SNAP CHALLENGE GOURMET: Stepped Up Mac n’ Cheese


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Marc BrazeauMarc Brazeau | Editor | Food and Farm Discussion Lab | @eatcookwrite

The other day a friend reached out to me for some diet advice for a friend. This was someone who wanted to improve her diet, but had some pretty tight limitations. She has type II diabetes, she is on a very tight budget. She works at an Amazon warehouse and picks up shifts on other jobs when she can, so she works a lot and doesn’t have the time or energy for much cooking, nor can she afford healthy convenience foods. In fact, she lives mostly on boxes of mac n’ cheese and the dollar menu at Taco Bell and McDonald’s. My friend was tired of people shaming her for not wanting to cook at home. I tried to meet this person where they are at. I tried to give the advice I was being asked for, rather than the advice I thought she needed (a simple maneuver of empathy and solidarity that people find surprisingly difficult to manage).

I took a gander at the Taco Bell and McDonald’s menus:

The Power Menu Veggie Burrito seems like the way to go here, but it’s spendy. On the cheap side, the Black Beans and Rice Bowl and the Spicy Tostada look like the best options. McD’s has a cheap yogurt and fruit parfait $1 that would go a long way to make any McDs meal healthier if subbed for fries. The Fruit and Oatmeal is $2 and the salads are in the $4 – 6 range. The salads are hands down the best choice for a meal, but my guess is that she doesn’t enjoy salads.

Then I went over to my local grocery store to see what I could come up with for convenience foods in the dollar menu price range that would be an improvement over boxes of mac n’ cheese. I took some pictures of of some canned soups and frozen meals along with Nourish Bowls which are found in the fresh produce section and posted them on my Facebook wall and the Food and Farm Discussion Lab Forum to see what advice, strategies, and suggestion other people would come up with. We ended up with great discussions in both places.

As I was thinking about some of the advice that came in, which was quite good, but I didn’t think it necessarily took into account that this person’s go to foods were mac n’ cheese and Taco Bell, a light bulb finally went off. If I wanted to meet this person “where they were at” and help them take the next step in the right direction, then the best thing I could do was help them make better mac n’ cheese. I know this person likes mac n’ cheese. I know this person likes Taco Bell. I think they’ll like this Stepped Up Mac n’ Cheese.

This recipe leverages a simple trick I use a lot to step up the nutrition of lots of things. I add butternut squash where you’d least expect it. Chili. 13 Bean Soup. Spaghetti Sauce. Why not mac n’ cheese?

My local grocery store has stopped carrying frozen blocks of butternut squash, so I ended up getting a can of Progresso butternut squash soup, which actually ended up working out better for this recipe because I substituted the soup for the milk that the instructions on the mac n’ cheese box calls for. The can of soup is a lot more liquid than the half cup of milk the box calls for so I thickened it up with a little cream cheese. A two pound pack of store brand cream cheese is a staple in my fridge. It’s really cheap source of fat and a great thickener that I used to fortify all sort of things. The beauty of this recipe is that the only extra work is opening a few cans. I had frozen corn in my freezer, because I always do. I also had some cream cheese, because I always do. If you are trying to do super simple cooking on a budget, consider keeping both of those on hand. To keep things simple, I did a single can of the canned ingredients, but if I had it to do over again, I’d do it with two cans each of tomatoes and black beans.


1 Box Mac n’ Cheese 89¢
1 Can Petite Cut Tomatoes with Jalapeños 73¢ (recommend 2 cans)
1 Can Black Beans 99¢ (recommend 2 cans)
1 Can Butternut Squash Soup $1.67
1½ Cups Frozen Corn ~25¢
4 TB Cream Cheese ~25¢
4TB Butter~25¢

1. Bring six cups of water to a boil. Pour in pasta and cook for 5 minutes (instead of the 8-10 the box calls for) stirring occasionally. While the pasta is cooking open the cans. Strain the tomatoes and black beans. Give the black beans a rinse and strain again. You can do this with a strainer or the top of the can.

2. When the pasta is cooked, strain it. Add the butternut squash soup with the cream cheese and butter to the pot. Bring the soup to a boil and whisk the cream cheese. Return to a simmer and add the pasta and the rest of the ingredients. Stir and heat through.

Running the Numbers

This recipe yields just over five 400 calorie servings, which puts it at about $1.00 per serving, which is about double the cost of 400 calories of basic mac n’ cheese. In the overall scheme of things, it’s a cheap meal, but it is double what it’s replacing. I hope that’s not a deal breaker.

In terms of nutrition, I tallied the numbers from the packages and did what calculations I could and then recreated the recipe as best I could on Self’s NutritionData website. The results are pretty damn good and they’d be a bit better doubling the tomatoes and black beans.

SODIUM: I am sad to say that, according to my calculations, this recipe does not represent an improvement in terms of reducing sodium, which is an issue for a diabetic. I added up the sodium amount of the labels (Amount per Serving X Servings per Container) and the total calories (Amount per Serving X Servings per Container). I then divided total calories by 400 (the number calories per serving of prepared mac n’ cheese) to calculate the number of serving per batch — 6 servings. I then divided the total sodium by six to get the sodium per serving.

Surprisingly, the main villain here is the tomatoes which clock in at a mere 25 calories per half cup serving but pack 300 mg of sodium into those 25 calories. If you are rationalizing servings of mac to a 400 calorie serving, that creates numerator/denominator problem that really drives up the sodium per calorie for the final batch of mac. But the real problem is that a low sodium diet on a shoestring budget is pretty much impossible without plenty of scratch cooking. On a hopeful note, the Stepped Up Mac did achieve some significant improvements on some key metrics.

Basic Mac n’ Cheese: 690 mg (30%)
Stepped Up Mac n’ Cheese: 985 mg (43%)

Basic Mac n’ Cheese: 1 g (5%)
Stepped Up Mac n’ Cheese: 6 g (25%)

Basic Mac n’ Cheese: 11 g
Stepped Up Mac n’ Cheese: 13 g


  Basic Mac Stepped Up Mac
Vitamin A 50.4 IU (1%) 1310 IU (26%)
Vitamin C 0.3 mg (1%) 5.2 mg (8.7%)
Calcium 92.4 mg (9%) 110 mg (11%)
Iron 2.6 mg (14%) 3 mg (16%)

So, we see significant improvements in fiber, vitamin A, and vitamin C, with a decent improvement in protein. There are also some improvements in some B vitamins and other minerals. The butternut squash soup is the main, though not sole, driver of vitamin A, with a single serving of the soup delivering 60% of the recommended daily allowance. Doubling the black beans, tomatoes, and corn would bring even more fiber, vitamin A, and vitamin C to the table, though with the trade-off of more sodium. There are “no added salt” canned tomatoes and those would be a worthwhile splurge – as would any other low sodium options. Cooking a big batch of dried black beans without salt and freezing what you aren’t going to use right away is another way that you could cut both cost and sodium without much work – don’t forget to soak the beans overnight to cut down on cooking time and fuel bills.

Is this health food. Not exactly. Is it an improvement over a box of basic mac n’ cheese? I think so. And for feeding kids who don’t have sodium issues, it’s unambiguously an improvement.

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