Whether they're secretly laced with cauliflower and chickpeas or shaped like stegosauruses, Minions, Mickey Mouse and Marvel characters, today's chicken nuggets are built differently. But as grocery store freezer sections fill with plant-based options and spinoffs like "chicken sticks" and "chicken fries," one thing that's remained constant is the stranglehold these patties have had on kid cuisine — and the judgment cast on parents who oblige.
Perhaps nothing has made that more apparent than the responses to the recent recall of 30,000 pounds' worth of Tyson Foods dino-shaped "fun nuggets" following complaints about metal contamination: on one hand, parents bemoaning the loss of their toddler staple and wondering about refunds, and on the other, critics giving them a hard time for serving their kids, to quote one commenter, "processed garbage."
Others have spoken up to defend parents. "If anyone has this in their fridge it’s probably because a child wants them," read one comment.
But why? What makes chicken nuggets so appealing to young palates, to the extent that supermarkets stock dozens of varieties (gluten-free, Frozen-inspired, you name it) and you wouldn't dream of seeing a kids' menu in the United States — from school lunches to Happy Meals — without them? Here's what experts say.
Why kids love chicken nuggets
It makes sense that kids would be drawn to food shaped like dinosaurs and Disney characters. But what is it specifically about chicken nuggets that has them in thrall?
"Chicken nuggets do not have a strong flavor profile and can often be considered 'bland,'" explains Ali Bandier, a registered dietitian and founder of Senta Health. "Bland foods such as chicken nuggets, pasta and bread often appeal to kids who are sensory-sensitive, hesitant or picky eaters."
Registered dietitian Diana Rice of Tiny Seed Nutrition and Anti Diet Kids points out that nuggets are "easier to chew than other sources of protein," like a steak or grilled chicken breast, which is an important consideration for kids who are still mastering the mechanics of eating. Nuggets, she adds, are something kids — who might be wary of more complicated, multi-component meals — can confidently "navigate." What's more, they're convenient.
"I'm kind of speculating, but when you're a kid and you're going, going, going all the time, [nuggets do the trick]," Rice tells Yahoo Life. "I firmly believe that kids' bodies will get what they need when adults do their job of providing the food. It's a fast way to get that in — which is good."
Nuggets can also feel like a safe comfort food because kids are used to them. Put it this way: Which came first, the chicken nugget or the time-strapped parent? Says Rice, "Many of us moms probably went into motherhood saying, 'I'm not gonna serve my kids chicken nuggets.' But then you get to the end of that busy day and you're like, 'Oh, they'll eat it and this really works, and, you know, it's got protein.' And so I think kids are just kind of acclimated to it because we start serving it to them so young."
"Children are more accepting of the foods they are offered most frequently," adds Bandier. "Chicken nuggets are usually offered much more often than meatballs, for example. This repeated exposure of chicken nuggets makes them feel safe for children."
Another factor is what Rice calls "sensory loyalty," which explains why your kid may eat only one specific brand of mac-n-cheese or refuses homemade nuggets because the texture isn't quite the same. 'With kids, there's … a little bit of neophobia: What's going to happen if I try this new thing and it's an experience in my mouth that I don't enjoy?" she says. Chicken nuggets, on the other hand, are "predictable."
Should parents feel guilty about serving chicken nuggets?
Simply put, no. While Rice concedes that some see the consumption of chicken nuggets as a "bad thing — like you're getting your kids hooked or whatever," she sees it differently. "I would say it's a really good thing, because it's a very convenient food that meets our kids' nutritional needs for when we are at the end of that busy day and we just need to feed our kids and it's so easy and they accept it."
The nutritional value of chicken nuggets can "vary widely," adds Bandier, who encourages parents to "make informed choices regarding the quality and frequency of consumption." From a dietitian's perspective, chicken, even in nugget form, can leave kids feeling full and satiated while being a good source of not only protein but also zinc, niacin and the amino acid tryptophan, which is involved in the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. Nuggets also make for a "quick and inexpensive" meal, Bandier notes.
That said, Bandier cautions that "not all chicken nuggets are created equal." While some brands boast added vegetables, much of what you'll find in the freezer section is ultra-processed and filled with additives and excess sodium. That makes them better suited as an occasional treat rather than a daily staple, she adds, though parents can also look to air-fried or baked options made with lean chicken breast meat.
Rice, meanwhile, is wary of the "fear-mongering" and "elitism" surrounding ultra-processed food like nuggets, in which low-income parents are often villianized for giving their kids "junk" without any acknowledgement of the systemic issues (low wages, lack of health care and other support, etc.) at play.
"I think chicken nuggets are great because they are protein, carbs and fat in one food," says Rice. "Those are the main things that kids really need to grow and thrive. Like, we can talk about the micronutrients, but we have to cover the macro nutrients first. And it's like we're obsessing over the ingredients in this when we could be obsessing over [things like] can we give moms more child care support, and can we change the food system to get more fruits and vegetables into lower-income neighborhood? I think it's a big diversion."
In Rice's view, parents should really only worry if their child is only eating chicken nuggets, because it might indicate a restrictive food intake disorder or other feeding issue. "I would not be concerned that food itself is chicken nuggets, except that ultimately, any human is going to need a more diverse diet to meet their nutrition needs," she says.
Is there life beyond chicken nuggets?
If your child subsists mostly on McNuggets these days, take heart: Things will most likely change. Bandier recommends parents take a proactive approach by subbing in healthier nugget versions or even experimenting with homemade ones, using almond flour, whole wheat crumbs or crushed whole-grain cereal as breading. If those just won't do, she suggests that parents watch out for portion sizes and offer variety when it comes to the rest of the plate. "Consuming an appropriate serving of chicken nuggets alongside other nutritious foods can help maintain balance in your child's diet," says Bandier.
There's also the opportunity for "food chaining," which, Rice explains, is making small changes to a familiar food. One example would be Bandier's suggestion of serving nuggets with a homemade sauce or yogurt-based dip instead of sugar-packed ketchup, or working up to serving bite-sized chunks of grilled chicken breast. Food chaining for a grilled cheese devotee might mean switching up how the sandwich is cut, then changing from white to wheat bread, then experimenting with different cheeses or slipping in a slice of deli meat.
Of course, there are grown-ups who are still hooked on their nugs — and that's OK, too, says Rice, who has seen adult clients thrive simply by adding nuggets to, say, a bagged salad when they're too overwhelmed or tired to cook. Chicken tenders — jazzed up with salad or other veggies — are also a weekly family meal favorite in her own home.
"It gets the job done and I'm not stressed out about dinner — which is, I think, equally important to my health than what I'm putting on the table," she says.