The Comfort Conundrum
Seeing Kraft's new mac and cheese box forced me to open a can of worms
This piece began innocently enough in an email thread with Melissa, Kate, and Mark. I claimed my head was exploding with the news that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is changing its name from the full macaroni to “Kraft mac & cheese.”
Yeah, it’s a subtle change, but the new design isn’t. The orange smiling noodle will be bigger now, with sauce dripping from the corner of its mouth. (Check out the company press release and preview here.)
According to CNN, the goal of the reboot is to distinguish the 85-year-old Kraft mac and cheese from newer, so-called healthier products (like Annie's, for example) by focusing on comfort. To bolster the case, Kraft offers two variations: corkscrew shape and extra creamy — funny, since there’s no actual cream in the box — and both proclaim the absence of artificial flavors, preservatives, or dyes. While several ingredients on the label don't fall into those categories, they don't sound like real food either.
At this point in the conversation, snobbish me poked fun at how a box of highly processed bright orange noodles could possibly be considered nourishing. But for too many American families, a $1.00 box of macaroni and cheese is exactly those things. And more important, affordable calories when nutritional value might not be the first consideration. There is no humor in any of that. I went away to do some digging, searching for a better way to think about the intersection of healthy eating, cost, and comfort.
All roads lead to cooking. For me, the process of shopping for (or growing), stirring, assembling, and especially repurposing food is the ultimate balm, regardless of what life dumps on my doorstep. Far less important is the actual dish; I can get more comfort from dressing coleslaw than from polishing off a pile of pancakes. I am privileged with a generous household food budget and the time and expertise to use it economically with minimal waste. Whether or not you share a similar position, for this exploration let's set aside any biases and agree that macaroni and cheese is iconic comfort food.
Convenience obviously factors into this equation so I suggest we compare two similar ways of cooking macaroni and cheese: The Kraft box (where you boil and drain the noodles, and return them to the pot with the dehydrated cheese packet and your own milk and butter or margarine); and Mark's one-pot recipe (with four ingredients and a process takes a few additional minutes, but makes more and assumes you grate your own cheddar).
According to the Kraft package, each serving is based on about 2 ounces of dried noodles. After cooking and the suggested milk and butter, it nets out somewhere close to 1 cup per serving. Mark's recipe includes a pound of pasta and yields about 7 cups — more than twice as much — so I've calculated everything by serving. His recipe also finished with breadcrumbs so let's just make that optional here to further level the playing field.
On to the cost for the comfort of macaroni and cheese. Time spent grocery shopping is a wash since you'd still have to buy the box, milk, and butter even if you weren't cooking from scratch. Kraft can be found online for as little as $1.00. After searching for the most economical butter and milk, and the noodles and cheeses necessary to make Mark's mac I did some comparison math, using the most economic generic brands. A package of Kraft, plus 1/4 cup whole milk and 1 tablespoon butter costs $1.26 for about 3 cups. To make Mark's recipe you'll need $6.12 worth of groceries or $2.60 for 3 cups—or 42¢ a serving compared to 86¢.
Continuing with this comparison, the nutritional value is less of a judgment call. Kraft's label says a finished serving is about 350 calories and 10 grams of protein. The cheese in the box is the company's own processed cheese, dehydrated. Mark's recipe includes a generous portion of whole sharp cheddar and much more whole milk, which together bring 282 calories and 16 grams of protein to each serving. That's not including the noodles, cream cheese, or butter. And there's almost a third of the recommended maximum sodium in a cup of boxed mac and cheese. When you make it yourself, you can better control salt intake.
Macaroni and cheese is a dish more engineered for comfort than healthy eating. And there are ways to make it healthier by incorporating vegetables, using lower fat milk, or serving less alongside some plant- or animal based protein. You can also decide to spend more on whole grain noodles or organic ingredients if that's a priority.
But if the goal of eating the boxed version is calories and protein, then isn't there a strong case for spending more to get more? Can that argument then be applied to nutritious meals driven by a variety of fresh vegetables and whole grains? How do we truly level the playing field so that everyone has access to real food and basic cooking knowledge? The answers to those questions won't be found tapping on a calculator. We'll need to all work on them together.
I think you're missing the enormous factor of MENTAL LOAD. I 100% agree with your nutrition, flavor, and economic points - and I STILL reach for the blue box at the end of a long day (though I do throw in some extra shredded cheese). I don't have to find a recipe or think about what sounds tasty or fresh or what my children might or might not consent to eat today, even if yesterday they loved it. I just look at the box and do what it says while my children are yelling that they are hungry NOW and I'm trying to get dinner on the table after a long day with no help and also think about baths, laundry, homework, and whatever else needs to get done before we do it all tomorrow. The blue box neatly disposes of the thinking we have to do around dinner - even those of us who like cooking real food need that some days.
So much to unpack here. I am a nurse practitioner who works in a hospital caring for acutely ill adults. Boxed Kraft is still absolutely a comfort food from my childhood. As much as I will pick some up now and again, those of us who love to cook need to remember there are those who don’t know how, and/or don’t have the resources to do so. They eat how they grew up eating or how they can afford to eat. I had a long conversation with a single woman in her 60s who has cancer and who’s doctor told her to lose weight. He is rightfully (surprisingly) teaching less processed, food substitution, etc but she admitted how she has no idea how to cook and is appalled when things don’t taste good and she then wastes food and money. How do we overcome that hurdle? We can prove economics and nutrition by numbers all we want but when it comes down to that 60ish single woman on a fixed income standing in a store, overwhelmed by what she should buy because she doesn’t have the proper equipment or basic spices——-she is going to go with what she knows. And I will, unfortunately, continue to have job security.