Mac and cheese

Mac and cheese (Photo by P Maxwell Photography on Shutterstock)

Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? It’s a staple of most kids’ diets because it’s so easy to whip up on the kitchen stove, and you can find it on just about every kid’s menu. For adults, mac and cheese is the comfort food to end all comfort foods and goes well with just about anything. Do you like your mac and cheese creamy or crunchy? I prefer mine to have a crunchy top because I like it to be baked, not stirred. (I remember my mom topping hers with wheat germ to make it crunchy. I guess she wanted her version to be a little healthier.) Regardless of what you prefer, we have turned to expert sources to find the best fast food mac and cheese to pick up the next time you’re rolling through the drive-thru.

Speaking of healthy, mac and cheese doesn’t top the list of what we consider a healthy choice, but that could be changing. A recent study says eating whole-fat dairy products like milk and cheese should be part of a healthy diet. Researchers found eating whole-fat products protects against cardiovascular disease – the world’s leading cause of death. Translation: Don’t feel too guilty about eating some good mac and cheese with plenty of milk, butter, and cheese.

Like burger and chicken wars, mac and cheese wars have heated up over the years at many fast food restaurants. While some concoctions have been around for years, others have come and gone. We should point out that one fast food chain, Arby’s, introduced mac and cheese in late 2022. Despite rave reviews it didn’t do well and is no longer on the menu. We found it high on many of the lists we scoured, but since it’s no longer an option, we are not adding it to our list.

As always, we at StudyFinds have researched multiple sources to bring you today’s list of the top five best fast food mac and cheese options. Those making our list were easily the most popular choices among experts. Don’t agree? No worries, we would love to hear from you in the comments below!

A bowl of mac and cheese shells
A bowl of mac and cheese shells (Photo by P Maxwell Photography on Shutterstock)

The List: Best Fast Food Mac and Cheese, According to Experts

1. Popeyes Homestyle

Popeye may love to eat spinach, but the fast food chain has raised the level of the side dish to new heights. As you read the reviews, it’s clear why the chain’s mac and cheese is a fan favorite. Eat Pallet calls this “the nostalgic version of what grandma used to make.” The website says, “The true homemade flavor and gooey finish complement the thick cheddar sauce.”

This mac and cheese is rated as number one on The Daily Meal’s list, saying it’s “nothing short of perfection.” You can’t get much better than that! “The cheese sauce is the real star, though. Somehow, it’s both straightforward and multifaceted. The cheese flavor is strong and leans towards cheddar, yet it’s also complex: There are nutty, tangy, salty, and mellow notes to be found here.”

Tasting Table says “If the late Anthony Bourdain blesses something, we listen.” Back in 2017, the popular chef revealed in a Boston Globe interview that the mac and cheese from Popeyes was his guilty pleasure. “This tasty side is made with plenty of real butter, cream, and cheddar cheese.”

2. Panera Bread

Panera Bread came under fire after an employee revealed the mac and cheese was frozen and thawed out in the stores. The company struck back, saying it’s frozen because it does not contain any preservatives and if shipped fresh, it would spoil. Whatever you may think about the fresh/frozen debate, the company does make a tasty mac and cheese.

Eat Pallet loves the “unique twist of the recipe because instead of the traditional cheddar cheese sauce, Panera bread uses creamy and tangy white cheddar sauce to coat every bit of the macaroni shell.” If you love flavor, you won’t be disappointed because, “The strong savory flavors and rich taste linger in your tastebuds.”

If you love mac and cheese heavily smothered in cheese, Mac and Cheese Club says this version is the “perfect band-aid for a bad day…Unlike many other fast food mac and cheese options, their pasta is very saucy. So saucy that it will leave some behind in the bowl, which is especially impressive considering the sauce-trapping qualities of the pasta.”

Guilty Eats knows a good mac and cheese, saying, “The Panera version is smooth and velvety. The cheese isn’t too overpowering, and the pasta is cooked al dente, which is the real way pasta should be eaten.”

3. Chick-fil-A

If you’re lucky enough to live near a Chick-fil-A that serves up mac and cheese (not all do), you’ll be impressed. Tasting Table encourages you to make sure your phone eats first, saying “The cheese pull is 100% Instagram-worthy.” It is “baked to liquid perfection” and it could “easily fool you into thinking you’re eating homemade.”

The cheesiness is what stood out for Eat Pallet. “We like this version of mac and cheese because they use not just one but three cheese blend: parmesan, cheddar, and romano.” Having it baked in the store was also a plus, giving it “extra layers of crispy cheese.”

Erie Street Pub calls it a “delicious and well-crafted side dish” that is “topped with parmesan cheese for added texture and flavor.”

4. Dave’s Hot Chicken

This popular chicken restaurant is quite literally spicing up the mac and cheese world. Eat Pallet loves the al dente noodles with added spices to “ramp up” the flavor. The website says the “creamy and smooth cheese sauce goes well with a healthy dose of peppery goodness.”

If you like things hot, Tasting Table comments, “The spiciness adds a whole new level of flavor we didn’t know was possible in mac and cheese.”

If you’re looking for your mom’s mac and cheese, says you won’t find it here, but “it is a satisfying alternative.”

5. Noodle’s and Company

This fast food chain probably isn’t the first one you think of when you think mac and cheese, but since all they do is noodles, it would make sense to do mac and cheese well. The Daily Meal touts all four versions of mac and cheese the restaurant offers including the gluten-sensitive mac. However, the humble Wisconsin mac and cheese is the “star of the show” giving you “simply everything you could want out of a bowl of mac and cheese, from its pleasantly al dente noddles to its glossy cheese sauce.”

The company’s Buffalo Chicken Mac is first on Tasting Table’s list of the best fast food mac and cheese. “This delicious mac is topped with Parmesan-crusted chicken, Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Wings Sauce, and scallions. The Buffalo sauce added punchiness, while the chicken provides the extra bulk needed to make this feel like a full meal and not just a side dish,” according to the website. “It’s close to perfect, and for that reason, it comes out as the victor in this battle of the macs.”

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

About Amy Chodroff

Amy Chodroff is a recovering Morning Radio Show Host and award-winning broadcaster who recently retired from DFW’s Morning News on KLIF in Dallas. Fondly known as the “Chief Googler” by her friends, it was a seamless transition for StudyFinds to enlist her expertise for their “Best of the Best” franchise. Amy has an innate curiosity and a penchant for thorough research before any purchase and she’s constantly on the hunt for top-notch products. Outside of her digital explorations, Amy loves to explore the world with her husband and is the proud mother of two adult daughters. You can also find Amy on the pickleball court, perfecting her dink and drop shots.

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