The Macaroni and Cheese Experiment has been conducted.
In an effort to prove that “real food” often doesn’t take more time or more energy to prepare than “processed food”, I made both Annie’s Mac and Cheese, and my homemade Creamy Mac and Cheese – timing myself from start to finish on each – not doing any of the steps ahead of time.
I began last week by making three boxes of Annie’s Mac and Cheese.
I do purchase this sometimes for the very occasional treat. I appreciate that Annie’s brand is at least made with better ingredients. But did it save me time to make this boxed, convenience food?
From start to finish, making a big pot of three boxes of Annie’s Mac and Cheese took me 18.5 minutes. Not bad, plus I was able to wash a few dishes while the noodles were boiling.
And how long did my homemade Creamy Mac and Cheese take???
Many of you suggested that I needed to be sure and count the time it took to grate the cheese for this recipe! I do try to keep some cheese in the fridge that we’ve already grated and put into a baggie to save time while I’m cooking. I didn’t do that this time though, so that I could give you a more accurate time calculation for this recipe. However, as I usually do when I haven’t grated my cheese ahead of time – I simply got the noodles and milk cooking on the stove, then grated a big block of cheese while I waited for the pot to get hot. Multi-tasking is so wonderful! (Plus I even grated extra cheese so that I will be ahead of the game next time I need it!)
I do have to watch the pot and stir more often while I’m making homemade mac and cheese, compared to the boxed variety. However, I have found that I don’t have to stir the pot constantly, and can stir, then do another little job, then stir again, and do something else. As long as I keep going back to it, I am able to get several other little jobs accomplished while I make this dish. This time, I was going back and forth between boys and May Day projects, keeping up without any troubles with stirring the mac and cheese.
Total time it took for my Creamy Mac and Cheese to be finished? 19 minutes. Exactly 30 seconds longer than Annie’s. Woe is me. I am simply exhausted from the additional effort. ;)
From experience, I know that whole wheat elbow noodles cook more quickly than the whole wheat fusilli pasta, so that may have cut my time even more. (Also, if you’re interested, you can use Tinkyada Brown Rice noodles in this recipe, which I’ve found works great and takes only a couple of extra minutes to cook.)
My conclusion: Homemade Creamy Mac and Cheese is just as convenient and easy as making boxed mac and cheese. I dirtied the same number of dishes for each, and I was able to multi-task while making each of them. (Large pot, spoon, and cheese grater for the homemade; large pot, spoon, and strainer for the boxed. Yes, I did grate the cheese onto a plate, but then I served my food on that very plate, so as not to dirty another dish!)
And the taste? There is no comparison. Boxed mac and cheese is kinda fun, but I ultimately find it to be empty and flavorless. I also have a hard time getting past the unnatural color. Cheese isn’t orange, people! I love that the homemade mac and cheese has more sustenance and more natural flavor. Bring on the nutrients!
While I was having this mac and cheese throw down, I decided to be nerdy and calculate the price difference. It costs around $3.85 to fill my family with Annie’s Mac and Cheese, because yes, it does take all three boxes to fill us. It costs about $4.50 to make a pot of Creamy Mac and Cheese, since I’m using organic, raw white cheddar. That breaks down to be $0.11 extra cents per person to feed my family this healthy, easy meal. I’m pretty sure I can afford that.
So there you have it. Am I completely knocking boxed mac and cheese? Nope. Just stating the facts based on my research and experiment conclusion. Might we still eat the occasional boxes of mac and cheese? Maybe, and we’ll probably even enjoy it a little bit. But do I ever get to say that making a box of mac and cheese saves me time and money compared to making homemade mac and cheese?
Not unless I really feel like I can justify whining about 30 seconds of extra time, $0.65 extra for my entire family of six, and no extra dirty dishes. I think we all know the answer to that. :)
I’m thinking that it might be fun to do other experiments like this one. Any suggestions or ideas for what I should test next?
Funny! I was just wondering about this last week while I was making homemade Mac and cheese!
I was one of those kids who grew up on the blue box mac and cheese. I do make homemade occasionally, but the boxed stuff is such comfort to me! I try to buy whole foods organic boxed mac and cheese and save it for when my husband and I really need some comfort food (yes… we don’t have kids and still eat boxed mac and cheese regularly!)
Kenedi - Real Food Whole Life says
I just stumbled across you blog and am really looking forward to looking around your site more. Love this post. Too cute and I thought I was the only one who boiled pasta in milk rather than water! Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food and thanks for pointing out how little effort it actually takes to use real food ingredients.
You make me smile :)
So very cool. Loved the experiment, but having done it I new the answer. My family loves beef stroganoff. You could compare the Hamburger helper brand to homemade. I use an can of mushroom soup and about a 1/2 cup of sour cream and salt and pepper to taste for the sauce. Hands down it is better. Blessings to you.
How about brownies? It takes about the same amount of time to make them from scratch; they should cost less and they definitely taste better.
I buy elbow ww macaroni bulk and my current batch cooks so fast I can’t leave it. It must be super thin. I would say it cooks in 3 minutes. So, check each new batch of elbow mac if you don’t want mushy noodles. I do still throw the mac and cheese in the oven to bake it a bit and then throw the broiler on at the end to get a crust on the top. It’s worth losing to Annie’s over :)
At my grocery store, Annie’s mac and cheese is over two dollars a box. So, it is definitely cheaper to make homemade mac and cheese, even with a good raw cheese.
Stacy @Stacy Makes Cents says
I bet you had a lot of fun doing that. :-) Awesome! I love the hard research that you’re willing to do for us…keep it up! ;-)
My 4 year old wants yellow mac n cheese, any ideas for coloring homemade mac n cheese naturally?
In the Little House books they make butter yellow by grating some carrot and heating it in the milk. They then strained it with a cloth (I’m guessing cheesecloth would work well) and squeezed all the milk out of the carrot. Maybe that would work here too!
A touch of ground tumeric might work… it makes everything yellow!
You could try stirring in some pureed butternut squash.
Lissa Brooks says
Annato is what’s typically used to color butter yellow and they use beta-carotene (which is what makes carrots, among other things, orange) to color cheese orange. You could use a natural food coloring. There are plenty available. Try Amazon.com.
@Kristin: turmeric makes things yellow without too much change in flavor.
Thank you for breaking it down! I am pleasantly surprised at how little extra the homemade works out to be.
Nancy Baldwin says
Hands down homemade only. Colorful mac n cheese anyone? No thanks. Good post!
The only trouble for my family is that they don’t particularly care for homemade mac and cheese and Ive tried many recipes! My husband always just wants the boxed. Even Annie’s he doesnt love. He’ll eat it but he’d much rather any unhealthy kind! what to do then!?!?
I’d say that you can still make the boxed stuff, but just use the best ingredients along with it like REAL butter instead of margarine and sea salt instead of iodized. :)
Sorry to laugh, Daria, but I’m laughing WITH you, because we are in the same boat! NONE of my kids like mac and cheese, and I have a fabulous and easy homemade recipe. Every time I make it, but husband says, “You should buy a box of Kraft mac and cheese the next time you shop.” Seriously??? I’m not knocking Kraft, but the homemade stuff tastes so much better! So, I can empathize with you!
Haha ya we just went to a friends house for dinner and they had kraft ans my husband looked at me and said you should get this kind next time you shop ! Lol! I guess some small guilt y pleasures are okay:) and yes at least we do use only real.delicious butter and sea salt! Yummm
I am the same boat! I try to make everything homemade with recipes
from this website, and my husband says, “Yours in an 8, but the
hamburger helper/kraft/Pillsbury/chemical-laden one is a 10!!”
Very frustrating!! i think it has just been the way he has eaten
(poorly) his whole life. I do what i can, but it is hard!!
If you want to go to the effort, you could try gradually moving
them from the boxed to homemade. Make the boxed kind, but also make
some homemade and combine them. Gradually make it more homemade.
Also sometimes just displaying the “box” they like on the counter
helps. :) It takes some people a while to adapt to different tastes
then when they are expecting.
This isn’t a question about food prep time- but My son is lactose intolerant so I never keep cows milk in my house. We both LOVE Mac & Cheese, and would love to try your method, but I cannot use cow’s milk. Any chance on doing a taste-test for almond, rice, or soy milk?
I avoid soy products, but think that rice or almond milk should work in this recipe. If you give it a try, be sure to let us know how it turns out!
Jessica, I recently made Laura’s Hamburger Mac n Cheese using Coconut milk (my middle daughter has a dairy intolerance) – did it as a freezer meal, then thrawed it out and threw it in a pan. Baked it til it was warm — outcome: Everyone gobbled it up! Next time I will probably use Almond milk so I would say that would work good too. good luck!
Kim Saf says
I froze almond milk (by itself because I wasn’t drinking it fast enough not long ago and it separated when I thawed it out. Just wanted to give you a heads-up in case you try freezing a dish with the almond milk.
My husband and I definitely enjoy homemade mac & cheese over the stuff in the box…but of course some of our boys don’t agree. The problem is I make “baked” mac & cheese which definitely takes a lot longer. We’ve tried the HH creamy mac & cheese a couple times but it always seems to end up with a strange “sweet” taste to it. Not sure if that comes from boiling down the milk?? Has anyone else experienced this?
Hannah @ Treasuring It Up says
Hey Tricia! We haven’t experienced the sweet taste in this mac but I know
exactly what you’re talking about from scalding milk in the past.
I keep it on medium-low heat (which takes a tad longer) and I use
whole milk which doesn’t turn out as sweet as the other kinds in my experience.
Baked mac and cheese sure has it’s own glorious place in the world, though!
Thanks for the tip Hannah! We do use whole milk but it is from the store and not raw. I’ll try to be more patient and give it another try :)
Teresa Yb says
I wondered if I was the only one with sweet mac and cheese, and I have tried a few times. I use store bought 2% milk, not whole, raw milk like Laura, so I figured that was the problem. I will try lowering the heat next time to see if that helps.
I always make homemade mac&cheese, it just tastes better!
Laura ~ I am curious why you avoid soy products? Is there something in the processing that you don’t like or ingredients? My two youngest children both had digestive issues and the soy formula and now soy milk seems to be the only thing that keeps their tummies settled. As always, I love your website and visit it daily.
Aimee, I hope Laura will respond to your question. I thought I’d share from the research I’ve done about soy. There is concern because soy is full of phytoestrogens, which can mimic human estrogen in the body and cause health issues. Especially in young children, it may cause early puberty for girls, and cause reproductive issues in both girls and boys. I can’t remember all the details, but definitely google for more detailed information.
Soy is also extremely high in phytates, which binds up minerals, making them unavailable to be absorbed and used by our bodies. There may be other concerns as well, that I’m forgetting now.
Please do look into the dangers of too much soy in the diet, especially if it makes up a large part of your children’s diet. Best wishes to you!
There is a lot of info on the dangers of soy…please do your research. I fed my children soy milk for awhile, too, but not anymore!!
Randi @ ExpressionsOfPerceptions.com says
Over 91% of the soy in the US is genetically modified (cloned). It causes infertility, cancer, asthma, allergies, birth defects, and more. Dont consume any GMO’s!
My family’s downfall in a time crunch is frozen pizza. But if anyone can make it quicker homemade, it’s you!! Could be a challenge, but i think you are up to it!! :)
I just thinking she should time pizza because I made some tonight…It took
me about 30 minutes to make homemade, but I’ve made the crust so many times I barely measure
Kim Saf says
You can make a big batch of crust and freeze what you don’t use. I have a bread machine recipe that makes enough for 2 pizzas, or I use the recipe from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day.(http://www.amazon.com/Healthy-Bread-Five-Minutes-Day/dp/0312545525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336065586&sr=8-1)Both are pretty easy with not much hands-on time, but take time to rise,etc.
Hannah @ Treasuring It Up says
Laura, I wanted to let you know that my two-year old (an Annie’s Mac Addict) quite literally licked the bowl clean when I made him your Creamy Mac! Thanks for an even healthier version to grow a strong little man :-)
Thank you for your comparisons and encouraging me to cook the best mac and cheese I can for my “noodle loving” girls! I WILL be making this sometime this week, since it seems we can’t go more than a week without eating “noodles” (as my younger girls call them) here in our home. :D
I think if you bought organic Annies to compare to yours, sinceyours is organic, yours would be cheaper!
Thanks for doing this. I am always trying to tell people it really dosen’t take that much more time if any to make homemade, but they just don’t believe me. Can’t wait to see what you make next.
Jocelyn Skelly says
Thank you! I love this…and can I say, I LOVE that you ate your dinner on the cheese plate. It’s good to know I’m not the only one :)
How else do you make sure NO cheese goes to waste!!!
I’m so sad about this. I cannot manage to get the homemade stuff to work right. It always turns into a big huge clump of chewy yucky goop. :(
My grandma has made mac and cheese like this her whole life, so I grew up on it this way. Just add more milk and/or water to thin it out and keep stirring :-) Add the cheese after the noodles are cooked.
I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the encouragement!
How about trying homemade cookies or cake compared to boxed?
To make your Mac n cheese looked more like the boxed set you could purred carrots or sweet potatoes to the homemade Mac n cheese. My kids enjoy it.
Great experiment! I tell people all the time that healthy, homemade meals requires no more time or money than processed junk.
This is off topic, but I’m so excited about this that I just have to share. The other day I made black bean brownies! Yes, brownies made out of black beans and since I substituted xylitol for sugar, they were even healthier! And best of all, no one could tell they were not normal brownies. Oh yeah, awesome. I made a second batch today with peanut butter, but went a little heavy on the cocoa powder, so they were a bit bitter, but if it wasn’t for that mistake they would have been perfect.
Back on topic…how about comparing your pigs in a blanket with the unhealthier canned biscuit version? Or a homemade muffin recipe versus some boxed muffin mix?
I made your homemade mac and cheese tonight for the first time YUM! My mother and I were talking on the phone about it later on how most families don’t have good home cooked sit down meals anymore its very sad. My FI and I plan on doing that once we are married. Thanks!
I love that you time them both. I have been trying to convince others of this idea that healthy home made food is always better and worth the whole 30 sec(sigh so much effort) :) How about making cake or cookies compared to boxed stuff or spaghetti sauce?
What kind of cheese do you use?
What about homemade bread? I make ours, but have never bothered to calculate whether or not it’s cheaper. Definitely more time consuming to make, but also much tastier than store-bought (unless you buy expensive bakery bread at $5.00/loaf).
abbie fultz says
about the brownies, i make a homemade bisquick with whole wheat flour, sucanat, and palm shortening, instead of white flour, sugar, shortening, and then use aluminum free baking powder. u can find therecipe online and then modify it. they have a bisquick brownie recipe what i do is mix all my dry ingrediants which is the homemade bisquick, cocoa, sugar (i use sucanat) salt and then i use my food savwer system to vacum seal it and then write on the package the measurements for butter and eggs and the temp and time for baking. i like that on days when im busy and want a healthier indulgement treat it takes no more time than a box, and is in reality homemade bc i made the bisquik mix. i believe online when i searched my favorite mix was called the master mix and then i just alter it to a healthier version. works great for pancakes, biscuits casseroles just like the bisquick but healthier and less expensive.
abbie fultz says
about the brownies, i make a homemade bisquick with whole wheat flour, sucanat, and palm shortening, instead of white flour, sugar, shortening, and then use aluminum free baking powder. u can find therecipe online and then modify it. they have a bisquick brownie recipe what i do is mix all my dry ingrediants which is the homemade bisquick, cocoa, sugar (i use sucanat) salt and then i use my food savwer system to vacum seal it and then write on the package the measurements for butter and eggs and the temp and time for baking. i like that on days when im busy and want a healthier indulgement treat it takes no more time than a box, and is in reality homemade bc i made the bisquik mix. i believe online when i searched my favorite mix was called the master mix and then i just alter it to a healthier version. works great for pancakes, biscuits casseroles just like the bisquick but healthier and less expensive. and also u can make your own frozen pizzas to and vacum seal.
What a thorough job you did on this post. It is nice to know that the real food recipe was pretty close. Once you get into a routine and make them enough times it seems to go pretty fast.
How about muffins/cornbread?
C. Dazey says
Muffins…the nasty packet ones are not much easier than whipping up a batch of homemade-and the homemade taste soooo much better.
I have made your recipe a couple of times, but it seems as though it comes out a little gritty. Any suggestions on a smoother melting cheese?
[email protected] says
I am not sure why that would be. I am sure it will taste good no matter what kind of cheese you decide to try. :)
Heather G says
Wow! Thank you for the great information. It really doesn’t take longer to make quality food. I look forward to reading more.
The first time you make ANY recipe from scratch, it might take a little longer……but it gets faster and easier each time.
Haha I love your “woe is me” comment because that is sooo me. I’m all about convenience. I also loved the color comment because one of the reasons I haven’t made your mac and cheese is because it doesn’t look like “real” mac n cheese. It’s all about perspective… and I have to admit… you’re slowly changing mine.
Have you ever tried making this in bulk and freezing it? I’m interested in trying since we don’t eat large portions around here. (It’s just Me, the Hubs, and my 1 yr old.)
Unfortunately, freezing this mac and cheese doesn’t work very well, but you could make smaller portions and this recipe will turn out just fine. :)
Amy Mac says
I love that you did this. I am always telling people it doesn’t take much more time, if any. When I have the time, I like to bake my mac & cheese.
Some of these have been mentioned, but for future time test: muffins, biscuits, brownies, cakes, cookies, jello, pudding… I even say with my multitasking, it takes less time to make homemade bread- of actual hands on time, including grinding the wheat, than to run out to the store when you need some.