Best Chicken Nuggets and Tenders – 2021 Power Rankings

Chicken nuggets…ah, the epitome of mass production. From artificial fillers to bland breading, fast-food chicken is often questionable, which is why we’re here to unpack the truth about the best chicken nuggets and tenders.

There are notable differences between the two. For one, tenders normally come smaller batches, like three or four count, while nuggets typically come in upwards of 10. Tenders are part of basket while nuggets come with a side or can be ordered solo. Some taste like they’re straight from the frozen-food section at the grocery, while others are hand-dipped in buttermilk and fried to golden perfection. But despite these differences, the most important qualities of each overlap: taste and texture. So, let’s take a look at which chain has the best fast food chicken nuggets and tenders – no taste test required.

Best Fast Food Chicken Nuggets and Tenders

Popeyes Chicken Tenders

Popeyes Chicken Tender Meal
Popeye’s chicken tenders” by Like_the_Grand_Canyon is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
 Rank: 1

While Popeyes came in a close second in our Best Chicken Sandwich Power Rankings, there is no denying that they come out on top for the best chicken tenders. Living up to all our expectations for the perfect tender, Popeyes chicken strips are extra cripsy with pure-white, juicy meat.

And if you’re into calorie-counting, you’ll be happy to know that these chicken strips are the lowest-calorie option at Popeyes.

Price: $5.79 (3-piece dinner)

Calories: 441

Chick-Fil-A Chicken Nuggets

Chick fil A Nuggets
Chick Fil A 8pc Nuggets” by Jay Reed under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 2

There are very few times throughout the day where Chick-Fil-A’s line is not wrapped around their store, but we’d wait in any size line to get our hands on Chick-Fil-A nugs. From the cripsy, perfectly-seasoned breading to the ideal size for dunking, these chicken nuggets will forever be at the top of our list.

Price: $4.45 (12-count)

Calories: 390

Raising Cane’s Chicken Tenders

Raising Cane’s” by Luna715 under the license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Rank: 3

Not everyone is blessed with a Raising Cane’s restaurant in their town, but for those of you who are, you know just how delicious their chicken tenders are. It’s no wonder – everything at Raising Cane’s revolves around their chicken fingers, so it would be kind of messed up if they tasted like, say, Wendy’s tenders.

Price: $3.27 (3-piece)

Calories: 380

Culver’s Chicken Tenders

Culver's Chicken Tenders

Rank: 4

It’s not often that fast food tastes as fresh as something you could whip up in your own kitchen – but Culver’s is no ordinary fast food joint.

Fair warning: you can’t go back once you try Culver’s Chicken Tenders. They are the epitome of the perfect piece of fast food chicken, comprised of white meat and a thin – yet flavorful – layer of breading.  Another bonus is that you get more chicken in each tender than you would at most other places. It’s tender and juicy, so it’s not necessary to layer it up with fried batter.

If you’re looking for something a bit more flavorful than the classic chicken strip, Culver’s also has buffalo-flavored chicken tenders. But, if you ask us, nothing is better than the original. Dip them in sweet and sour, barbeque, honey mustard, or ranch – whatever suits your fancy.

Price: $4.99 (4-piece)

Calories: 540

Popeyes Chicken Nuggets

Popeyes Chicken Nuggets
Rank: 5

Popeyes nuggets have always been under-the-radar compared to the tenders, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious. These bite sized pieces are perfect for a light meal and pack the same cajun-style flavor as the chicken strips. They remind us more of popcorn chicken than a nugget because of the thick layer of crunchy breading and small amount of chicken on the inside. The chicken is nowhere near as juicy as the chicken strips, but that’s to be expected with bite-sized pieces.

So, how do you choose between the tenders and the nuggets? If you want a full meal, go for the tenders. But, if you’re craving a salty, savory snack, go for the nuggets.

Price: $3.39 (4-piece)

Calories: 230

Chick-Fil-A Chicken Tenders

Chick Fil A Tenders

Rank: 6

Is it a conflict of interest to have both Chick-Fil-A nuggets and tenders on the same list? Maybe, but there are plenty of differences between the two that warrant them being in the top 10. First, the tenders are quite a bit crispier than the nuggets, and they have a thicker coating of batter on them.

While nuggets and fries are the ideal meal, we think the tenders are a perfect snack or light meal. Just like their nuggets and chicken sandwich, the tenders contain pure white meat that’s juicy and well-seasoned. In our eyes, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.

Price: $3.35 (3-piece)

Calories: 350

Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nuggets

Wendy's Spicy Chicken Nuggets
Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nuggets” by theimpulsivebuy under license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 7

Wendy’s spicy nuggets are like a hot ex-boyfriend or girlfriend that keeps coming back into your life. You know they’re probably not the best for you, but every time you notice they’re back in down, you can’t resist. For years, Wendy’s spicy nuggets were on the menu as much as they were off, until the franchise finally decided to keep them around permanently.

They’ve got just the right amount of spice without being overbearing, just the way we like our signifcant others and our chicken nuggets.

Price: $1.79 (6-piece)

Calories: 260

Church’s Chicken Tenders

Church's Chicken Tenders

Rank: 8

Church’s Chicken Tenders get mixed reviews. So, how did they beat out the beloved McNuggets listed below? Well, it’s all about authenticity. Church’s tenders are served with a seasoned, crispy breading and white meat chicken alongside a warm, flaky biscuit. To top things off, they have perfectly-portioned packets of honey butter dipping sauce for the chicken. It’s southern comfort food the way we know and love it.

Price: $3.87 (3-count)

Calories: 360

McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets

Chicken McNuggets” by Chad Ivan M under the license CC BY-ND 2.0

Rank: 9

McNuggets are a staple to society, whether you like it or not. They have withstood the test of time, overcoming the Great Recession, the downfall of Ronald McDonald, and now, the steepest competition we’ve ever seen surrounding fast food chicken (we’re looking at you Popeyes and Chick-Fil-A). So, what makes McNuggets so lovable, despite their reputation of being one of the most unhealthy fast food items on the planet?

To you, maybe it’s the taste of childhood. Or maybe, it’s the signature, crispy exterior and delightful dipping sauces. And let’s not forget the unbreakable bond between McNuggets and fries. Name a more iconic duo. We’ll wait.

Price: $4.49 (10-count)

Calories: 480

Burger King Chicken Fries

Burger King Chicken Fries
Burger King Chicken Fries” by Willis Lam under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 10

For years, we’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with BK’s Chicken Fries, but they’re supposedly around for the long haul this time. And while they’re far from authentic, fresh chicken, but they’ve got a signature, peppery taste that has yet to be replicated in any other Burger King dish. Just like McNuggets, Burger King’s Chicken Fries have been beloved by fast food fans since 2005 and are tied to memories of childhood, car rides, and bizarre television commercials starring clucking chickens.

Plus, who isn’t satisfied by the convenience of the built-in sauce holder?

Price: $1.69

Calories: 290

KFC Popcorn Nuggets

KFC Popcorn Nuggets

Rank: 11

KFC’s Popcorn Nuggets are a go-to for people who don’t like traditional fried chicken. They’ve got a nice, peppery taste and are coated with a thick breading and small amount of chicken.

A common complaint when it comes to the Popcorn Nuggets is that most boxes contain a few small pieces without chicken in them at all. Maybe we’re too into carbs, but we don’t see the problem with having a mouthful of fried breading.

Price: $3.99

Calories: 570

Carl’s Junior Chicken Tenders

Carl's Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders Inside
Carl’s Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders Inside” by theimpulsivebuy under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 12

Moment of truth – most fast food chicken tenders and nuggets are frozen before they are are fried and served to you. That can’t be much of a shocker, right? However, Carl’s Jr. boasts that their chicken tenders are fresh and made to order. Even more shocking, they’re hand-breaded. But before you set your expectations too high, here’s a reality check: these tenders are fairly middle-of-the-road when it comes to taste.

Sure, they contain white meat and are coated in a golden, crispy breading (essential elements of any tenders), but there’s just no “wow” factor. Carl’s Jr. claims to dip their chicken in buttermilk before it is battered and fried, which may contribute to the juciness of the chicken. But as for flavor, they’re exactly what you’d expect out of a fast food chicken tender – nothing more, nothing less.

Price: $5.79

Calories: 260

Sonic Jumbo Popcorn Chicken

Sonic Jumbo Popcorn Chicken

Rank: 13

Speaking of middle-of-the-road chicken, Sonic’s Jumbo Popcorn Chicken is just that. However, we’re big into popcorn chicken for many reasons, so if you’re at Sonic, consider giving these bite-sized pieces a shot. First, popcorn chicken is almost always crispier than tenders and nuggets. Plus, there’s a more even ratio of breading and chicken, so you don’t have to worry about one drowning out the other. And arguably the most important element of popcorn chicken is the size. What’s better than being able to dunk an entire piece of fried food into your dipping sauce?

As for flavor, Sonic’s Jumbo Popcorn Chicken is rather plain, so be sure to ask for extra sauce and salt packets if that’s your thing. The main problem we see is that the chicken isn’t very juicy, and depending on when they were made, it can taste a bit dry. This is a common issue for popcorn chicken because there isn’t much chicken to maintain the moisture while they’re being cooked.

Price: $4.39

Calories: 560

Jack in the Box Chicken Nuggets

Jack in the Box Chicken Nuggets
“What’s Inside Your Chicken Nuggets?” by James Palinsad under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 14

Jack in the Box may look dead during the daytime, but once the sun goes down, it’s another story. Pegged as the go-to fast food joint for late-night muchies, Jack in the Box has the ultimate junk food selection, from greasy tacos to loaded french fries. One under-the-radar snack are their Chicken Nuggets, housed on the restaurant’s Value Menu.

So, what earned them a spot on our top fast food tenders and nuggets list? These chicken nuggets came from humble beginnings. Jack in the Box is not trying to convince you that their nuggegts are pre-soaked in buttermilk, hand-breaded, and fried to golden perfection. Rather, they advertise them on their website as “crispy chicken amazing” and let the nuggets do the rest. As for flavor, they taste similar to Wendy’s nuggets, but slightly less seasoned. Order them with teriyaki dipping sauce to give them the added kick they need. Take comfort in knowing that each order of nuggets looks exactly like the one you had last time and exactly like the one you’ll get next time. No surpises here.

Order these in a combo meal with 10 nuggets, fries, and a drink, in a kids meal, or all by their lonesome in an order of five, 10, or 20 nuggets.

Side note: if you really want to get frisky, try their Chicken Nugget Sliders topped with American cheese, lettuce, and mayo.

Price: $3.09 (10-count)

Calories: 480

McDonald’s Buttermilk Crispy Tenders

McDonalds Buttermilk Chicken Tenders

Rank: 15

Let’s cut to the chase. McDonald’s Buttermilk Crispy Tenders are no Chicken Selects. If you remember, the fast food chain eliminated their original chicken tenders from their menu back in 2015 and replaced them with the new, homestyle chicken strips. In theory, the Buttermilk Cripsy Tenders should be good. With all-white-meat chicken and cripsy breading with a very subtle hint of buttermilk, what’s not to love?

For starters, the chicken can be white as snow, but it doesn’t matter if you have to drown the tenders in sauce to give them flavor. No wonder they serve the chicken strips in box with two slots for sauce. One is surely not enough to ramp up the taste.

They simply don’t stack up to their forefathers when it comes to spiciness, texture, and flavor. So, stick to your bread and butter(milk), Mickey D’s. If you’re getting dunkable chicken from McDonald’s, McNuggets are the only way to go.

Price: $3.99 (4-count)

Calories: 490

Dairy Queen Chicken Tenders

Dairy Queen Chicken Tenders

Rank: 16

Dairy Queen doesn’t scream and shout about their food like they do for their ice cream, so many of their menu items are under-the-radar. Out of everything on the menu, a Chicken Tender basket is one of the best-tasting meals. The chicken strips are almost always extra-crispy, with a thick layer of seasoned breading. The white-meat chicken is moderately tender but can come off on the drier side. It has a nice peppery taste that can be amplified by your favorite dipping sauce. To really turn up the volume, opt for Country Gravy rather than a regular traditional ranch, honey mustard, or BBQ.

Pro tip: save the buttery piece of Texas toast for last and you won’t care how the chicken tasted.

Price: $5.49 (4-piece basket)

Calories: 470

Shake Shack Chicken Nuggets

Shake Shack Chicken Nuggets
Chicken Nuggets” by Choo Yut Shing under the license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rank: 17

There are a few things you expect from fast food chicken nuggets. They should have white meat, a crispy exterior, and a salty, savory flavor. While Shake Shack’s nuggets meet one of those requirements, the flavor and texture falls shorter than we would have expected. As one of the most beloved burger joints on the west coast, Shake Shack in known for its delicious burgers, hot dogs, and shakes. And earlier this year, they released the Chick’n Bites, the fast food restaurant’s very first rendition of chicken nuggets. While the hype was certainly there, the delivery was not.

The Washington Post claims they “taste good but have the texture of marshmallows.” We don’t know about you, but we’d prefer our nuggets have the texure of nuggets, not marshmallows.

Price: $4.39 (6-piece)

Calories: 300

Burger King Chicken Nuggets

Burger King Chicken Nuggets
Burger King Chicken Nuggets” by Willis Lam under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 18

The only folks who consistently order Burger King Chicken Nuggets are kids five and under who haven’t developed a taste for real food yet. BK’s Chicken Nuggets taste like they came straight out of the freezer section at Walmart. So, if your expectations are in the right place, they’re not the worst option, but they’re certainly not on par with Popeyes or Chick-Fil-A.

BK nuggets are much more pillow-y than the average chicken nugget, lacking any real crispiness. The flavor isn’t horrible, but it’s offset by knowing that the chicken isn’t real chicken. The flecks of pepper in the breading are reflected in the taste, which may be the only redeeming quality. If you dunk something depp enough into a packet of ranch, it can’t be that bad, right?

Price: $2.99 (10-count)

Calories: 430

Sonic Chicken Tenders

Sonic Chicken Tenders

Rank: 19

Sonic self-proclaims their chicken tenders as “flipsy,” AKA flavorful and crispy. While that may be true, these tenders are a flop when it comes to being, well, tender. After tasting chicken strip after chicken strip, there’s one thing we’ve come to find out: the thicker and crispier the breading, the drier the chicken. While there are certainly outliers on our list, Sonic is not one of them. The chicken is dry and stringy – no amount of Signature Sauce can hide it.

Price: $4.69 (5-count)

Calories: 470

White Castle Chicken Rings

White Castle Chicken Ring Dipped in Honey Mustard
White Castle Pretzel Chicken Rings” by theimpulsivebuy under the license CC BY-SA 2.0

Rank: 20

Diamonds, onions, Super Bowl awards – all things that belong in the shape of a ring. White Castle Chicken, on the other hand, is not one of those things. Take our word for it, or scour the Yelp reviews. Either way, you need to know that Chicken Rings are not a genius invention – they’re a stomach ache in the shape of a ring, containing a whopping 47 grams of fat in a single order. If that doesn’t scare you, we know what will: Chicken Rings come in the form of sliders, too.

White Castle is already known for bizarre food pairings and subpar menu items, so it’s not all that shocking that they’ve rounded out our Power Rankings of the Best Chicken Tenders and Nuggets, sitting comfortably at the very bottom.

Price: $3.09 (3-piece)

Calories: 265

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1 Comment

  1. What about Chicken Now? There are few around but I honestly think they are way better then Raising Canes. Almost identical in appearance and basic menu items.

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