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Who Needs the Box? Real Mac ‘n Cheese

For most of us, there are two types of macaroni and cheese: the special occasion casserole with a crispy crust and soft, cheesy, creamy base and the box of mac ‘n cheese (Kraft, Annie’s, etc.) that was likely a common meal in our house growing up and often is in our homes now, too.

mac n cheese 2

It seems like each family has their own recipe for the special occasion version. Some use lots of different kinds of cheeses, some use only one, some have secret ingredients, and everyone thinks theirs is the best.  We tend to think of this dish as labor intensive and time consuming, so it is usually reserved for special events and macaroni and cheese bake-offs.

The boxed version also has a special place in many of our hearts.  We think of it as a quick and easy meal. It reminds us of our childhoods. It is comforting.  For me, it was one of the first things I learned to cook entirely on my own. My mom flat out refused to make it for us because she thought it was junk, so her rule was: “You want to eat it. You have to cook it.” It was actually ingenious on her part because it got my brother and me into the kitchen at a young age and the independence and confidence it built led us to explore cooking further. Sure, there was that time when my brother and I were home alone and I almost burnt down the house by leaving the dishcloth on the stove, but I got it to the sink in time and we’re here to tell the tale.

To be totally honest, for the first few years of my kids’ lives, I made the boxed stuff for them, too. I figured I had grown up eating it occasionally, I was mixing in veggies, and I was buying the organic stuff, so really how bad could it be? But then the guilt started to sink in.  Here I was, making a concerted effort to make as much food as possible from scratch, but I couldn’t be bothered with mac ‘n cheese? It just didn’t seem right. Would it really take so much longer to make it from real ingredients? It didn’t seem like it would. So I started experimenting.

I am here to tell you that you can make real mac ‘n cheese in the same amount of time it takes to make the boxed stuff. It is delicious and creamy. It is completely satisfying. I promise! I swear! It is true! It is amazingly simple and it will make you feel like a culinary badass.

I recommend using organic ingredients and whole wheat pasta to up the nutritional content, but that’s entirely up to you. I’m a big fan of sharp cheddar for this recipe. I think it adds a nice punch. If you want it orange like the stuff you had as a kid, turmeric does the trick (see below)! I also always mix in a veggie with mine (peas, broccoli, spinach), but that’s just me.

mac n cheese

So over the Thanksgiving weekend, think about trying out this recipe or use it in the coming weeks when you are crunched on time and tempted to pull out the boxed stuff. You won’t be disappointed!

Real Mac 'n Cheese

Jessica Braider
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Course Dinner
Servings 4


  • 2 tbl butter
  • 2 tbl flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups cheddar cheese grated
  • 2 cups whole wheat macaroni elbows, shells, and fusilli all work well
  • ½ tsp Dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper
  • nutmeg
  • turmeric if you want it to be orange
  • vegetables for mixing in optional


  • Start a pot of water to boil.
  • Grate the cheese with the grating tool on your food processor or with a box grater. Prep your other ingredients so you can move quickly when the time comes. If you are going to stir in a vegetable, get it started cooking.
  • When the water comes to a boil, dump in the pasta. In a separate pot, melt the butter. When the butter is melted, add in the flour and stir until it forms a paste. Add in the milk and stir until combined. Dump in the cheese and stir until it forms a creamy sauce. Add in mustard. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. If you want it to be orange, add in some turmeric.
  • When the pasta is done, strain it and mix in the sauce. Mix in your veggie (optional) and serve.


If you have leftovers, I highly recommend reheating them in a pot with a tiny bit of milk. It tastes much, much better than microwaving it.


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