Mid-week Macaroni and Beef with Cheese, photo by Donna

I needed a dinner that was easy and delicious, would please everyone, one that also reheated well in case my daughter’s track meet ran late, and I had to be able to make it long before serving so it would be just a matter of reheating come dinnertime.  There are of course a thousand options that fit these criteria, but last week, I was in a nostalgic mood and thought back to school lunches, one of my favorites, macaroni and beef.  We were always famished by lunchtime and this dish was dependable and impossible to screw up by a 1970’s school kitchen. For a midweek meal I went as simple as could be.  The only way I’d change it, I decided would be to pile a monstrous amount of cheddar and mozzarella on top at the end and flash it beneath the broiler.

I know why we call dishes comfort food, because that’s their undeniable effect—this one was sooo good—but what is it about them that causes the comfort? Pasta and cheese, chief among comfort foods.

Simple Macaroni and Beef with Cheese

1 large onion, diced

1 tablespoon canola oil

salt to taste

optional seasonings: black pepper, oregano, cumin, coriander, chopped garlic, hot smoked paprika, chilli powder—whatever you’re in the mood for (I just used black pepper, garlic and a tablespoon of fish sauce, which gives it depth)

one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, pureed in the can with a hand blender or in a blender blender

2 pounds lean ground beef

1 box macaroni

1 cup each grated cheddar and mozzarella cheeses

Sweat the onions in the oil with a three-fingered pinch of salt.  Add the beef and cook it, breaking it up as you do. (Because my beef was very fatty, I cooked it separately and added it to the pot along with the tomatoes. Also an option, but uses an extra pan.)  Add another three-fingered pinch of salt or two, along with any dry seasonings you want.  Add the tomatoes and any fresh seasonings you may be using, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for an hour.

Cook the macaroni in boiling water till it’s half done.  Drain it and add it to the tomatoes.  (I wanted this to stretch into two meals, so I used the whole box, but if you want your dish to be very tomatoey and beefy, you might want to add only half the macaroni).  Stir it into the sauce.  Taste it.  Add more salt and other seasonings as needed, and cover.  When it’s cooled and the pasta has absorbed the tomato juices, transfer it to a large baking dish and cover it with foil.  It can sit out for several hours like this, be refrigerated for up to two days, or frozen a few weeks.

Bake it in a 400 degree oven till it’s piping hot (about 45 minutes if it’s cold to room temperature).  Just before you’re ready to eat, remove the foil, cover macaroni with the cheese and broil till it looks beautiful.

Having used all the pasta, I put the second batch into the cleaned baking dish and covered it with foil, wrote “Mac and Beef, bake, cover with cheese and broil” on the foil with a sharpie—so that next time I’m gone, Donna has a mid-week meal ready to go.

Now that we have this frozen version, it begs the question, “What is the difference between pulling this homemade version and baking it, and cooking the ubiquitous store-bought kind?”  Besides the fact that it’s more satisfying to serve from glass than from foil or plastic?  Besides the good ingredients and lack of bad ones? Besides all that extra, gooey, delicious melted cheese?  Besides that it was fun to make? Besides that it tastes better?

Love. It makes a difference.


80 Wonderful responses to “Macaroni and Beef with Cheese —
Childhood Love”

  • pat anderson

    Looks very yummy, Michael!
    And I agree about making your own frozen dinners. I do it all the time. Don’t cook just one meal, cook 2-4 of them, and freeze the others (well labeled and dated!) for the nights when things are too rushed, or you just don’t feel like preparing something from scratch. Yes, you know exactly what the ingredients are!

  • bunkycooks

    This dish is very similar to a dish my mom used to make when I was a kid. Nice timing to remember right at Mother’s Day. This is true comfort food…looks really delicious.

  • Sherry Bellamy

    Yum. I regularly make macaroni and cheese for the freezer, but I hadn’t thought of doing this retro version with beef and tomatoes. It’s nice to see someone doing family friendly comfort food. I think this could be tweaked in lots of interesting ways, too…..for those of us with no kiddies at home.

    Thanks for the idea, and the mouth-watering picture!

  • David B

    For those of us outside the US, how much (in weight) is “one box” of dried macaroni please? I need to make this…

  • Bob

    I’ve done this for get-togethers/pot-lucks before, but instead of cheese, I used crushed Ritz crackers sauteed in butter.

  • Stephanie M. Clarkson

    Now here’s a question for you…I was raised with it called just this, Macaroni and Beef, and a pretty similar recipe, in Southern Ontario. When I lived in Georgia, it was cooked in a round pan, cooled, so the starch could coagulate, then broiled to reheat with cheese on top. Cut in quarters, it was called Hamburger Pie.

    Both of these make sense to me.

    Now I live in Boston, and pretty much everywhere in New England and NY/NJ, it seems to be called American Chop Suey, and I have no idea WHY. Anyone?

  • Skip

    Michael, I grew up with this dish. My mom always made it with diced tomatoes and chili powder. Sometimes there were sliced black olives, too. When I was in college sliced jalapeños began to show up in it. Thanks for inspiring all these memories just in time for Mother’s Day.

  • David in San Antonio

    Well, even though it’s getting pretty warm here, mouth still insists that I make this. I usually use chicken in mine, but this looks too good not to try.

  • Wilma de Soto

    I remember it being called American Chop Suey. Probably because Chop Suey was Chinese food that had nothing to with Chinese food and Macaroni and Beef was Italian food that had nothing to do with Italian food.

  • Scott Deitche

    We do a similar dish, but add in some cream of mushroom soup. To top it off- thinly slice a sweet onion, light coating of flour, flash fry, and put over top before it goes under the broiler.

  • Stacey

    My mom used to make this and called it goulash. She didn’t bake it – she left it in the Dutch oven, turned the heat to low, sprinkled a bunch of shredded mozzarella on top and put the lid on. The cheese melted slowly and was really soft and stringy – delicious! The goulash was more of a very thick stew but I highly recommend this method. In fact, just writing about it means I’m going to have to make it sometime soon!

    • Charlotte

      Yup — in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s this was a school lunch staple — and it was called goulash (or rather, “GOO-lash”). And it was delicious — even for school lunch. But that was back when the lunch ladies made lunch.
      And I’m a HUGE proponent of home-frozen dinners. An answer to the time issue — cook twice as much when you’re cooking, then freeze it for later.

    • KristineB

      Yes, goulash. Very similar to what my mom made. We had a Hungarian neighbor, and I think it was her recipe. And we were just east of Cleveland.

  • lux

    The very first recipe that went into my personal collection was my grandmother’s beef-and-noodle dish — quite similar except without the cheese. My mother has the original that Grandma wrote down for us several decades ago. 🙂

  • Nancy@acommunaltable

    What is the difference between homemade and the one at the store?? Well aside from all the reasons you listed, the homemade one requires a bit of pre planning and the one at the store doesn’t – I think that is the main reason people buy them. I took an informal poll the other day and was amazed by how many people don’t think about their dinner until about… well, dinnertime – hence the popularity of the store bought version!!

  • Karen Downie Makley

    “What is the difference between pulling this homemade version and baking it, and cooking the ubiquitous store-bought kind?”
    The difference IS love, to be sure, but the difference is also no high fructose corn syrup, no maltodextrin, no mono sodium glutamate, no “conditioners”, and no unpronounceable chemical preservatives. And I’ll bet no one walks away from your frozen dinner feeling gypped and still kind of hungry, which is how I feel when I eat the ubiquitous store-bought kind.

  • Jean at The Delightful Repast

    “Love. It makes a difference.” I agree. I have no scientific data to back it up, but I firmly believe it! In these uncertain times, more and more of us are looking for comfort. And it doesn’t come in a box; neither does love. It’s time to slow down and take the time to come together as a family over a real meal around a real table and have some real conversation. Our lives will be richer for it, our health will be better for it, and society will be gentler for it.

  • luis

    This is what you bring to the office pot luck…party. Sure to help with that promotion thing….

  • Eddie

    So at the risk of making this less comforting, what kind of green vegetable would you (any of you) put in this? Spinach? Broccoli?

  • Sherry Bellamy

    I wouldn’t put ANY green vegetable in this, but I’d put one on the side for sure. Broccoli would work well I guess (you know…not really, the whole theing would have that overcooked broccoli stench)….but to me this is a “salad on the side” meal. Fresh green crunchy salad….the perfect partner. Along with some old fashioned garlic bread or toast.

    Not everything needs green. Some things are just what they are, plain old yummy.

  • Michdelle

    What is the difference, you asked? Aftertaste. Ever since my family and I completely gave up all processed foods, whenever I have (for reasons beyond my control) eaten anything processed or containing preservatives, I get a repulsive, lingering aftertaste. Anyone else notice this? It completely ruins the meal.

  • Michelle

    Oops, the names Michelle. Don’t drink wine and watch Betty White on SNL while you comment on blogs.

  • carri

    This is one of the first dishes I learned to make as a young teen helping to feed younger siblings while our parents worked late. Interestingly, neither my own kids, nor my husband likes it. Every once in a while, just for myself, I make my grandmother’s version which involves bacon instead of beef and a little vinegar and sugar to the sauce and parmesean instead of cheddar…makes me want a bowl right now!

  • Christine

    Love your pictures! Your daughter is very lucky, growing up my dad wouldn’t even touch the stove except for, instant noodles.

  • Randy

    Sorry Mike, maybe I would have to be there and taste, but the picture just doesn’t do it for me. Its not Donna’s picture, it just seems too Hamburger Helperish to me. I don’t even think I would try to make it either… I came from a poor family that ate this type of dish five times a week and maybe it just makes me non nostalgic. I swore to myself that I would never eat HH again when I could afford it and I have kept that promise to myself.

    • Jean at The Delightful Repast

      Randy, that’s understandable. My dad grew up during the depression, and his “poor family” meal was fried chicken. His mother kept chickens, so it was the affordable meal for them. So by the time he was grown, he never wanted to see another piece of chicken! During the last 64 years of his life, he probably had chicken, in any form, half a dozen times.

  • michael bash

    Please tell us/me how much is “a box” of macaroni. Can I assume it’s 1/2 kg which is how all pasta comes here in Greece? Thanks for the help.

  • jak757@yahoo.com

    When my seven year old daughter tells me that she really likes something I’ve cooked, I look at her with a twinkle, and say — “that’s because I put a special ingredient in it, know what it is?” She smiles back, and says… “love”….

    Thanks Michael for helping me realize how important those moments are, and how important it is that SHE understands…

    Akron, OH

  • Barbara Kiebel

    I used to make a dish that was similar to this when I was a young girl on my own. It was called Hamburger Helper/Macaroni and Cheese!

    Since growing far beyond the days of HH; I have never considered making a for real, from scratch version but now I’m inspired…something old IS new again (and there won’t be any talk of comparisons…I know enough to know what I should not have been doing; my daughters know better too!)

    We’re having a late chill in Colorado and just the look of this warms me up…thanks!

  • Lora

    Michael, I need about a million more of these track meet night menus! Especially this coming week, as we face a full calendar of band concert, school open house, math fair, and soccer practices.

  • S. Woody White

    Our older grandson would totally rebel against this dish. If it isn’t the Mac and Cheese that comes in that damned blue box, it isn’t any good in his opinion. Verging on thirteen, he is a very picky eater and the total dictator of what is good or not in the world of food (and practically everything else). (Last night, the family’s dinner included lobster tails as a special treat (which he refused to touch), and he derided me for melting butter for dipping the meat.

    That’s enough reason to make this for Bruce and myself.

    But it begs the question – why do picky eaters insist that everyone else follow their dietary demands? There’s got to be a psycholgy behind it.

    • Ellendra

      When I went through that picky-eater stage, my mother told me flat out that she was NOT cooking special dinners, if I didn’t like what the rest of the family was eating I’d have to make my own meal. I ate a lot of canned soups for a while, but I did learn to cook because of that.

      Found out later that part of my pickiness was due to a mild food allergy, but usually that’s not the case. Maybe if your teen has to cook his own food and clean up after, he might reconsider? It would at least take the stress off of you.

  • Saffoula

    This was one of the very first dishes I learned how to make as a kid. My younger sisters called it “Yuck”, but then devoured it anyway. I’ve since “improved” upon it by adding a mixture of pork and chicken Italian sausages uncased and mushrooms. I also layer it in a tall baking dish so there are two layers of cheese. Instead of fish sauce, I use about a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce and few dashes of Tabasco sauce. Fresh parsely adds some color. YUM!

  • Big Red

    MMMMMMM….this looks good. I actualyl grew up with something very similar. My father used to make it when Mom wasn’t around to complain about fat content. We did the same cheese, and mac combo, but with chunk tomatos and sauteed polish sausage. Sometimes we would even add bacon. I think I will print this out and make it now. 🙂

    Tell Donna happy mother’s day!

  • cindy

    Our kids love that green bean casserole everyone makes at Thanksgiving. My mother would bring the canned soup and canned onion strips version. It’s better than the version she made when I was a kid which was made with canned beans too. One year when my mother was going to my sister’s for the holiday, the kids asked for “grandma’s” green bean casserole. So my husband made it from scratch with his homemade mushroom soup, frozen organic green beans, and onion strips he made himself. They all agreed it was better than the one made with canned items. Can’t tell mom that though. We still let her think she makes the best because it’s made with Love and the best intentions.

  • Cave Pullum

    Food Porn.

    You should be proud of yourself…….

  • bloody frida

    On our birthday, we six siblings got to choose what we wanted to eat for our birthday dinner. While one brother would choose lobster, I yearned for mac and beef (even though we had it very often for regular dinner). My mom would add green pepper. Your addition of cheese though – yum!

  • Ellendra

    That looks fabulous! Now I’m going to be hungry all night.

  • Joe

    Congratulations Sir, you just broke my dinner block. I’m making this tonight!
    I have to say that I’ve never heard of this beef version. Tuna Mornay is popular – or, was popular – here in Australia. I made it last week and the only bad thing about that is you invariably make more than you need and just can’t help making yourself sick. That’s one of my problems anyway. This beef version looks to be worth a try.
    I love these American/Not Quite Italian dishes. I find it difficult to articulate why – beyond the obvious – American classics are such genius recipes. Why does crab in a brown paper bag make so mcuh sense to me?? And a prawn cocktail. Why is that so quinissentially American? Maybe because it isn’t, but it seems like it should be. I’ve never had it, but is clam chowder as good as they say it is?? Fried Chicken!!!
    Keep the comfort food comin’
    P.S. Does this go as well with Tabasco as I imagine it will?

  • Chad

    That would hamburger noodle hotdish in this pat of the world (MN)

    • Chad

      Excuse me – should read

      That would be hamburger noodle hotdish in this part of the world (MN)

      uffda…still can’t type….

  • Lucas

    This my Aunt Selma’s macaroni mess! Pure, cheesy comfort.

  • Susan

    My dear Mother in Law made a similar dish they called “Jimmies Junk” (after her other son because it was his favorite dish). It was made with noodles instead of macaroni, but everything else was included. I’d never eaten anything like this growing up, so I thought it was awful, but my husband gets a taste for it every now and then. He makes it cuz he says my dislike of it comes through in the outcome! Funny how that love/hate things comes through in food!

  • Mantonat

    The Texas version of this dish was Chili-Mac and it was available in every cafeteria, mess hall, and mother’s recipe box.

  • Tiffany

    I have a recipe similar to this that my mother got from my preschool some 28 odd years ago…everyone i make this for loves it.
    1pound beef
    1 small onion
    1 green pepper
    1 can creamed corn
    1 can tomato sauce
    about 2 cups macaroni
    shredded cheese

    brown beef with onion and green pepper. cook macaroni. once the beef is cooked i then add the tomato sauce and corn and let it warm up while the macaroni cooks.

    drain the noodles, combine all in casserole dish and top with cheese.
    bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes

    remove from oven and let stand for about to minutes before serving (yes, this does make a difference)


  • Lori

    One of my childhood favs, but our Arizona version was called goulash and used egg noodles, green chiles and corn. Yum!

    • Lori

      …in addition to the beef, onion, tomatoes and shredded cheddar, of course. 🙂

  • The Rowdy Chowgirl

    Yes, piling a monstrous amount of cheddar and mozzarella on top is brilliant! This is the kind of dish I have to be careful not to make too often, as I will eat and eat and eat…until the entire pan is gone!

  • kristin

    Making it tonight. For the herbs I decided to chop some garlic, some dried oregano, ( from my own garden) paprika, shallot salt ( kills two birds with one stone, so to speak.) and oh I threw in some fresh ( but dried) thai chili peppers just for a kick. I threw in three of them. It should be just the right amount because I made an entire box of macaroni. Thanks for this great recipe!

  • cherie duda

    Love your blog…I have this brewing right now for dinner tomorrow…have not had it in years..thank you for the suggestion. I added the hot paprika, can’t wait for dinner tomorrow.

  • kristin

    Well, it came out really well. My fresh, but dried oregano really jazzed it up and I truly think shallot salt is one of the great inventions. I get mine from penzys and it has a really nice aroma, and tastes really good in the food.
    We had plenty left over for lunch for the next couple of days.

  • Seth V.

    This sounds really good, I might cut the cheese back a bit since my is not a huge fan of melted cheese (unless it’s on a pizza). But simple nice and I like everyone else love the idea of some left overs for a lunch or two.

  • ruhlman

    kristin, thanks for coming back to post on how it turned out!

    i’ve only gotten one email about this from someone worried about all the fat i eat! and it wasn’t david lebovitz.

  • twoshoes

    whoa nellie that looks great and I’m making it today for dinner. will serve w/ green beans on the side. anyways, this is nothing like the goulash I grew up eating in wisconsin, it does resemble chilli mac.

    I’m looking forward to traveling back in time this evening as I eat this.
    thanks man.

  • Kanani

    These are the kinds of recipes that I use over and over again. If not consumed outright in one sitting, there’d be leftovers that would be gone by the morning.
    Thank you for this. There’s someone loving in this recipe.
    I am half way through your Ratios book. I get paid soon and will go buy a scale. I would have finished it earlier, but Sebastian Junger’s agent sent me his new book “WAR.” Let’s just say, it had me scurrying back to your book, cooking, and all the good things in life.

  • Nicole

    Last night my kids walked right past the panko lemon-pepper fish, dijon/arugula roasted potatoes and parmesan broccoli they were to eat to this. I was finishing it in the pan for tonight’s dinner (prepped early due to a busy sports schedule). All 3, at separate times, said “Ooh, what’s that? Is that for tonight?” And this morning, one asked again, “Are we having that macaroni thing with cheese for dinner?” So I guess this one will be a keeper!! Thanks!

  • Chuck McLean

    In my house, this is called Sloppy Joe Casserole, and it always contains minced garlic, chopped green pepper, oregano, and a couple of TBS of tomato paste. Sometimes I use macaroni, but my fav is egg noodles. Otherwise, pretty much the same. My all-time favorite comfort food!

  • SlipperyPete

    Made this tonight with a few variations. First of all I tried to half the recipe, but then forgot and put the whole, big, can of tomatoes in with half the beef and pasta. Turned out great for me and if I halved the tomato I think it would be too dry. I also stirred in a bit of the cheese with the beef and mac. Just a little bit of gooeyness to put in the middle. I seasoned with 3 cloves of garlic, black pepper, some oregano, and “Italian Seasoning”. This will be made many more times in this house.

  • Teri

    Here in Iowa this was Goulash, but we of course added ketchup. My kids loved this…

  • Ben

    I made this for dinner two nights ago and have been eating the left overs ever since! Amazingly delicious.

    Question: What is the virtue of simmering the beef, tomato, onion mixture for a full hour? I was hungry and it was getting late, so I cooked it on medium for about 15 minutes before mixing in the pasta and it seemed to come out just fine.

  • heydemann3

    only one question-why cook the tomato-beef mix for an hour?

  • wehotom

    We had something very similar when I was growing up. Pure comfort.

  • JudyB

    My daughter just listed Mac & Cheese as #1 on the list of foods to put in the cookbook I’m writing for my grandson. #2 was a toss-up between meatloaf or meatballs. If I play with your recipe, it might make the best of both favorites for him.

    It’s fun to play with your food!

  • Ellendra

    I made something that was supposed to be like this, but had to improvise a lot. Used small shell noodles instead of macaroni. Didn’t have canned tomato of any kind, but I found some grape tomatoes that had been forgotten but weren’t yet spoiled, so I made a sauce by cutting them in half and sauteing them until they had mostly dissolved. I also drained a can of green beans and sauteed them in the tomato/butter mess just until the outsides started to wrinkle. Added some ground beef that had been cooked a couple days earlier, along with the liquid from the green beans. Then, since I was making a smaller batch, I layered the meat/veggie mix with the noodles and cheese in a loaf pan and baked until toasty on top.

    I think next time I’ll add a bit more salt than I did, but it was fabulous!

    PS: Yes, I skipped the onions and I didn’t add pepper. Sacrilege to most people, but I’m allergic to both. Along with other things. I improvise a lot.


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