyle version of Kraft Mac n Cheese. For a quick meal, I thought this was really good. I wrote this on my blog recently.

    I was surprised at how cheap Tillamook cheddar is for you, wow.

  20. I love this idea of side by side comparison! And you know I'm a big proponent of homemade whatever it is, but I've got to say I'm with Yasmin – what about clean up time?

    What about frozen pizza? Or would the dough rising time keep it out of the game? THough that would be true of anything with a bread in it. Pad Thai?

  21. Love this idea and looking forward to more. What about something like salsa and/or guacamole? Obviously opening a jar is way faster than making salsa yourself, but I'd be very interested in how homemade compares in the other categories.

  22. I switched over to eating the Whole Foods brand Whole Wheat Mac and Cheese. I never do milk and butter anymore. I throw in some spoonfuls of plain nonfat yogurt, which tastes so much better and makes it creamy. Just make sure you don't make the mistake one day of getting Vanilla instead of plain. It doesn't taste right at all.

    And for those thinking about test with salsa/spaghetti sauce, it's far better tasting and healthier if you make it yourself with real veggies instead of the canned crap or getting jarred tomatoes. I canned 10 quarts this summer (which each makes 4 servings for me) with fresh tomatoes and onions. Made fresh bruschetta as well and can find tons of recipes for salsa. You just have a day of work if you make a huge amount of jars (I did a bushel of tomatoes at once) but then after that it's as easy as the jarred stuff from the store. Just make sure you get a good canning recipe to help make sure it's safe.

  23. Great idea for a new category of posts, Nick! I wonder about shelf life of homemade vs. store-bought too, wonder if you could factor that in there when you compare things like salsa. But probably all those unpronounceable preservatives in store-bought would balance that out. Still, it does add to the cost factor, the waste quotient. I believe it was your blog that led me to American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom. Quite the eye-opener.

  24. this is one of my favorite blog posts that you have done. i too would have thought the time and cost categories would have been dominated by the boxed. personally, I cant eat the stuff. my mom made home made mac and cheese buy simply tossing a bunch of shredded cheese, pepper, and a splash of milk into a bowl of elbows

    I just finished Omnivore's Dilemma and started reading In Defense of Food. You used good quality ingredients that were not full of a list of ingredients so long and unrecognizable that it masks the fact that it is corn processed in a 100 different ways.

    Health cannot be boiled down to a nutrient list and not all fat (or even saturated fat) can be deemed equal! I hope you do many many more of these.
    My recent post Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts

  25. I am an equal opportunity macaroni and cheese lover :) Homemade does taste better I will have to agree. Can you post more details about how you make your cheese sauce? I have trouble using low fat milk.


    1. I've used low fat milk without a problem. Basically just melt your butter over medium heat in a pot. When it's melted add the flour and whisk together until it forms a paste (roux). Cook this for a minute or two, just to get out the flour taste. It should turn a light tan color.

      Then pour in your milk slowly, whisking constantly to make sure the mixture stays smooth. If you pour it in too fast, you might get some lumps in the mixture. Just whisk like crazy and you should be fine. Once the milk is incorporated, it should start to thicken really quickly.

      Once the mixture is hot, add the cheese and once it's melted you're all set! :)

  26. I love the idea of this series and am looking forward to many exciting posts. I'd be interested to see how boil-in-a-bag rice stacks up to "from scratch" rice. My husband and I always argue about that one!

    I was tempted to say that you should be using organic boxed versions if you are going to use some organic ingredients, but now that I've thought about it, I think you are tackling that one correctly. The very small difference in price will show someone who normally grabs the most ubiquitous box available that homemade is very attainable in cost.

    I'd like to see an additional criteria: number of ingredients. Can you tell I'm also in the Michael Pollan camp?
    My recent post Double Take- Mississippi Mud Cake

  27. I tried this recipe today and I’m sure I did everything right. I had to throw it all in the trash. I don’t know what could have happened but the taste was horrible. I did double the recipe but I made sure to do everything just as said. I’m thinking it could be the flour that it calls for. I did take the time to cook the roux for a few minutes before adding the milk. Just didnt turn out right for me.

    1. Hey Kelli, Sorry about that result. It’s possible that you over-cooked your roux… that’s really the only thing I can think of. If you did that then it would have a pretty strong bitter flavor.

      It should be a very light tan color and you should be doing it over a medium heat. Otherwise you might scorch it. I’m not really sure what could’ve gone wrong besides that…

  28. This is a great post. I just finished making your recipe (which was right after I read it). Great job comparing price and nutrition! Your version is definitely healthier and quick to make. It just replaced the box! Thanks!

  29. Great recipe! This is definitely better than the box, especially because it can be eaten as leftovers. I used nonfat milk and it still turned out great. I just had to add the milk in very, very slowly.

  30. Love the comparison! U left out an important detail though. With the homemade version, u control the quality and the nutritional value. A switch to whole wheat and all organic, no gmos or treated dairy, those alone r worth the extra time and make the $$ difference worth every penny. :)

  31. I use way less cheese, no milk, and usually no butter. I cut my cheese into small blocks and mix them with the hot noodles(strained). It’s not the classic sloppy noodle sauce Mac n cheese but I personally think its better; and with lots of spices.

  32. I enjoyed your article. I was recreating your nutrition calculations and scaled everything based on the pasta content, not listed serving sizes. A box of store bought mac and cheese has 5.6 oz of pasta, and serves 2.5. If you scale your recipe from 8oz pasta to 5.6 oz, and figure the same 2.5 servings, you get 643 calories/serving. Maybe you really do get 6.5 serving out of your recipe, but I don’t think it is a fair comparison when serving size is different

    1. Hey Jesse, thanks for the comment. A few things… for starters, I wrote this almost three years ago and Kraft has changed their serving sizes since then so it’s based on old data. Also, you can get different calculations depending on butter/milk usage as well.

      What I do know is that I calculated based on weight. So I took the serving size that Kraft recommended at that time (ex. 100g), and used that for both the box and homemade version. That’s why the homemade recipe makes almost twice as many servings as the box mix.

      Shoot me an email though. I’d be curious to see your breakdown numbers for the 643 calories/ serving. nick AT macheesmo dot com. Thanks!

  33. Super interesting. The other consideration is that the homemade is certainly more flexible. I make a very similar recipe but use oil instead of butter which would fix the fat health problem as that’s all healthy oils. It doesn’t really affect the taste in my opinion, but I’n sure it would with the boxed. Similarly I also often use a mix of cheeses, sometimes with Swiss, sometimes with Gouda (which would make it healthier and less healthy respectively, I think.)

  34. Just wanted to let you know that I have a great 7th grade lesson using your blog. I teach Family and Consumer Sciences and our students make homemade m-n-c but some students are hooked on their boxed stuff. So we had a 10 minute debate with students choosing a side. We then read your blog which they enjoyed. Followed up with a read through on their recipe we will be demonstrating next week. So thanks for entertaining my 7th graders. Now going to look to see if you tested homemade pizza vs boxed.

  35. I know this is an old post, but I was wondering about exactly this and am happy to have found it! I was making homemade mostly to try to control for sodium, and I actually found that sodium didn’t differ. What you may not have included in your nutrition is the “pinch of salt” from your recipe – 1/4 tsp of salt has almost 600mg of sodium, so putting 1/2 tsp (which is pretty standard) in your roux brings the sodium way up. It’s something I never used to remember to track for in my recipes, so I wanted to let you know. Let me know if you had already accounted for that – if so, maybe my cheddar has way more sodium than yours. Awesome idea for the blog! I really enjoyed reading.

  36. I can definitely reduce your food cost.. if you follow sales semolina based pasta in a variety shapes is $1.. /lb Tillamook is definitely a top shelf cheddar and very good I can get a more reasonable real cheese for much less than $8..for family parties I have made 9×13 Mac cheese for roughly $8 total.. so it’s totally doable to make real reaheatable Mac and cheese for less than store bought! Maybe try using half Tillamook and half some other less expensive block cheese.. (don’t buy pre shredded) great article..

  37. The presence of nasty chemicals in the store bought Mac and cheese are part of the reason why it is the way it is. I always love homemade mac and cheese and I dont like the store bought mac and cheese. I also believe that home made mac and cheese taste better. I just found you and I love your work.

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