Last year I surveyed and talked with thousands of parents to uncover their biggest challenges when it came to feeding their children. The usual suspects were on the list like time, money, skill and picky eaters in the house, but the questions that allowed parents to elaborate more put a spotlight around not having enough time and energy in today’s busy schedules to make a healthy meal at the end of the day. It’s no surprise, really, because families are busier today than we ever have been.
That’s exactly why so many of us turn to convenience foods. In fact, that’s why convenience foods were developed over 50 years ago, when moms joined the work force and needed a quick and easy way to feed her family.
Around that same time, food manufacturers found new ways to add flavor and color to our food to make it more appealing (I guess real food wasn’t exciting), and discovered that high fructose corn syrup was not only a cheaper sweetener than real sugar, but it also extends the shelf life of convenience foods. How wonderful (for them).
Fast forward to today and we still need convenience, but we’ve also learned about the perils of these cheap food ingredients. The blue box of orange macaroni and cheese “dinner” is mighty tempting (cheap, quick and easy), and we know kids will love it, right?
Well, we did an experiment to see how convenient the processed macaroni and cheese “dinner” really is, compared to homemade macaroni and cheese. We looked at taste, time to cook, costs and the most important: kid likeability!
You might be surprised by the results!
First, let’s look at how long each took to prepare from turning on the water, to serving up, and how many portions each made. We’ll get to the recipe in a bit.
Time to Cook
|Homemade Mac & Cheese||
8 or more
2 to 3
So, for two more minutes at the stove, we have mac and cheese leftovers for school lunch or dinner another night. Score one for me, right? This is my kid’s favorite “hot lunch” to take to school. Then we did the taste test.
My four year old’s very favorite food is macaroni and cheese. It always has been and likely will be for the rest of her childhood.
As our resident expert, she tasted both versions and loved the scratch-made macaroni and cheese. In fact, she kept gobbling it up and we had to take the big bowl away to avoid a tummy ache.
HOMEMADE MACARONI and CHEESE
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups milk
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt to taste
1 pound elbow macaroni
Cook macaroni according to the package. You’ll want to bring it to an al dente place (definitely not mushy). Make your cheese sauce while the macaroni cooks.
Heat a good sized pot over medium heat. Add oil and butter. When butter melts into the oil, add flour and mix well. Gently whisk flour and butter together, until smooth and flour has had a chance to slightly brown, about 3 minutes.
Slowly add milk while continuing to whisk, making sure to get any lumps that form. Bring milk to a low boil while stirring frequently. Allow the milk to thicken slightly, then stir in shredded cheddar cheese, one handful at a time. Season sauce with nutmeg. Add salt to taste.
Add cooked pasta to sauce and coat completely by gently mixing both together. Serve and enjoy.
A couple options:
- Transfer the mix to a baking dish and top with extra cheese, or bread crumbs. Place under a broiler for a few minutes to lighly brown the top.
- Mix in veggies like peas or broccoli – your kids might be more likely to eat them mixed into their favorite dish, and the cheese sauce will make them tasty.
- If your child insists that macaroni and cheese must be orange, make this dish orange by boiling the macaroni with carrots, add saffron or turmeric to the cheese sauce, or use natural food dyes from your local Whole Foods or natural foods market.
Wondering about the price difference? The blue box cost $1.20 to make (the package, butter and milk) for 2 to 3 servings, while the homemade macaroni and cheese cost $5 to make over 8 large servings. Not that big of a difference when you consider the benefits of eating real food.
What’s missing? Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and a lot of sodium. Like anyone is going to miss that!
While there is an increasing amount of convenience foods that don’t use high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and food dyes, the least processed foods are better choices.
Give the homemade macaroni and cheese a try with your kids. Stick with it and they’ll forget about the bright orange stuff sooner than you think. And if you’re looking for a homemade mac and cheese without dairy, try our vegan macaroni and cheese with Daiya cheese that is just as delicious as the real thing!