The clash of the instant macs. 

By Tiffany Stevens
September 06, 2019

In all of its incarnations, macaroni and cheese is a touchstone dish that provides orange-coated comfort in the form of an easy, cheesy meal. Cup instant mac deserves its own praise, however, for being a supportive ally during quick, low-effort meals. It knows you’re busy. It knows you’re broke. And it knows you probably only have three minutes—maybe four—to stand around a microwave before indulging in warm, noodly goodness. 

But instant mac’s solace comes at a price: It sometimes tastes too artificial, or too flavorless, to be anything other than hot, bland pasta consumed between tasks. That’s why we tried classic cheddar-flavored mac and cheese from five different brands, all of which are available in grocery stores or online. Here’s our rankings, from best to worst.

Best All Around: 

Cracker Barrel's Sharp Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese Dinner ($2.99)

Target

At four times the cost of a Kraft cup, this option is obviously a little pricey. In our estimation, though, it’s worth it. The cheese taste is neither artificial nor weak, and the breadcrumb topping is a nice touch. Slightly thicker noodles also provide a texture that’s closer to oven baked. It’s worth the money if you want a microwavable mac more suited to adult taste buds. 

Runner-Up:

Annie's Real Aged Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese ($0.98)

Target

Annie’s delivers great cheese taste that’s almost as authentic as Cracker Barrel’s. And at a third of the cost of our top pick, it’s kind of hard to knock. Plus, the pasta is organic. Definitely worthy of a spot in your pantry. 

Most Nostalgic:

Kraft Original Macaroni and Cheese ($0.75)

Amazon

If you haven't been living under a cheese-free rock, then you already know what to expect here. Kraft remains the classic against which all other commercial mac is measured. Yes, the cheddar taste is artificial and lacks nuance in flavor, but we still wouldn't change a thing. 

Best Creamy Texture:

Velveeta Shells and Cheese ($0.81)

Target

We have to hand it to Velveeta -- they know how to make a perfectly creamy mac. But once you get past the pleasant mouth feel, there's not much to this. There's no flavor, and the shells don't provide much contrast against the slightly gooey, very soupy accompanying sauce. If you like Velveeta already, this is for you. Otherwise, the above brands are much better options.

Don't Waste Your Time:

Muscle Mac's Macaroni & Cheese ($3.33) 

Amazon

At 20 grams of protein per serving, Muscle Mac is hypothetically a good post-workout snack. Unfortunately, it tastes distinctly of protein powder. Bad protein powder. The aftertaste is overpowering, and wholly unappetizing. Plus, the texture is slightly gritty, even when the powder is fully incorporated. At more than three bucks a meal, it's simply not worth the disappointment. 

If bulking up is your goal, however, our testers managed to salvage this cup a bit by mixing Muscle Mac with Velveeta. The creaminess fixes Muscle Mac's texture, and Muscle Mac reciprocates by lending at least some discernible cheesiness to the Velveeta. Best of both mediocre worlds.

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