Michelle Obama says drop the mac and cheese powder and step away from the box

Parents can definitely get on board with encouraging their kids to eat healthy and preparing more food at home, two things Michelle Obama is promoting to end childhood obesity. But give up a pantry staple like macaroni and cheese? Gasp.

Susan Walsh/AP/FILE
In this Oct. 14, 2014 file photo, first lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by Sam Kass, talks with school children as they prepare to eat lunch in the East Room of the White House following the annual fall harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden in Washington. Michelle Obama says boxed macaroni and cheese was dropped from her family’s diet when her daughter failed to turn a block of cheese into cheese powder. In an interview in the upcoming issue of Cooking Light magazine, Mrs. Obama says Sam Kass, the family’s former personal chef, took a stand against the boxed variety. “He said there’s nothing wrong with mac and cheese, but it’s got to be real food,” she said, crediting Kass with eliminating processed food from their diet.

Parents are familiar with the look. The orange stain around a kid’s lips, sometimes migrating halfway up their cheeks, after they have finished off a heaping bowl of macaroni and cheese. Whether it is a conventional brand, or a less-guilt-inducing organic variety, there is still the same resulting cheddar film. If left unattended, it becomes a firming skin-mask, requiring everything short of a sand blaster to remove.

Michelle Obama wants to wipe that cheesy grin off the faces of kids nationwide.

Mrs. Obama has sworn off the powdered variety of macaroni and cheese ever since her family’s former personal chef, Sam Kass, refused to use it. To make his point, the chef challenged them to transform a real cheese block into powered cheese.

Obama told Cooking Light magazine that Malia, who was 8 at the time, tried for 30 minutes to pulverize a block of cheese, to no avail.

"She was really focused on it and it just didn't work, so she had to give up. And from then on, we stopped eating macaroni and cheese out of a box because cheese dust is not food, as was the moral of the story,” says Obama.

The first lady is marking the fifth anniversary of her battle against childhood obesity, challenging people to continue to make smart choices about how they eat. Her special focus this year is encouraging people to prepare and eat more of their meals at home.

She tells Cooking Light, "What we do know is that the food you cook is healthier, and it can be more affordable, but it takes some skills." 

This is wonderful in theory, but how many parents have watched a picky eater down a pint of boxed macaroni and cheese after refusing all other solids? The most neon orange macaroni and cheese is often the magic elixir of childhood food battles, serving as a peacemaker between breathless parents and the most ardent of youthful protestors.

And one can almost bet that even those parents who brag about homemade organic vegetable and fruit smoothies and making their own Kefir are sure to have a box or two stashed somewhere in the bowels of their pantries.

According to The Daily Meal blog, Kraft first introduced its famous – or infamous – Macaroni and Cheese in 1937. It sold 9 million boxes that year, during the height of the depression. Today, according to the site, more than 1 million boxes are sold per day. 

Food blogger and author of the site Weelicious, Catherine McCord, supplies parents with an abundance of macaroni and cheese recipes that are easy, use real ingredients, and aimed at the pickiest of eaters – her own kids.

Of her classic macaroni and cheese recipe she says, "Is it the healthiest dinner choice? Of course not. Would I recommend serving it more than once a week? Probably not. But when made well, perhaps with some veggies thrown in, mac & cheese is certainly a far better meal option than say, a Happy Meal."

Indeed, the real thing beats fast food, and what you can shake out of an airtight packet. Among the options for making macaroni and cheese at home, Momtastic shares the secrets of turning macaroni and cheese into a vegetable conveyor, sneaking in good foods like cauliflower, while distracting with cheese, and Weelicious, among its dozens of macaroni and cheese recipes, offers a rice cooker variety that might actually take less time than emptying a box.

This is a small sampling of what parents can find online, and there are plenty more ideas that add vegetables, meats, bread crumbs, and all sorts of ingredients to shake up this old standard.

As for those boxes in the pantry? Don't worry, pasta art will always remain a staple of craft time.

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