The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Frozen Chicken Nuggets
Published on November 12, 2021
Last updated November 19, 2021
By Aly Walansky
We all have comfort foods that we turn to when we’re stressed or sad or when everything around us is going a bit wild. It’s easy to rationalize eating foods we love in these moments, even though we know they’re not the healthiest: like chicken nuggets. They seem like they’d have to be patently unhealthy. After all, they’re covered in breading and they’re typically fried. But they’re also made of chicken (an excellent source of protein) so there are definitely some nutritional benefits to them — right? We investigated whether healthy chicken nuggets could actually exist — and what the best brands on the market are — with the help of Mahmud Kara, M.D. of KaraMD, Meghan Dillon, R.D., at HelloFresh, and Maria Sorbara Mora, M.S., RD.
How to determine healthiness in a chicken nugget
As it turns out, chicken nuggets aren’t all the same. Primarily, the healthiest part of a nugget is, unsurprisingly, the chicken itself. Along with being a low calorie, high-protein food, chicken also contains essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin B, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. “These aspects of chicken make it a beneficial meat to consume for weight management, immunity, digestion, bone strength, and overall wellness,” Dr. Kara says, who also notes that no chicken nugget is going to be as healthy as, say, a poached chicken breast, but acknowledges that they can certainly play a role in a healthy diet.
One quick way to determine the healthfulness of a nugget when you’re in the freezer section of your grocery store? “Look for a short ingredient list,” says Dillon. “This indicates that there are fewer fillers and artificial preservatives in the nugget, and that the nugget provides more chicken.”
Now, here’s the longer way to tell if the product you’re buying is truly healthy:
1. Consider the breading
“In recent years, there have been a variety of chicken nuggets introduced into the market that avoid using enriched flour,” says Dr. Kara. “Instead, these options will use whole-grain breading, cauliflower, and other plant sources to get that crispness.”
“Whole grains not only contain important vitamins and minerals, but they also provide fiber. Fiber is important because it keeps us full and helps regulate digestion,” says Dillon. But determining whether the product you’re holding actually contains whole grains can be tricky. “Just because an ingredient list states multigrain, wheat, or stoneground does not mean the product is actually a whole grain,” Dillon says.
Instead, look for terms with the word “whole” in it, such as “whole grain,” or “whole wheat,” as this correctly identifies that the product is made from a true whole grain. “Whole grains provide more nutrients and fiber than their counterparts.”
And be careful before you assume gluten-free = immediately healthier. While many chicken nugget brands use wheat flour in their breading, “I checked out some gluten-free nuggets to see if higher-protein flours were used,” Dillon says. “But it seems that the substitutes for wheat flour in these products are rice flour and cornflake crumbs, which do not provide much more protein (if more protein at all) than wheat flour.”
2. Avoid antibiotic-filled meat
“Antibiotics can remain in poultry tissues during processing, and when we consume this poultry, we can absorb the antibiotics that remain,” says Dillon. This can lead to us becoming resistant to antibiotics because the bacteria in our bodies learn how to adapt and survive when antibiotics are present. So ultimately, if we eat a lot of antibiotic-filled meat, we may not respond well to treatment that requires antibiotics when we really need to fight off an infection — not a great outcome.
“Consuming antibiotic-free poultry reduces our exposure to antibiotics which helps to protect our immune system,” Dillon says. So, how do you avoid this kind of meat? Choose packages that state ‘raised without antibiotics’ or ‘no antibiotics ever’ when comparing which brand of chicken nuggets to purchase.
Rather than looking for antibiotic-free chicken, you can also simply opt for nuggets that are certified organic, which ensures that the chicken has been fed exclusively organic food and received no antibiotics. Additionally, a research study from 2010 concluded that the risk of salmonella was considerably lower in organic chickens than in conventionally-farmed chickens — another reason why we love this pick.
3. Opt for lean, high-protein chicken nuggets
The best way to identify this is to compare the fat:protein ratio. “Chicken is a lean protein source, so there’s no reason why the grams of fat in chicken nuggets should be close to or greater than the protein in the nuggets,” says Dillon.
Healthy chicken nuggets are made with breast meat, which is the leanest cut. “Some brands also use ‘rib meat,’ which is a natural extension of breast meat and contains the same nutritional content,” says Sorbana Mora. You’ll want to avoid nuggets that don’t specify what cut of chicken they are using.
4. Check for sodium and other red-flag ingredients
Many of us get way too much salt in our diets. Packaged goods contain quite a bit of sodium and typically contribute to an overconsumption of sodium, so pay attention to the salt on the chicken nugget label. According to the FDA, Americans’ average sodium intake is 3,400mg a day, but we should work on getting it down to around 2,300mg.
“Brands [may] use additives and preservatives such as BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) or SPTT (sodium tripolyphosphate),” says Sorbana Mora. Although these compounds are approved by the FDA, some studies indicate that they can be problematic — so buy at your own risk.
5. See if the nuggets have been cooked (and how)
Some brands cook their nuggets in advance so they just need to be warmed, while others sell them raw. If they’ve been cooked, check to see what method was used to cook them. Avoid a deep-fried option, and instead opt for baked, grilled, or air-fried chicken nuggets.
So, which frozen chicken nuggets brands are best?
The good news is that there are some pretty healthy chicken nuggets on the market that offer both great taste and high nutritional value. Our editor tested a bunch of brands, and these were her absolute favorites:
I honestly loved these. They were crispy and juicy, and out of all the options I tasted, they had the best-tasting breading of them all — which is especially great because it’s made from a whole grain.
“This product uses whole wheat flour, while most other chicken nugget brands use just wheat flour,” says Dillon. They also have 2g of fiber per serving, and less sugar than most of their counterparts. They’re also made from all-organic ingredients, including spices you’d find in your own spice cabinet at home.
For an added dose of vegetables, another good option from this brand are the Perdue Chicken Plus Chicken Breast and Vegetable Dino Nuggets, which include ¼ cup of chickpeas and cauliflower, delivering 11g of protein per serving. Or, go for the Perdue SimplySmart Organics Lightly Breaded Chicken Nuggets, which have a lighter breading and are fully baked.
Tender, juicy, crispy, and with a really good breading-to-chicken ratio, this one was at the top of the heap in many categories. You’ll notice when you open the box that these nuggets are hand-cut, made with whole breast meat, and have a really short ingredient list. This makes them feel like something your mom might have whipped up at home to keep things healthy. And the truth is, they are reasonably healthy.
“These contain the least amount of sodium per serving at ~360mg,” says Dillon. Additionally, the serving size (by weight) of Bell Evans is greater than most other chicken nugget brands. “I’d argue [this is] the most well-rounded chicken nugget reviewed,” Dillon says. “It contains the least amount of sodium, has a good protein:fat ratio, and contains 1g of fiber (many brands contain no fiber).”
“They are flashed-fried in organic, expeller-pressed soybean oil and air-chilled, which means no chlorinated water is used or ends up in the chicken,” says Sorbana Mora. There are also no fillers, preservatives, antibiotics, or hormones in this product. This nugget can be a reasonably healthy dinner, especially when paired with sides like tomato soup, roasted vegetables, or mashed avocado.
I took note of this one because I’m a big fan of my air fryer and I use it all the time in my own cooking. I find it to be a total game changer; air fryers really do make foods taste fried without actually being fried. This option had a good texture and was honestly just as crispy as a fried nugget. But fair warning: if you don’t cook it long enough to get that golden crisp on each side, the result may be rubbery and disappointing.
It’s a healthy pick, too. “The protein to fat ratio is essentially 4:1 due to the nuggets not being fried in oil,” says Dillon. This means you’ll benefit from all the protein without a ton of added fat.
While trying Tyson out, I also gave the Tyson Naturals Lightly Breaded Chicken Breast Strips a taste. At 150 calories, they contain 7g of total fat with only 1.5g coming from saturated fat. “They are not made with any trans fat, but they come in on the higher side of sodium with 430 mg. [But] they pack a 2:1 protein to fat ratio, making it a good choice all around,” says Sorbara Mora. While other Tyson strips or nuggets often are a bit too salty for my taste, these had a great salt level — not too salty, but still well-seasoned and not veering towards blandness, either.
I loved how this option had the most… chicken-y taste? I know that sounds strange, but it tasted oddly wholesome, like I was eating a healthy meal and not a guilty pleasure. These are light on breading and use simple ingredients — and honestly, it shows in the taste (and how you feel after you eat them). These clock in at 9g of fat and 11g of protein, making them not the best ratio on the list, but certainly not the worst, either.
Nutritionally, this option has double the amount of total carbs as its closest competitor. However, it’s a gluten-free option that’s also casein- and dairy-free, so it’s a good alternative for those with multiple allergies. As for the taste, it’s very similar to the gluten-containing option from Applegate, which is exciting for those who often feel like they are missing out when choosing the GF alternative. And the lightly breaded crunch delivered exactly what I wanted from a nugget.
Bonus: Quorn Meatless Nuggets
Looking for a vegetarian option? I say this as an avowed carnivore, but these nuggets are surprisingly similar to “real” chicken, both in flavor and texture. You’ll want to make sure you air fry or bake them long enough to get that crunch though, or they may taste a bit spongy. (Although that can be true with chicken-based nuggets as well.)
“These nuggets are soy-free but still provide plenty of protein at 12g per serving,” says Dillon. The main protein source is called mycoprotein, a derivative of fungi like mushrooms. “This option has the lowest sodium content per serving at 360mg when compared to the six ‘traditional’ chicken nugget options sampled. In addition, this meatless nugget also provides 3g of fiber and 0g of sugar per serving,” says Dillon. Overall, this is an excellent protein-filled, vegetarian nugget for meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike.
How to turn chicken nuggets into a healthy meal
1. Air fry them
When you deep fry or pan fry nuggets, a lot of hot vegetable oil gets into the nugget — and unfortunately, even a lot of non-hydrogenated vegetable oils still contain trans fats. “Trans fats have a negative impact on our health and are associated with an increased risk for heart disease and certain cancers,” says Dillon.
I’ve been air frying my own chicken nuggets for years, and it’s a great way to get that golden-fried texture of a fried chicken nugget, without actually frying. And it’s an easy, quick way to cut out that added oil without losing flavor.
2. Vary up your plate
Once you’ve made your chicken nugget choice, there are additional things you can serve them with to create a healthy snack or meal. “Many people think chicken nuggets only go with fries, but that is really not true,” says Sorbana Mora, who suggests a few ways to make your plate healthier:
- Add your nuggets as a quick protein option atop a salad
- Serve nuggets with your favorite vegetable side to balance out your meal
- Use a serving of nuggets as a protein-packed side with your favorite soup
3. Go for healthier dips
If you’re using ketchup or barbecue sauce, choose a low-sugar option. “Many popular ketchup brands contain added sugar,” says Dillon. We get plenty of added sugars elsewhere in our diets, so looking for dips with little-to-no added sugar is a good way to reduce overall consumption. Some of the best options include Heinz Tomato Ketchup with no sugar added, Primal Kitchen Organic Unsweetened Ketchup, and True Made Foods Veggie Ketchup, which not only lacks added sugar but also contains healthful ingredients like carrots, butternut squash, and spinach.
Also, remember that there’s no law that nuggets have to be dipped into ketchup. Guacamole, mustard, hummus, and garlic yogurt dip are also delicious pairings that aren’t loaded with sugar, but can bring in some added nutrition.