Consumers say (mac &) cheese, please

One of the nation's hottest food trends is both targeting nostalgic grown-ups and putting smiles on kids' faces: mac & cheese.

In an age of better-for-you eating, calorie- and carb-heavy macaroni and cheese is making a comeback. It's now sold in restaurants from fast-food and casual-dining to chi-chi establishments. Even packaged-food giants are cashing in as folks seek sensory comfort in the tastes and smells of their youth.

Sonic Drive-In started selling it as a snack this month. Kraft kft has introduced an organic version. Cheesecake Factory cake sells it as an appetizer. And at two trendy New York eateries, it's the only entree.

"It's the ultimate comfort food," says Darra Goldstein, editor in chief of Gastronomica, a food journal. "There's a desire to get back to the essential foods from childhood, no matter how sophisticated we are."

Comfort may not be good for you, warns nutritionist Robin Robyn Flipse. "As an entree, it's lethal."

Mac & cheese has pluses — it's calcium-rich and has protein aplenty. "But even if you use reduced-fat cheese, you can't make this low in calories," Flipse says.

New twists on mac & cheese:

•Fast snacks. Sonic Drive-In is one of the first fast-foodies to turn it into a snack. For $2.49, it's selling deep-fried Mac & Cheese Snacks for a limited time.

"Customers aren't used to getting it in pop-able portions," says Todd Townsend, marketing chief. The snack's a "strong traffic driver."

•Casual appetizers. The Fried Mac & Cheese appetizer, introduced in 2006 at T.G.I. Friday's, quickly became the casual dining chain's third-best-selling appetizer, says spokeswoman Amy Freshwater. Price: about $6.

In 2006, Cheesecake Factory rolled out a Fried Macaroni and Cheese appetizer at $7.95. It's macaroni and cheese balls served with marinara sauce. Kids order it as a meal, says Howard Gordon, marketing chief. It's the chain's fourth-most-popular appetizer, he says.

•Manhattan mac. Two New York City restaurants sell mac & cheese as their only entrees.

S'mac has 13 mac & cheese entrees from $4.25 to $20. The most popular is a four-cheese mac; a Mexican version is planned for 2008, says founder Sarita Ekya. Her 30-seat restaurant does about 35% of its business as takeout, she says.

Supermac has versions including whole wheat and low fat. It also sells $6.95 Mac Burgers that twin it with Angus beef.

•Organic. No one's watching the trend more closely than Kraft. Its mac & cheese sales are up 10% through mid-November, says spokesman Basil Maglaris. That growth rate is double that of Kraft's total North American business.

This year, Kraft rolled out organic mac & cheese. A 6-ounce box goes for $1.89 vs. 89-cents for its regular mac & cheese in a 7.25-ounce box. "Organic ingredients tend to cost more," explains Kraft spokeswoman MaryAnne McAndrew.

TELL US: What is your favorite comfort food?