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The Best Restaurant Chain Chicken Tenders—Ranked By My Picky Kids

Crunchy, breaded strips of white meat are a proven child-pleaser, but which popular chain does it best?

For a food that's the farthest thing from a delicacy, the chicken tender is remarkably ever-present. It's a staple you'll find at nearly every restaurant (chain or otherwise), regardless of its cuisine. These battered, fried, crunchy strips of deliciousness (sneakily masking protein) can be dipped in just about anything available and still taste good.

The reason they're so prevalent? Because kids love them, and you'll almost always find them on the kids' menu. All four of my children (each of whom, by all accounts, could be considered picky eaters in their own right) like them and will eat them. It's nothing short of a miracle, to be honest. The pickiest one only eats three foods (no exaggeration here), and this one makes the proverbial cut.

The availability of tenders (and good ones) can mean the difference between an enjoyable family dinner and one you'll regret from that first sip of pinot grigio.

Tender is short for tenderloin, or the part of the bird on the underside of the breast. It's often considered a healthier choice than its stockier counterpart, the nugget, because it's made from pure white meat, instead of a mix of other parts of the chicken.

I recently tried the chicken tenders at five major restaurant chains (the majority via takeout because, well, four kids) to see which ones my children (ages 8 to 14) liked the best. Here's how they compared, ranked in descending order from worst to best. Warning: my eldest proclaimed "they all suck." Hey, you can't win 'em all.

Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub

99 chicken tenders
Jené Luciani Sena, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per Order):
Calories: 1,260
Fat: 67 g (Saturated Fat: 11 g)
Sodium: 2,380 mg
Carbs: 97 g (Fiber: 3 g, Sugar: 13 g)
Protein: 67 g

Ninety Nine is a popular Northeast-based chain with nearly 100 locations throughout New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It's also a fan favorite in my household for its free, freshly popped popcorn and an array of kid-friendly foods. I paid $18.13 for an order of tenders and two sides via DoorDash. Sadly, its tenders were a colossal flop.

The look: Upon opening the box, my kids and I were greeted with five shriveled, sad-looking little tenders. If you could see what dry tastes like, this was it.

The taste: Surprisingly, the kids didn't mind these. Although pitted against the others, they deemed these the worst of the bunch. One said the tenders didn't taste as dry as they looked, but they did have a chewy consistency suggesting they were overcooked. Another one of the kids said, "They're decent, but I think they left them in the fryer too long."

 8 Best & Worst Fast-Food Chicken Tenders, According to Dietitians

Buffalo Wild Wings

buffalo wild wings chicken tenders
Jené Luciani Sena, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (5 Pieces):
Calories: 820
Fat: 40 g (Saturated Fat: 16 g, Trans Fat: 2 g)
Sodium: 2,480 mg
Carbs: 56 g (Fiber: 3 g, Sugar: 0 g)
Protein: 58 g

Considering this place specializes in chicken, I had high expectations, and it was a restaurant we'd never tried. Launched in 1982, Buffalo Wild Wings now boasts over 1,200 locations nationwide. The tenders order contained five strips, and they were all fairly sizeable, so I wasn't concerned our appetites wouldn't be satiated. The restaurant also states on its menu that they are "hand-breaded." It cost me $12.73 per order.

The look: These had the most unique look as far as I'm concerned. The breading was lighter than the others and had an almost coconut-like texture, which one child described as "weird."

The taste: We had many thoughts on these. I'll start with the good. Everyone agreed these were the only tenders that appeared to be freshly made (breaded and fried) and not frozen. Now, to the bad stuff. The chicken itself had no flavor at all. One kid said, "This doesn't even taste like chicken!" Also, the breading was a bit too greasy to be crunchy and had a strange aftertaste. After doing some research, I learned that these are fried in soybean oil. I'm not sure if that's the reason for the aftertaste, but it was definitely strange. The freshness factor helped these escape the worst spot on the list, but they are a close second.

 I Tried Chicken Tenders From 5 Major Fast-Food Chains & These Packed the Biggest Flavor

BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse

bj's brewhouse chicken tenders
Jené Luciani Sena, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (3 Pieces):
Calories: 470
Fat: 26 g (Saturated Fat: 4 g)
Sodium: 1,714 mg
Carbs: 31 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 0 g)
Protein: 27 g

Another favorite in our house, this chain appeals to all for its extensive menu and bright and airy feel. It's the one restaurant we opted to eat in during our tender's taste test, and sadly, it didn't fare well for us. Apparently, the kitchen had an off night, and our food took over an hour to arrive. Unfortunately, my husband's meal was missing, so he ate the remainder of the two boys' tender orders. The good news is, they were pretty good and well-received by all. Since this is on the kids' menu, it's a reasonable $7.45 per order, which includes a side and a drink.

The look: Larger than the others and it appeared fresh from the fryer (despite the kitchen snafu). They looked juicy, and even though we were starving by that point and would have likely eaten anything, we all wanted to dig in. The highlight for our youngest son was the accompanying smiley face-shaped french fries, which he gobbled up first.

The taste: These tenders were perfectly crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. One kid said they were "a little greasy," but another gave a thumbs up and declared, "I'll give these an 8.5." Luckily, the kids also got pizza, so they didn't clean their plates, and there was something left for my husband.

 I Tried 10 Frozen Chicken Tenders & One Had Me Coming Back For More

TGI Fridays

TGI Fridays chicken tenders
Jené Luciani Sena, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per Order):
Calories: 870
Fat: 56 g (Saturated Fat: 10 g)
Sodium: 1,370 mg
Carbs: 55 g (Fiber: 4 g, Sugar: 10 g)
Protein: 37 g

I've always been a fan of TGI Fridays and haven't had a dish yet I haven't liked, so, here again, I went in with high expectations. I paid $14.34 for five tenders and two sides (but opted to double one side for a hefty portion of mashed potatoes). 

The look: Massive. These looked and smelled so good, I couldn't wait to take a bite. Alas, I had to let the kiddos go first. Also, if we had a category for sound, I'd vote this one #1 for the crunch factor. It's not the type of snack you want to take to church. 

The taste: These had enough flavor to match their size and were meaty, too, so the chicken-to-breading ratio was perfectly in proportion. As I mentioned, the kids all thought they were super crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The only reason that these didn't steal the top spot was they were just a teensy bit too salty. If I wasn't taking this order to-go, I would have enjoyed one of their equally huge signature margaritas to wash it all down. 

 7 Fast-Food Chains That Use Real Chicken for Their Tenders—Not That Mystery Meat


applebees chicken tenders
Jené Luciani Sena, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (4 pieces):
Calories: 1,080
Fat: 62 g (Saturated Fat: 11 g)
Sodium: 2,390 mg
Carbs: 94 g (Fiber: 7 g, Sugar: 10 g)
Protein: 38 g

Winner winner chicken dinner! Applebee's ranked #1 for best overall flavor. I only placed one order and the kids were fighting over them. (For what it's worth, they also gobbled up the accompanying fries.) The tenders cost me $16.09.

The look: These were smaller in stature than others. The breading was lightly colored and not greasy but also not dry. These were perfectly fine-looking tenders, although they did somewhat resemble what you'd find in a high-quality bag of frozen fried tenders from the grocery store.

The taste: Upon first bite, one kid simply exclaimed, "Yum!" The eldest, meanwhile, acted nonplussed, remarking, "This was the best of the bunch but I still didn't think any were really good." Even so, that's fairly high praise for a teenager. The whole crew gobbled them up so quickly it was hard getting commentary, but silence speaks volumes when it comes to feeding picky kids.

While Applebee's tenders weren't the crunchiest or juiciest of the bunch, they were hands-down the most savory in the entire survey. I think it's safe to say we'd order these again!

Jené Luciani Sena
Jené Luciani Sena is an accredited journalist and internationally-renowned bestselling author, regularly seen on national TV outlets such as Access Daily, Today and Dr Oz. Touted as one of Woman’s World Magazine’s “Ultimate Experts,” she’s a TEDTalk speaker and a busy Mom of 4. Read more about Jené