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If you find yourself feeling guilty sitting in the drive-through line googling, “are chicken nuggets healthy?,” I want to offer you some good, solid, science-backed information. And a little bit of solace for the mom guilt. 

No, I’m not about to tell you to go through the McDonald’s drive through 3x per week. Or to serve frozen chicken nuggets for every meal!

But I’m also not going to make you feel bad for pressing the easy button when you NEED to feed your family. You simply don’t always have the option of whipping up a home-cooked meal your family is guaranteed to eat. It’s also just not your job to “do it all” all the time!

The bottom line is that all foods can fit into a healthy diet. Let’s talk about how we make that work with nuggets!

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Are chicken nuggets healthy?

One thing that makes them a freezer staple in most homes is that they’re so well-liked by kids. In my experience, even most picky eaters love chicken nuggets! They can be a godsend for parents trying to find one food- ANY FOOD- that their child will regularly eat. 

Since they’re made out of chicken, they’re a good protein source! Iron-rich protein can be a tricky category for kids– picky eaters and non-picky eaters alike.

Meat aversions are common in childhood as the texture of meats can be really off-putting for kids. This can leave parents scratching their heads and wondering how in the world to get protein into their kids’ meals and bodies!? Enter the chicken nugget!

Already we can see some pros mounting for this fan favorite.

But not all nuggets are created equally.

Picky Eater Starter Guide Download Button

A Deeper Dive into the Facts

Some are baked, some are deep fried, some are air fried. So depending which kind you’re getting, they are going to vary in their nutritional content.

That being said, I can’t speak to the nutritional facts of ALL chicken nuggets, but I will give you a snapshot into one that I like so you can see exactly what we’re working with. Let’s take a look at some chicken nuggets nutritional information. 

If I’m choosing a store bought chicken nugget, I’m probably reaching for Applegate brand.

Applegate Chicken Nuggets Nutrition

For one 6-nugget serving, or three ounces:

  • 160 calories
  • 1.5 g saturated fat
  • 410 mg sodium
  • 11 g protein 

11 grams of protein! That’s pretty darn good. Low in saturated fat, and moderate in sodium. 

Now let’s compare that to a similar serving size of another meat source. 

  • 3 ounces of 90/10 cooked ground beef: roughly 180 calories, 4 grams saturated fat, 22 g protein
  • 3 ounces grilled salmon: roughly 175 calories, less than 1 gram saturated fat, 20 g protein

Calorie-wise, they’re close. Fat content for ground beef varies based on what type you buy, so I looked at 90% lean and 10% fat. Salmon has less saturated fat.

The reason that the beef and salmon have much more protein is because of the breading on the chicken nuggets. The breading adds about 15g of carbohydrate per serving.

This doesn’t make nuggets BAD, by the way! 11 grams of protein in a meal is plenty for a child.

See related: Seafood for Toddlers

healthy chicken nuggets for toddlers nutrition

Chicken Nuggets Need a Friend

Now, not all nuggets are created equal. And not all nugget meals are created equal either. If you’re serving chicken nuggets with french fries and a McFlurry- well, that meal is going to have an extremely different nutritional content than if you’re serving chicken nuggets with a side of fruit and a glass of milk. 

WHAT you serve it with matters! That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the occasional fries and ice cream. All foods can fit in a healthy diet.

But if you’re concerned about chicken nuggets featuring too frequently? Then I recommend varying what you serve alongside them!

We’re looking for balance here. We ideally want to hit all the macronutrients- protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Plus you always want to get a fruit/veg in, too!

So serving chicken nuggets with a side of bell peppers and hummus or some baked potato wedges or an applesauce cup will change the nutritional profile of the meal and make it more holistically balanced. 

The nuggets are not the enemy. Just keep in mind that they’re one part of the whole, and the whole picture is the most important thing. 

What to serve with nuggets

Here are a few ideas for healthy sides to make a complete meal!

  1. Black beans, avocado, and shredded cheese
  2. Brown rice with butter and sliced mango
  3. Sautéed green beans, strawberries, and mac and cheese
  4. Whole wheat tortilla with melted cheese, and peas
  5. Plain full fat yogurt, blueberries, and dried cherries (pictured below)
healthy chicken nuggets for toddlers with fruit and yogurt

Baked vs. Fried

Like I mentioned before, nuggets can be prepared differently. Traditionally at fast food chains and restaurants, you’re going to see them deep fried in oil. This does make them higher in fat (saturated fat specifically- which is not the kind we want to load up on). 

Many store bought options are going to be baked. Ones you make at home can also be baked or air-fried! 

Wondering how to make your own chicken nuggets? Try out these delicious air fryer chicken nuggets I created! And while we’re at it, you might want to take a peek at my air fryer french fries too!

mama knows nutrition air fryer chicken nuggets

When it comes to preparation, I prefer chicken nuggets baked or air-fried, because they have a little bit more of a desirable nutritional profile and don’t go too heavy on saturated fat content!

Do you have an air fryer?

Here is my favorite air-fryer; a MUST for any kitchen, if you ask me! You get that crispy, delicious texture without having to use a whole bunch of oil. Plus, it’s FAST! There isn’t a long pre-heating period like when you are using your oven. For busy weeknights, that makes a huge difference!

A Note on Processed Meats

You may have heard that processed meats are a cancer risk. And yikes! That sounds scary. Let’s clear that up – and understand whether chicken nuggets are considered processed meat.

Processed meat is any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting. Since chicken nuggets are typically frozen, if not made fresh, I wouldn’t put them in this category.

Think of foods like bacon, sausage, pepperoni, and deli meat.

We actually don’t know for sure whether processed meats themselves increase cancer risk. There isn’t definitive data. TOO much processed meat consumption MAY put you at higher risk for certain diseases.

This post explains in more detail:

Is Processed Meat Bad? How To Safely Serve Lunch & Deli Meat To Kids

 

My Favorite Chicken Nugget Brands

Like I said, I most often reach for the Applegate brand chicken nuggets. My kids love them! And compared to many other brands, I prefer their nutrition stats. 

I also like:

  • Earth’s Best chicken nuggets
  • Kidfresh chicken nuggets
  • Bell and Evans (these are gluten-free chicken nuggets if you need to avoid gluten!)
healthy chicken nugget brands for toddlers and kids

I’d feel great about buying any of these brands of chicken nuggets. They don’t raise any red flags for me. I love that they contain lean protein and iron.

Iron is something I worry more about kids getting than protein. It is EXTREMELY rare for a child to not get enough protein. But iron-deficiency is more common.

Top Foods High in Iron for Toddlers

Finally, you can always try breading your own chicken breasts! Mine are super quick and easy, nutritious, filling, and delicious. Let me know if you give them a try! 

My Favorite Chicken Tender Brands

Chicken tenders are a great one-step progression away from chicken nuggets. For picky eaters, it is helpful to make small changes to their liked foods. Offering a chicken tender instead of a nugget can lead to greater acceptance of food changes and variety!

There are some great brands of chicken tenders, and you may find that your picky eater isn’t too deterred by the change as the taste and appearance of chicken tenders is *pretty* similar to their beloved nuggets.

Here are some of my favorite options:

chicken tenders

What if nuggets are the ONLY meat they will eat?

This is common for picky eaters, so you are DEFINITELY not the only one with this question.

The good news: protein is REALLY easy for toddlers and kids to get enough of. The average toddler needs a minimum of about 13 grams of protein daily. That’s less than 2 cups of milk!

The not as good news: it can be hard to get enough iron and certain vitamins if they don’t really eat meat.

But there ARE solutions!

To get more iron into their diet if they don’t really like meat, go here: If Your Toddler Won’t Eat Meat

You may also consider a multivitamin like this one that has some iron and B vitamins.

And, if they also don’t have 2-3 servings of dairy regularly, or a non-dairy alternative that is calcium fortified, I would consider a calcium supplement for their growing bones.

If they’re more likely to take a gummy, try this one. If they will do a liquid, I like this one.

(Remember – always discuss supplement use with their pediatrician before starting a new one.)

foods for kids growth

FAQs

Are Tyson chicken nuggets healthy?

I have to say these aren’t my top, top favorite. With 4 grams of saturated fat and almost 500 mg sodium, they don’t top the charts with their nutrition stats. However, it’s a pretty strong protein serving with 14 grams. 

Are McDonald’s chicken nuggets healthy?

These honestly aren’t awful the way you would expect them to be. It’s a pleasant surprise! They use boneless white meat chicken, and it’s not “loaded with fillers.” They are on the higher end for fat content. But they have lower fat and saturated fat content than the Tyson nuggets.

The main reasons I’d limit trips to McDonalds and other fast food places? When you eat there, you usually are not having any fruit or veggies. So the meal is going to be low in fiber and certain vitamins and minerals. And, their beverage serving sizes are just out of control. A diet soda is no big deal, but a regular soda is super high in added sugar and not much else.

And, sodium tends to get pretty high with these meals.

But the occasional Happy Meal for your kid is definitely not the end of the world!!

Are Just Bare chicken nuggets healthy?

The sodium content here isn’t my favorite, but with a great serving of protein, 1 gram saturated fat, and the lightly breaded exterior, I do like these!

Are dino chicken nuggets healthy?

There are a couple different brands making dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, so it’s hard to give a blanket yes/no, but I’d keep an eye on fat and sodium!

Are fish sticks healthier than chicken nuggets?

Fish sticks are going to be in a similar category. Most are fried, some are baked. Take a peek at the nutrition label and compare! They are likely a good source of protein, but may have some of my same drawbacks as fried chicken nuggets.

But since fish is such a nutritious protein option overall, I do LOVE fish sticks as a kid-friendly introduction. And a fun way to switch it up from chicken nuggets for a little variety.

I know that when you have a SUPER picky eater, variety is a big challenge. Take it where you can get it!

How to Serve a New Food to your Picky Eater

dinosaur chicken nuggets

Chicken Nuggets Get a Thumbs Up from Me

Listen, there’s no need to feel guilty about serving up an easy, convenient, well-liked protein source!  In fact, since we know that meat can sometimes be harder for kids to learn to like, I consider it a win. They are not going to ONLY eat nuggets for the rest of time. And in my experience working with picky eaters, I’ve found that once you get your foot in the door with a food (like chicken), it’s a little easier to expand them to trying different versions of it. 

While chicken nuggets can be a good source of protein (and iron and other vitamins and minerals), opt for baked vs. deep-fried versions when possible. And, serve nuggets with a well-rounded meal to make sure they get the variety they need to stay healthy and well-nourished!

You’re doing better than you think you are.

If you could use a little more meal help on these busy days and weeknights, check out my Meal and Snack Survival Guide. I created it to help you simplify EVERY meal and snack and make feeding your family a breeze. It’s got tons of easy, quick, nutritious meal ideas that you can throw together and feel great about any day!

meal and snack survival guide

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