I Tried 8 Frozen Chicken Nuggets & One Blew the Others Away
Forget the wings, tenders, and cutlets. Nuggets are America's preferred form of frozen chicken. Over 73 million Americans consumed these little delectable wads of breaded meat in 2020, according to the latest figures from Statista. It's not much of a stretch to suggest that the vast majority of these nugget-eaters are probably kids. The fact that the total U.S. child population in 2020 also numbered around 73 million is either an absolute indication or a remarkable coincidence.
One of the country's most prolific consumers of chicken nuggets lives right here in my home. She is nine years old and already well on her way to someday eclipsing Sonya Thomas' current Major League Eating record—that's 80 nuggets in five minutes, if you're keeping score—or so her father (me) keeps telling himself.
Her appetite for "nuggs" seemingly no knows no bounds, except when it comes to broadening her horizons. She is fiercely loyal to one store-bought brand: Applegate Farms. A 16-ounce bag disappears with mind-boggling speed. It's not really a big issue until local supplies run low. Finding a replacement that passes muster with my discerning, resident nugget connoisseur can be challenging.
That's why I've selected several other popular brands for this taste test: to find another variety that's just as good, if not better, than the beloved mainstay. A peaceful household sort of depends on it.
I baked each brand in a conventional oven, according to the directions on the package, and judged them all on appearance, taste, and texture. But, these nuggets didn't just have to please me—ideally, they should also please my pickiest child. Here's how each brand stacked up, ranked in descending order from my least favorite to the absolute top nugg.
Applegate Naturals Chicken Nuggets
Let's get these out of the way first, because they're the standard-bearer in my household. Applegate makes a lot of feel-good promises on the package: "made with only white meat chicken," "humanely raised," "no antibiotics ever." A 16-ounce bag regularly costs $14.49 at Whole Foods Market, but I already had several in the freezer because it's a domestic crisis when I don't.
The Look: Oblong and tan. The breading is thinly layered but noticeable, while the meaty interior is stark white and condensed.
The Taste: Perfectly palatable, if a bit basic. Either they're the blandest of the bunch, or my tongue is just too calloused to the flavor from years of overexposure. Both of my kids adore these, especially the younger one, who consumes them on the regular. What's unclear to me is whether that's because they're just good, or because they're so mild that they never outshine the gobs of ketchup in which they are doused. Either way, I've ranked them dead last because, frankly, I'm sick of them, and any other nugget will taste better simply by virtue of being different.
Perdue Simply Smart Organics Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets
Perdue is one of America's largest poultry producers, churning out a vast assortment of chicken products. These particular nuggets embody the company's best practices, or so the packaging suggests: "Made with only organic, non-GMO ingredients you can recognize." The 22-ounce bag cost me $11.99.
The Look: Uniformly large and flat. These were the biggest nuggets on average among the entire testing group, with dense grainy breading outside and compressed pearly white meat inside.
The Taste: Basically the same as the Applegate version, though the corn meal crust hits a little differently than a typical, flour-based breading. In fact, it's a lot chewier than any other nugget in this test. My daughter despised the texture, which she described as "sticky"—a total non-starter.
Earth's Best Chicken Nuggets For Kids
If you have kids, then you probably know Earth's Best, the child-focused producer of better-for-you foods and other household products. The brand's frozen baked nuggets promise no artificial flavors or colors, and no antibiotics, either. An eight-ounce package cost me $5.99.
The Look: Round and dark brown. Each orb came with a thick, crusty coating, speckled with seasonings. The meat inside looked printer-paper white but mechanically compacted.
The Taste: Crunchy and well seasoned. The zippy flavor of the breading reminded me of a crab cake or Southern-style hush puppy. Yet, even though these are designed specifically for juvenile palates, my youngster dismissed them as "too spicy."
Trader Joe's Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets
Frozen food is a major forté for specialty grocer Trader Joe's, so I had high hopes for these house-brand nuggets, made with breast meat and a salty water solution to keep things moist. They are battered and breaded with rice and corn flours, making them suitable even for the gluten-averse. A one-pound bag cost $4.99.
The Look: Plump and meaty. These nuggets came in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some were massive chunks. Others were tiny. The bumpy, light-colored breading browned up nicely during cooking, while the muscle fibers inside gleamed bright and dewy. Unlike other nuggets, the meat clearly presented as real chicken.
The Taste: Succulent and savory. Though not intensely flavored, these chicken chunks were among the most tender and juiciest of the bunch. Even so, my daughter was not thrilled with the texture of these, either. She said they stuck to her teeth "in a weird way."
Whole Foods Market 365 Gluten Free Chicken Nuggets
Whole Foods is known for its premium products, and these nuggets from the retailer's own private label 365 feature several high-quality hallmarks, pledging no antibiotics and carrying the Animal Welfare Certified label. They're also gluten-free. A 22-ounce bag cost $8.99.
The Look: Irregularly shaped and more golden yellow than brown, these nuggets appeared almost handmade, or at least minimally processed. The chicken inside seemed genuine and juicy.
The Taste: Perfectly salty and a little spicy, though the aroma came off more pungent than the actual flavor. Meanwhile, my young nuggetarian described them as "too sour" for her liking.
Bell & Evans Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets
America's oldest branded chicken company, Bell & Evans is among the proudest poultry producers around. Its chicken nuggets come loaded with high-quality descriptors: 100% air-chilled, whole breast meat pieces, humanely raised without antibiotics. A 12-ounce package set me back $7.99.
The Look: Chunky and rustic, this batch of inconsistently shaped nibbles presented the most authentic appearance, with clearly visible, bona fide white-meat fibers inside and a very light breading outside.
The Taste: Like chicken. Of all the various nuggets, B&E tasted the most pure to me. The razor-thin breading allowed the bird's natural flavor to shine through undisturbed. Also, quite naturally, the youngster really disliked these. "No, no, no," she said.
Good & Gather Chicken Breast Nuggets
Target's house brand Good & Gather makes these nuggets with chicken breast and rib meat. Priced at $6.49, the hefty 29-ounce bag is arguably the best bargain of the entire testing group.
The Look: Thin and compact, like they've been pounded flat, and largely consistent in size and shape, suggesting more of an assembly line-style of production. The breading noticeably cracked in a few places during cooking. The meat inside looked minced and mashed together.
The Taste: Balanced and satisfying. Though hard to discern the precise flavors, the overall effect was pleasant and savory. These morsels basically dissolved in the mouth with little to no chewing required. Even my hardest-to-please child seemed okay with them. "I liked these a little bit," she said. "They taste pretty good!" That's about as close to a ringing endorsement as I will get on this tasting adventure.
Just Bare Lightly Breaded Chicken Breast Chunks
Fans of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A often say these Just Bare Chicken Breast Chunks are a dead-ringer for the restaurant's own popular nuggets. Ginormous four-pound bags are available at Costco, which is where I picked them up for $17.99.
The Look: Stubby and misshaped. You can see why the supplier calls them "chunks" instead of nuggets because the name more aptly suits the body. On the inside, though, it's all perfect: just juicy, white meat.
The Taste: A little sweet, a little spicy, and overall more flavorful than all the other nuggets in this test. The Chick-fil-A comparison is spot on. There's a highly appealing savoriness to these morsels that the rest of them simply lack. Sure, my youngest didn't like these, either—"way too spicy," she said. But, forget all that: these nuggets are so delicious that I'm keeping them all to myself. That's why they're ranked No. 1.