On some dark, dreary winter days, only one thing will do: a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese. For vegans and others who tend to avoid dairy, though, that’s a lot easier said than done. Yes, there are tons of recipes for plant-based mac and cheese online. But few of these recipes come close to the gooey, chewy Kraft Macaroni & Cheese I inhaled as a kid.
The best vegan mac and cheese recipes use homemade cashew-based cheese: a blend of nuts, nutritional yeast, and spices such as turmeric and garlic. The blandness of the nuts means the spices become the dominant flavor. That’s fine if you want to taste them, but doesn’t work if you prefer a more simple take. Also, homemade cashew cheese sauce requires planning and time. In my experience, if you don’t soak the cashews for least a few hours before blending everything in a food processor, you wind up with a sauce with the consistency of nut butter.
So I decided to see whether any of the boxed vegan mac-and-cheese options out there were any good. For the sake of fairness, I decided to stick with the options that used powdered cheese mix and the most basic flavor available for each brand. I also went with selections that could be purchased online, since availability at groceries varies. That left me with Road’s End Organic Shells & Chreese, Annie’s Homegrown Organic Vegan Mac, Leahey Gardens’ Macaroni & Cheese, Modern Table Mac & Cheese, and Pastabilities Vegan Organic Under the Sea Mac ’n Cheese.
Since even the most faithful vegan versions of dairy dishes tend to taste different from their milky counterparts, I decided not to base my assessment solely on how closely these vegan macs resembled Kraft or homemade roux- or egg-and-milk-based recipes. That said, for plant-based takes to succeed, they still needed to have a good, cheesy flavor—that umami we get from good cheddar—and function well as comfort food. A good vegan mac and cheese needed to leave me with a full stomach and a smile.
Road’s End’s cheddar-style “Shells & Chreese” was wonderfully creamy, but lacking in layered flavor. There was some depth due to nutritional yeast but none of the umami you get with good cheddar. Instead of cheese, I tasted garlic and onion powder, and there wasn’t enough of it to make up for the absence of cheesiness, even if I had been angling for seasoned mac. That said, the texture was virtually perfect. The pasta had the right amount of chew. The sauce was creamy but not thick, and it coated the shells perfectly. If not for the blandness, this would have been great. The good news was that it wasn’t terrible. Depending on your preferences, it would be easy to dress this one up with Sriracha or breadcrumbs or veggie bacon.
There were two things I immediately noticed about Annie’s: it didn’t scream vegan and it was rather creamy. However, it lacked the kapow of cheddar almost entirely. You definitely didn’t feel the cheesy pop of Kraft Easy Mac, or even Annie’s own non-vegan cheddar varieties. It tasted as if I’d made a traditional boxed mac but hadn’t added enough cheese powder.
The texture, though, was spot on. The noodles had a bit of give between my teeth. The sauce was smooth, sticking to noodles without being soupy. If this were cheesier, it would have been perfect. Part of me wonders whether the problem lies in the amount of cheese powder. I didn’t have an extra box on hand to test this theory, but I surmise that adding more cheese powder would have helped a lot with flavor. As a slow eater, I did appreciate that this tasted as good at a lower temperature as it did piping hot.
So, I was skeptical while cooking this one. The sauce—powder mixed with one cup of liquid, per the instructions on the box—just wasn’t coming together and seemed soupy. But when the mix was brought to a boil and simmered (also per the instructions), it finally thickened. The sauce had enough salt for me—which was miraculous, since most food is chronically under-salted, in my opinion—and was accented with tomato power and what was described as “natural flavor,” but not excessively so. Leahey Gardens wasn’t trying to use spices to hide that it was vegan.
Unfortunately, the sauce-to-noodle ratio wound up being too high. There wasn’t enough pasta in the pouch. This issue worked itself out with time because the sauce thickened as it cooled, but by then, it was a bit cooler than I would have preferred. Interestingly, Leahey Gardens tasted more like cheddar than Annie’s. (Not cheesier, to be clear, but more cheddar-like.) It was a mild cheddar, but it worked. I appreciated that these noodles also had the right degree of chew. It reminded me a lot of the Smart Ones or Lean Cuisine frozen macs.
When I was researching boxed vegan macs, Modern Table seemed to be well regarded and readily available. I was really worried when I looked at the box, though: I don’t usually eat things that market themselves as healthy, especially if they’re macaroni and cheese. Honestly, seeing something described as a “complete protein” that provides “lasting energy,” “muscle health” and “good digestion” reminded me of icky good food/bad food discourse.
And yet, Modern Table was okay. The sauce was quite creamy, and the gluten-free noodles were fine: cooked slightly softer than al dente hardness, they retained their elbow shape. When they cooled a bit (again, slow eater here), I started to detect a graininess in the noodles. The sauce, which coated the noodles well, gradually lost its nuance as time went on, veering into too-buttery territory. I’d probably eat this again, but more quickly since it was best on the hotter side.
The first time I ate good pasta is forever etched in my mind. I remember how the flavor of flour came through—you could actually tell it came from a dough. This was different from the boxed spaghetti of my youth. It was almost magical. The first bite of Pastabilities Vegan Organic Mac ’N Cheese similarly surprised me. These were quality noodles, something I’d never really experienced with boxed macaroni products.
The box I got happened to have an “under the sea” motif, so the noodles were shaped like fish, seahorses, and starfish. I don’t think this had an impact on flavor, but it was an extra bit of fun. The sauce was cheesy, but there definitely needed to be more of it. If there were more cheese powder, I think this could easily taste like real cheddar.
The good news: There are definitely great picks for boxed vegan mac-and-cheese that are easy to get and relatively inexpensive. I would feel weird declaring one of these the best; I generally prefer cheesiness while others might prefer a creamier, more Alfredo-like vibe. For me, Annie’s and Pastabilities were the cheesiest and felt the most substantive. The quality of Pastabilities’ noodles made this one my favorite. But I’d eat any of these again, knowing what I needed to add given their respective limitations.
None of these boxes yielded all that much mac and cheese, however. If you’re splitting one between two or more people, I’d definitely recommend using something else as a main or adding sides, such as crispy tofu. Above all, my favorite thing about these options was that they show vegans and others with mostly plant-based diets that can still eat their favorite comfort food—without spending hours making it.