When it comes to feeding your family, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking a tightrope to find healthy food choices that still appeal to young, finicky taste buds. And while it might be a stretch to say there are “healthy chicken nuggets,” we can certainly fill you in on what makes a better nugget.
In this guide, we’ll break down the basics of what to look for in chicken nuggets and walk you through the nutritional differences among some of the most popular brands (both animal-based and plant-based). We’ll also show you how you and your kiddos can experiment in the kitchen with fun new recipes to create easy, tasty, better-for-you meals.
Choosing Healthy Chicken Nuggets
First things first, how do you know if the box of nuggets you’re holding in your hand (or eyeing online) are healthy chicken nuggets? Are they really the real deal or are they junk food masquerading as something better? Here’s what you need to pay attention to when shopping.
Bursting the Flavor Bubble
We know chicken nuggets are processed, but here's the thing — they don't have to be heavily processed. They can be made with simple and wholesome ingredients while still being totally delicious. But this isn't the case across all nugget brands. Sometimes what looks like a box of healthy chicken nuggets is really a spooky, kooky brew of weirdness. (Who wants that?)
Keep a watchful eye out for things that just don't belong, like "natural flavors," which could come from just about anything. Seriously. "Natural flavors" can mean anything that comes from a spice, fruit, vegetable, yeast, herbs, roots, leaves, eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and seafood. So if you're on a strictly plant-based meal plan, you may want to avoid products that list "natural flavors" altogether.
Look for nuggets with familiar ingredients, like paprika, black pepper, Italian seasoning, onion powder, garlic powder, pea protein, and yeast extract. You get the idea. Real and recognizable ingredients are a good indicator you're choosing a better nugget.
Sodium and Fat and Carbs, Oh My!
Like many products you see at the grocery store, sodium helps keep things shelf-stable, even in the freezer aisle. While you may already expect fast-food nuggets to be high in sodium, some of the frozen chicken nuggets you see in the supermarket can be too. Nuggets, plant-based or not, can have 400 mg of sodium (or more) in a single serving.
They can be high in fat and carbohydrates too. Baked chicken tenders and nuggets are generally a better option, as some fried chicken nuggets may be cooked with saturated fat and oils high in cholesterol.
While chicken nuggets are a great source of protein, they aren't always a low-carb option. Breading made from panko breadcrumbs is higher in carbohydrates than an almond flour breadcrumb mixture, for example.
For more info on the nitty-gritty of nuggets, check out our previous post on how chicken nuggets are made.
Plant vs. Animal-Based Nuggets
Rest assured, it’s possible to find healthy chicken nuggets. Take a look at our handy dandy chart and see for yourself how popular brands compare and which chicken nuggets could be the best fit for your family:
As you can see, it pays to be picky about your nuggets. With mile-long ingredient lists and high levels of sodium, it never hurts to give the side panel a once-over before adding something to your basket or clicking “add to cart” online.
Fortunately, Nowadays nuggets take the worry and fuss out of nugget shopping. These delicious and nutritious morsels are made with just 7 simple, totally junk-free, non-GMO ingredients. Low in sodium, fat, and carbs while high in protein, these soy-free and 100% plant-based nuggets are something your whole family can enjoy — even picky eaters!
Bottom line: Skip the processed chicken pieces (including you, McDonald's!) and opt for a wholesome, simpler nugget you can feel good about.
Making Nuggets at Home
A quality store-bought nugget can be a big time saver. By cutting down on prep time during the week, you get extra moments with your kids (there's no such thing as too much quality time), and you probably have enough on your plate already.
But every now and then, it can be fun to get creative in the kitchen. Especially when it gives you the opportunity to explore healthier eating habits and help teach little ones about their food and where it comes from.
As it turns out, homemade chicken nuggets are a great cooking project. You can make your own healthy chicken nuggets with just a few ingredients. They’re easy to reheat too.
We're sharing two chicken nuggets recipes — chicken bites made from boneless skinless chicken breast and vegetarian baked chicken nuggets. Both are solid options whether you're plant-curious or carnivorous through and through. Ready, set, go!
Air Fryer Chicken Nuggets
Not to worry if you don’t have an air fryer, Healthy Fitness Meals’ air fryer chicken nuggets will still cook up to a crispy golden brown on a baking sheet in your oven. With just a few simple ingredients and a total cook time of 25 minutes, these nuggets are sure to please.
Chunked boneless chicken breast is dipped into an herby egg mixture and then gently pressed into a plate full of panko gluten-free breadcrumbs. Feel free to add a sprinkling of parmesan for a fun variation.
Arrange nuggets in a single layer in your air fryer basket or place them on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. With a quick blast of cooking spray, these bites will be ready in about 20 minutes.
Now comes the hard part: choosing a dipping sauce. Ketchup, BBQ sauce, and honey mustard are all excellent options. Or try this addictive comeback sauce or creamy not ziki “tzatziki” for two more irresistible sauces (we dare you!).
Vegan Chicken Nuggets
This recipe for vegan chicken nuggets from Vegan Heaven is another option if you have some extra time and you’re hankering to make something homemade. It’s a great weekend kitchen project for the kids too (Total time cooking is 33 minutes.)
Preheat your oven to 350℉ and grab your food processor to make this recipe even easier. To make the crust, toss panko and cornflakes in your choice of oil (olive oil is a great pick) and gently toast in the oven.
Meanwhile, saute your onions while pulsing fiber-rich chickpeas and rolled oats in your food processor along with garlic powder, paprika, and a hearty sprinkling of nutritional yeast. Mustard and almond milk bind everything together, and all that's left is for you to shape your nuggets. Let them cool on the sheet pan before transferring them to a wire rack. Serve these nuggets alongside roasted veggies or sweet potato fries for a well-rounded meal.
Psst: We love rolling up our sleeves in the kitchen as much as the next person, but let’s face it — mama tired. Sometimes we need a break from all the planning and cooking. With Nowadays nuggets, you can delight in easy and healthy eating without any sacrifice. You can whip up a tasty, better-for-you snack stat! And better still, you don’t even need to go to the grocery store — you can get these nutritious nuggets delivered right to your door and have them on the table in less than 20 minutes!
Healthy Chicken Nuggets For You and Your Family
So, is it possible to enjoy healthy chicken nuggets? If you ask us, the answer is pretty clear. You don't have to settle for uber-processed frankenfood with ingredients you can’t even pronounce, and you don’t have to break out the pots and pans if you don’t feel like it.
Thanks to Nowadays, better nuggets do exist. (We might go so far as to say they’re the best chicken nuggets ever, but we’ll let you come to that conclusion on your own.) Nowadays nuggets are made with real plant-based ingredients, so you can feel good about your family mealtime (and snack time). Better for you and better for your kids, plain and simple.