No, You Don’t Have to Make Your Own Ketchup {Recipe: Homemade Cheeseburger Helper}

Guest Post by Katie of Kitchen Stewardship

I’ve done it once.

Made my own ketchup, that is.

It was early in my transition to real food, which was a bit more “zero-to-sixty” than normal for my generally mild-mannered nature that resists change like a toddler resists naptime.

I was reading everything, buying everything I read about, making every recipe I came across, feeling like I had to do it all at once. Naturally, I ran into some burnout and some frustration.

Homemade ketchup was one of them, and it remains an icon in the Hall of “I-Don’t-Have-to-Do-it-All” Fame.

It’s not even that making ketchup takes a long time or is difficult at all (although you multi-tasking mamas know that sometimes, three minutes is truly three minutes too long). It only dirties one pot. You don’t always have to buy fish sauce, but goodness, a surprising number of homemade ketchup recipes call for it! That threw me off for a while, believe me.

Trying and Failing

Our problem was two-fold:

  1. We don’t consume a lot of ketchup in our house. In the absence of a recipe calling for a cup of ketchup, I wasn’t going to get through the batch before it went bad, making my effort worthless. (See comments above about three minutes, burnout, and my knowledge of toddlers and napping, and you’ll know that’s a big deal for me.)
  2. We didn’t really like it. Too tomatoey, not smooth enough.

I’ve never made homemade ketchup again, and you know what? I really don’t feel guilty about it.

Since we don’t go through a ton of ketchup, I just use it sparingly on the children’s plates when we have homemade French fries, buy a decent brand without high fructose corn syrup when possible, and let it go.

When I see ketchup in a recipe, I’ve learned that it’s an easy one to fudge.

Not with chocolate, but with tomato sauce.

Reverse Engineering Ketchup

What is ketchup, anyway? It’s just tomatoes, quite a bit of sweetener, and a smidgen of garlic or other seasonings. In a dollop on the plate, those seasonings are very important. In the context of a larger recipe where ketchup is only a fraction of the taste sensation, they become much more insignificant – and thus easier to fiddle with.

The first time I fudged ketchup was when our basement stockpile of Hamburger Helper ran out, near the end of the first year of the real food journey. My husband and son had a tradition for “Boys’ Night” and always made Hamburger Helper together. I couldn’t bring myself to buy the box anymore, but I knew I had to do something to save Boys’ Night. (Our dates with our kids are important, as I wrote about in this old guest post here at KOTH!)

I looked up a few “homemade” hamburger and pasta meals online, seeking one that was as basic as possible. I knew if I could just find the right proportions of water to pasta to sauce so that the meal could be made in one pot, I could make it easy enough to follow.

The one I found used a half cup of ketchup, and at the last minute I had the boys throw in tomato sauce instead. There was onion, garlic, mustard, and a whole teaspoon of black pepper already in the recipe, so I crossed my fingers and hoped it would all work out.

The sound of success?

Mmmmmm, this is GOOD! Really, really good!”

If my husband and then-four-year-old son can ditch the box and make the real thing, believe me – you can, too.

Dad's Cheeseburger Helper
Recipe type: Main Course
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. onion powder or 2-3 tsp. onion flakes
  • ¼ tsp. garlic powder (or 1 clove minced garlic)
  • 1 ¼ c. tomato sauce
  • hefty squirt of mustard
  • 1 ¾ c. water
  • ½ tsp. salt (or more to taste)
  • 2 ½ c. pasta (whole wheat works fine, any shape)
  • 2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  1. Brown and drain beef.
  2. Stir in pepper, onion powder, garlic, tomato sauce, and mustard.
  3. Pour in water and pasta.
  4. Bring to a boil and reduce heat.
  5. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the water is absorbed and the pasta is cooked.
  6. Turn the heat off and stir in the cheese.
GF adaptation:
  1. Use gluten-free pasta (tested with brown rice pasta) and reduce the water by a ¼ c. to avoid mushiness.



My little man ate it all…


…and begged for “more!”

The Problem with the Box

If you’re wondering why I couldn’t buy Hamburger Helper anymore, here’s a short list:

  • high fructose corn syrup
  • trans fats
  • white pasta
  • MSGs
  • preservatives and other weird things I can’t pronounce

It simply does not fit in the real food folder – not even in the same file cabinet, if you ask me.

If you’re ready to ditch the boxes, too, start with this easy meal that your family will love, and then work up the courage to strike out on your own and cook outside the box.

Since the Boys’ Night dinner success, I’ve remade many recipes into healthier versions so that my family can still eat the meals we always enjoyed, but now with real food only.

This week I launched a new eBook, Better Than a Box, to help teach you how to do the same.

Not only will you find family-friendly real food remakes like this one but also a massive teaching section on how to reverse engineer your own favorite comfort food recipes that include boxes, bottles, and cans of processed food.

If you’re ready to ditch the fake foods and mile-long ingredients lists, I’m here to help.

Better Than a Box is on super sale through 8 a.m. Friday for only $1.99 for a PDF download (comes with Kindle and Nook files + printable recipe cards + other free printables) or 99 cents for the Kindle version on Amazon.

About Katie

Katie Kimball is a mother of three who spends a ton of time in the kitchen making real food with whole ingredients and then blogs about her successes and failures at Kitchen Stewardship, where you'll find real food and natural living dished out in chewable, baby step portions. Katie is the author of five eBooks: Healthy Snacks to Go, the Family Camping Handbook, The Everything Beans Book and Smart Sweets. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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  1. Trader Joe’s carries ketchup and other condiments at a great price, organic, and their Ketchup has no MSG. I am going to try it next time I buy it. We are moving soon and I am hoping we live near a TJ’s. Love that place! And their prices.

  2. I stumbled onto this hamburger help recipe yesterday and i made it today. I thought I let you know its very good! Thank you

  3. Oh, and you should know – while I agree with going Non-boxed – the Whole Grain Cheeseburger Hamburger Helper is made with whole wheat pasta and has no MSG or Preservatives. It’s still not “healthy” by any means, but it’s better than the “other” stuff.

  4. I make my cheeseburger helper with cauliflower puree. Simply puree it heat and add your cheese – it’s the best cheese sauce the kids will ever love. It helps make the pasta creamy, and adds nutrition, too!

  5. I’m going to try this recipe for my boys (ages 3 and 8.5). I send them to school with homemade lunches and I’m looking for ideas I can make ahead and warm up in the morning. About how much does the recipe above make? Is it for 4 people? Just need an idea… I may make the whole recipe and freeze half. Has anyone tried that?

    • Magda,
      I’ve never frozen this one – we never have leftovers! For boys that age, I would guess it makes 8-10 servings, but that’s for my son who has to eat fast! My guy would eat it cold, too – I always ask since I take the path of least work possible when it comes to lunch-packing. ;) Our family of 5 ate this for lunch the day I took these photos, kids ages 1, 4 and 7, and we had not a speck left!

      Hope they love it!
      :) Katie

  6. In our house we call this goulash. Try worchestershire in it

  7. This is what we’re having for dinner tonight. I halved the recipe (since we’re newly weds with no kiddos yet) and made the GF version since I have Celiac disease. I just tasted a bite and it is delish!!!! Having to use much self control to wait for Hubby to get home from work! PS. I didn’t have sharp cheddar on hand so I used shredded colby jack cheese. Worked great!

  8. My mom was a “real food” cook before the term was coined, and our family has made “pan lasagna” for about 30 years. Basically the same idea, except we’ve always used mozzarella cheese, Italian seasoning & tomato sauce. I’ll have to try your recipe as a change-up! Unfortunately, I have a couple “strange” kids who don’t like any kind of pasta!

    • Sonja,
      There are a couple neat ideas in the comments here for non-pasta variations, and maybe rice would work?
      :) Katie

  9. Thank you for sharing this! My husband loves Hamburger Helper (ugh!) but I can’t bring myself to buy it because it always has MSG in it. He sneaks it when I’m not around. ;)

  10. can’t wait to try this-looks good! I found a 2 pack of Hines Organic Ketchup at Sam’s . good enough :)

  11. We’ve missed hamburger helper since moving toward a more whole foods diet. I cannot wait to try this!

  12. My grandma has been making what we call “Hamburger Macaroni” long before there was a Hamburger Helper. It is one of my husband’s and kid’s favorites and so simple, I thought I would share. We make it in an electric skillet, but could be made in a deep skillet on the stove. Since it is a grandma recipe, it is one-size-fits-all. In other words, it makes quite a bit, but great for leftovers. Basically you cook a pound of pasta to just before done. You brown a pound of hamburger in the skillet and season as you like. Traditionally it is seasoned with Lawry’s seasoned salt, but I believe that has MSG and other junk. When the hamburger is cooked you dump the pasta in the skillet and add a full can/bottle of tomato juice (yes juice, not sauce!). You let it simmer awhile until the noodles are fully done. Reduce heat and put sliced/or shredded cheddar cheese on top until melted. So simple, but so yummy!!!

  13. I make my speghetti the same way, only much easier. 1 jar of your favorite natural spaghetti sauce in frying pan, refill jar with water, bring to a boil, add uncooked spaghetti, simmer until blended. Cover and cook on low heat ( stir occasionally to prevent sticking) til noodles are soft and cooked. The uncooked noodles take up the taste of the sauce, and tastes like “second day” reheated meal, which macaroni and spaghetti always seems to taste better the second day.

  14. Just bought Katie’s new book & am very excited to read through it. Can someone please tell me what Katie means by “tomato sauce”? That is what we call ketchup in Ireland. Is it passata which is basically blended tomatoes?

    • Nicola,
      I think tomato sauce might also be called strained tomatoes? It never occurred to me to include an “or” on that food! Thanks for the purchase! :) Katie

  15. Christine says:

    I’ve read that foodie chefs went through a similar trend with making their own ketchup. It was all the rage for a bit among the fanciest of restaurants. And then they realized that no one could make it better than it already comes in a bottle and the trend faded and now even the fanciest restaurants generally will just hand you plain old bottled ketchup on request.

  16. Love this post! Not only does it sound delicious, it is very budget friendly!

  17. I bought this book yesterday and love it so far! Worth the $$!

  18. Sherry England says:

    I wonder what could be substituted for the wheat pasta. Trying to eliminate grains especially wheat because it definitely bothers me. I cannot do corn either.

    • spaggetti squash? rice noodles?

    • Sherry,
      This would be a tough one without any grains, but in the photo, we used brown rice pasta – much easier on the gut than wheat (we’re 95% gluten free too). Actually, a lot of people make “noodles” by slicing zucchini really thinly and then cutting long strips. You’d add them at the very last minute – literally one minute – because you don’t want them to get very cooked at all. Otherwise you could always make the sauce MINUS all the water, which is just for the pasta, and serve over any mixed steamed veggies. I hope that helps!

      :) Katie

    • Sherry, when my girls switched to gluten free for health reasons, I switched them to quinoa pasta. They like it. Maybe it will work for you. :)

    • I wonder if spaghetti squash “noodles” would work. :)

      • Kelly,
        That’s a forehead smacker for me! Good call! I use spaghetti squash for lasagna all the time – I’m sure they’d be great, thank you! :) Katie

  19. Thanks for posting this! It sounds great. As recent real food converts(lol) this is greatly appreciated. However, I’m doing major weight loss as we start our clean eating lifestyle, as was wondering if there was a way to reduce the amount of cheese and still keep the recipe delish? Thanks. Love your blog!!!

    • Wendy,
      It would totally still be good with much less cheese – you’d just have to try it. BUT in my experience and many others, you’d want to cut the pasta instead! Check out my comment above to see a couple ideas to sub grain-free ideas for the pasta. Good luck on your clean eating goals!! :) Katie


  1. […]   Lunch time. For Chase, it’s leftover Homemade Cheeseburger Helper (minus the cheese… but I think this recipe needs the cheese to make it really good. I add salt.) […]