Is it a nugget, tender or finger? The definitive guide to fast food chicken

America, home of the boneless breaded chicken pieces.

Nuggets, tenders, strips, fingers, fritters ... what should be this country's national dish comes in a variety of forms and parades around ketchup-topped platters under a variety of names.

But is there an actual difference to these finger foods? Technically, yes. Sure, you can distinguish a chicken wing from a chicken finger (mostly because chickens don't have actual fingers, but, whatever), but do you know the difference between nuggets and tenders? There is, in fact, a legal distinction between nuggets and the other varieties of America's favorite poultry product.

Chicken Nuggets

Chicken breast nuggets with tomato sauce

"Typically, chicken nuggets are chopped and formed, whereas fingers are made up of whole muscle meat," chef Jennifer Johnson, co-Founder of Hip Chick Farms (which makes organic chicken fingers and nuggets), explained via email. "However, some fingers are created through an extruder, which grinds everything up, sometimes including stabilizers and fillers, which then shoots out a formed 'finger.' See: How McNuggets are made.

Of course, this is America, so we have certain standards for what we can call a nugget, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is on top of important nugget regulation.

"Nuggets are irregularly shaped, usually bite-sized meat and/or poultry products which are usually breaded and deep fat fried and intended to be used as finger foods," the USDA's Labeling Policy Book states. It goes on to say that nuggets can be made from "a solid piece of meat or poultry" and labeled as such, i.e. a chicken nugget or fish nugget.

Related: A definitive ranking of fast food french fries

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A fresh-cut ranking of fast food's best french fries
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However, nuggets made from chopped or processed meats must be transparently labeled. Especially in recipes in which nuggets are made with binders or other filler ingredients in the chicken mixture, the product must be called "breaded nugget-shaped chicken patties" to prevent consumers from believing that the nugget is made from a single cut of meat. Think dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets, chicken rings and other unnaturally shaped breaded chicken products when distinguishing your nuggets from your tenders.

The USDA also says that breaded nuggets must be labeled as breaded and breading must be limited to 30%, meaning you're getting at least 70% chicken filling in every nugget you buy in this country.

Chicken Tenders

Fried chicken tenders with sides.

"A tender is one of the more tender parts of the chicken, usually the area laying underneath the breast," Johnson said.

Tom Super, senior vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council backed this up, explaining that a chicken tender is an actual cut meat sometimes referred to as the "inner filet," which is located between the chicken's two breast muscles. If you've ever cooked a whole chicken breast and separated the smaller, softer and thinner part from the main breast meat, you've seen a naked chicken tender. Of course, if you're making breaded chicken at home, it probably makes economical sense to cut the rest of the breast into strips to make so-called chicken tenders, a misnomer for what would really qualify as chicken fingers (more on that below), as they're not all made from that inner filet cut.

In a world where most people can't distinguish one cut of meat from another, the terms chicken tender and chicken finger are often used interchangeably. "You season a tender and add breadcrumbs and you can also turn it into a finger," Johnson explained. "Typically, chicken fingers are made using tenders."

Technically, a chicken tender can be a chicken finger, but a chicken finger, if not made from the inner filet, cannot be a chicken tender, but that won't stop restaurants around the country from mislabeling their fingers as tenders.

Chicken Fingers

Chicken Fingers

Biting into a true chicken finger, you should feel the strands of juicy meat coming apart between your teeth. True chicken fingers are made from a whole cut of chicken and not processed pieces. "A whole muscle meat finger is best, because you are working with less ingredients, so the food in it is in a more natural state," Johnson explained, noting that this was the original method chefs used to create chicken fingers, before grinding and mechanizing meat came into fashion. Chicken strips at Wendy's, for example, made from whole chicken breast pieces, are not necessarily tenders, but they're not nuggets, they're fingers! To add to the confusion, Wendy's also serves 100% white meat nuggets, made from reconstituted chicken meat.

So what's healthiest?

Anything using whole meat, and not mechanically separated, or chopped and rebound chicken.

"[Fewer] ingredients is always more in this situation," Johnson said. Nuggets, fingers and tenders can be equally nutritious as long as they are made with whole meat.

Jamie Logie, certified personal trainer and certified nutrition and wellness specialist at Regained Wellnesssaid he will always choose tenders if given the choice of different breaded chicken options. "Nuggets are probably the worst because you don't know the source of the chicken," Logie said via email. "Nuggets tend to be combinations of multiple chickens combined into a pressed and mixed chicken concoction. In most situations, chicken tenders, made from breast meat, are usually the healthiest choice."

And of course, baked rather than fried chicken pieces are the more nutritious choice, but, well, we know how it goes.

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Chicken recipes
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Chicken recipes

Hawaiian Shoyu Chicken

"Hawaiian Shoyu Chicken is marinated in a soy, brown sugar marinade with a little bit of spice from the cayenne pepper.  It’s easy to whip up the marinade in the morning, head off to work and saute the chicken in under 30 minutes when you get home. {gluten free}" - Seasonal Cravings

Get the recipe here!

Sambal Chicken Skewers

"While these skewers are really good on their own, with some rice and grilled veggies, I could easily see the meat removed and piled high on a sandwich with Asian sub fixins like cucumber, carrot, and cilantro with a little extra of the sauce on top." - Wit and Vinegar

Get the recipe here!

Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Waffle Sliders

"This recipe basically calls upon the lord of all things moist, buttermilk, to produce fried chicken that is juicy as all get out." - Probably This

Get the recipe here!

Spicy Lime Jalapeno Chicken Soup

"After three months of crunching on salads I’m yearning for the tenderly cooked vegetables and poached chicken in the perfect bowl of soup." - Hola Jalapeno

Get the recipe here!

Brazillian Paprika Chicken Stew with White Beans

"A hearty and comforting Brazilian Paprika Chicken Stew is possibly one of the best ways to warm up this fall/winter. It is also very easy to make and done in one pot!" - Olivia's Cuisine

Get the recipe here!

Tequila Honey Lime Chicken

"Tequila Honey Lime Chicken – juicy chicken marinated in a smoky chipotle, a touch of honey and chili powder then finished with a super quick and fresh red pepper salsa!" - With Salt and Wit

Get the recipe here!

Roasted Chicken Sausage with Potatoes and Apples

"This simple, sheet pan dinner recipe is a sweet and savory combination of smoked chicken sausage, tart Granny Smith apples and baby potatoes tossed with olive oil, shallots, thyme and a touch of honey." - My Gourmet Connection

Get the recipe here!

Chicken Cacciatore

"I love how quick it comes together and it really tastes like a giant hug! There's something so comforting about stews, right? And this chicken stew is my jam." - Fix Feast Flair

Get the recipe here

Skinny Chicken Enchilada Soup

"It’s brimming with shredded chicken, plump black beans, sweet corn,  tangy enchilada sauce, lots of fragrant cilantro, and topped with a HEAP of cheese." - A Happy Food Dance

Get the recipe here!

Baked Greek Chicken

"It is so incredibly easy to make – just toss everything into an ovenproof dish and throw it in the oven." - The Wanderlust Kitchen

Get the recipe here!

Honey Curried Chicken

"Looking for a chicken dinner with a little bit of bold flavor? This Honey Curried Chicken is an easy chicken dinner with only 6 ingredients and 10 minutes prep time." - Taste and Tell

Get the recipe here!

Filipino BBQ Chicken

"Jon’s secret is to broil both sides of the meat until charred. He swears it keeps the meat from becoming soggy & after trying just one bite, we knew it was how we’d be cooking meat from here on out!" - Public Lives Secret Recipes

Get the recipe here!

Straight Up Honky Kung Pao Chicken

"Most of these ingredients are already in your cupboard. If not, get them. You’ll be able to throw stir fry and fried rice together like a boss. Let’s do this." - Displaced Housewife

Get the recipe here!

Parmesan Crusted Chicken Meatballs

"Start the night with these juicy n’ flavorful chicken meatballs with golden crispy parmesan crust! So good, your guests won’t leave the appetizer table." - Sweet and Savory

Get the recipe here!

Lemon Garlic Spaghetti with Chicken

"This easy, flavorful pasta dish is a favorite of ours for a quick weeknight meal. It features tender strips of boneless chicken tossed with spaghetti, sweet tomatoes and a simple, light sauce flavored with garlic, onion and fresh lemon." - My Gourmet Connection

Get the recipe here!

Chipotle Chicken Tacos

"Add cilantro, sliced tomato and about a teaspoon of Chipotle mayo to each tortilla. Add a squeeze of lime juice onto each taco." - Nutrition by Mia

Get the recipe here!

Spicy Chicken Wonton Soup

"I love this soup for oh so many reasons. First of all, it's insanely easy to make. The ingredients are simple and easy to find and it's insanely comforting." - Fix Feast Flair

Get the recipe here!

Pan-Fried Chicken Breast with Cherry and Arugula Salad

"Lighter pan-fried chicken breast with cherry and arugula salad is the perfect weeknight meal that is light, nutritious, and delicious!" - Cooking and Beer

Get the recipe here!

Thai Peanut Chicken Quesadillas

"These Thai inspired quesadillas have a super quick but unbelievably addicting peanut sauce that gets tossed with the chicken and then drizzled all over the top." - The Whole Bite

Get the recipe here!

Mediterranean Chicken and Quinoa Salad

"The quinoa and chicken provide plenty of protein power. The supporting fresh ingredients add a robust backdrop without adding loads of unwanted fat and calories." - Today's Nest

Get the recipe here!

Balsamic Honey Glazed Chicken

"A whole roasted chicken is always going to be a seriously low faff, delicious meal to feed a whole bunch of people- and it's usually far cheaper than buying prepared chicken breasts." - Holly Likes to Cook

Get the recipe here!

Slow Cooker Goan Chicken Coconut Curry

"The curry is infused with delicious coconut milk and a blend of aromatic spices. I've tried to make it simple by skipping out several steps where the spices need to be fried with the onions and removed the oil completely." - A Brown Table

Get the recipe here!

Chicken Pot Pie Soup

"When I first made this chicken pot pie recipe, it almost didn’t make it to the point of getting topped with the puff pastry.  The filling was THAT good, I keep tasting spoonful after spoonful, so I knew it was only a matter of time before it just became chicken pot pie soup." - A Happy Food Dance

Get the recipe here!

Chicken Tortilla Soup

"I’ve lived as second fiddle to the other chicken soup my whole life. Heck, I know the other soup is special – there is an entire book series named after it." - Simply Sated

Get the recipe here!

Spicy Chicken and Sweet Potato Noodle Bowls

"I’ve made a variety of sweet potato noodle recipes recently—usually while listening to the Hamilton soundtrack (I was also late to that party)—but this Spicy Chicken and Sweet Potato Noodle Bowl remains my favorite." - Domesticate Me

Get the recipe here!

Bourbon Chicken

"This recipe for Bourbon Chicken is much more flavorful than any food court offering, plus the spice level can be easily adjusted to suit your tastes, you can use better quality chicken, and it is quick and easy to make at home." - Kitchen Joy

Get the recipe here!

Bone Broth Chicken and Vegetable Soup

"It has powerful healing properties that can help to boost your immune system, alleviate joint pain, brighten skin and go as far as making your hair shiny and bright." - Kitchen Living with Coryanne

Get the recipe here!

Napa Valley Chicken

"Napa Valley Chicken is baked in a sweet and savory tomato, onion, and garlic sauce and is one of my absolute favorite recipes from my childhood." - Garnish and Glaze

Get the recipe here!

Hawaiian Chicken Kebabs

"Hawaiian Chicken Kebabs can either be a simple weeknight supper or the hit of a barbecue!" - Souffle Bombay

Get the recipe here!

Cheesy Buffalo Ranch Chicken Roll Ups

"It is no surprise that I love using crescent rolls for dinner.  I used them in my super popular Chicken Ranch Club Roll Ups And my new favorite Cheesesteak Crescents, which are to die for!! Seriously a dinner I turn to ALLL the time!" - Life With The Crust Cut Off

Get the recipe here!

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