Can This Mom Make a DIY Mac & Cheese Mix That’s Cheaper Than a Box?

My daughter adores boxed macaroni and cheese. A bit more than I’d prefer, to be honest, but life is hectic and sometimes you gotta make compromises for maximum sanity. 

But after years of mac and cheese connoisseurship, my daughter and I felt something had changed. The boxes seemed wimpy, not filling us up the same way. Did they shrink? (To be fair, my daughter definitely grew.) Meanwhile, their prices went up. And with some brands, the dry cheese mix didn’t assimilate into the milk to make a creamy sauce; it stayed lumpy—a phenomenon that felt like a new development. 

I got tired of paying more for a product that didn’t meet my long-established ideal. Was there a way to hack it–make my own mix that was not only better-tasting, but cheaper per serving and reliably wholesome to boot? I decided to create my own recipe and find out.

Step 1: The Cheese Powder

Dry cheese powder puts the cheese in boxed mac and cheese, and it’s not an everyday ingredient. You need to get it online. Since bulk options cost less than smaller amounts, I ordered a 1 pound-tub of Hoosier Hill Farms cheddar cheese powder for $23.69, which included shipping. 

Step 2: The Pasta

As I recalled, elbow macaroni is just about the cheapest pasta you can get. But at my local Kroger, a 1-pound box of dry macaroni runs $1.25 to $2.99. In my testing, I found I preferred tiny pasta shells over elbow macaroni, and those are a) harder to find, and b) often ran closer to $1.99 for a pound. My high hopes of big savings were starting to run aground.

Simply Recipes / Sara Bir

The Math: Is My DIY Recipe Cheaper?

I’d pulled off the actual recipe. Now it was time to crunch the numbers. I rolled up my sleeves and dusted off the food cost skills I’d learned in cooking school (which, ultimately, is nothing more than basic math).

For our purposes, 1 batch = 1 box of macaroni and cheese mix. I didn’t factor in the cost of milk or butter, since whether making the DIY mix or preparing a box, you still need to provide them.

The cost of my mix came to roughly $1.53 per batch. Sigh. Way more than I’d hoped for, particularly because the average cost of the not-on-sale box I buy is $1.20.

Some prices for reference: 

  • Annie’s Organic Classic Cheddar Mac N Cheese = $1.79
  • Aldi Cheese Club = $0.55
  • Kraft Original Mac N Cheese = $1.25
  • Trader Joe’s Macaroni & Cheese Wisconsin Cheddar (the orange box) = $0.99

To get the prices of macaroni and cheese boxes for comparison, I pulled from the Kroger, Aldi, and Trader Joe’s websites, since they are brick-and-mortar stores where I shop IRL.

Is It Cheaper?

Yes, if you typically buy more premium brands like Annie’s, or you buy boxes at full price. 

But if you tend to stock up on brand-name boxes of macaroni and cheese when they are on sale for 99 cents (and let’s be honest, which parent doesn’t?), my DIY mac and cheese is not cheaper. And it’s certainly not cheaper than the 55-cent boxes available at ALDI. 

Frankly, I was surprised, but then I considered how the price of dry pasta has increased so much since inflation has ramped up. Manufacturers buy in massive amounts, so the advantage of scale keeps their ingredient cost lower than what we pay on the retail end.

Simply Recipes / Photo by Sara Bir / Photo Illustration by Wanda Abraham

Did I Fail?

On the budget front, yes. The cost of the average box of macaroni and cheese is either cheaper or pretty comparable to my DIY mix. Also, you are paying for convenience. Is saving a dime or two a box worth it? From a strictly financial standpoint for a household that eats a box or so a week, no.

My daughter ate my DIY mac and cheese enthusiastically and enjoyed the truer cheese flavor, but she confessed to preferring the box when it comes to actually making it herself. She likes the ease and familiarity, plus the dry macaroni pasta I was using boiled up too large and toothsome to be convincing. Probably I’d feel the same way if I were 12.

Personally, I think this DIY sauce mix tastes better, yet it’s still comparable to the original in texture and ease of use. Making it takes only a beat longer than it does to prepare a box mix, and it’s fun and empowering. I really do feel like I’m pulling a fast one on Big Food. A 1-pound tub of cheese powder makes 22.7 batches, and takes up way less space than 22 boxes of mac and cheese would. These wins are enough in my book for me to keep at it. Let’s just hope I don’t start making the cheese powder from scratch next.



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