What are the best frozen chicken tenders? That question depends a lot on how you view the chicken tender. Are you a purist who likes a sliced piece of tenderloin, covered in peppery breading? Do you like Buffalo-style? Are you a five-year-old? It's a subjective issue, and whether you're trying to re-create the sports bar menu at your local watering hole or the kids' menu at your local trattoria, you've got a lot of options.
We scoured the grocery stores and found a dozen different strips to sample and rank. Just so we're clear: These are all chicken strips, not boneless wings. That is, they are oblong cuts of chicken, both animal and plant-based, breaded, deep-fried, and sometimes tossed in Buffalo sauce. All were baked — though frying and microwaving are also options — so the quality may vary depending on your cooking method. But holding all those things constant, here's who we found made the best frozen chicken strips on the market, and who made ones that reminded us of childhood — not in a good way.
12. Trader Joe's Chickenless Crispy Tenders
Okay, so maybe a chicken tender with no chicken is about as surprising to see in last place as the Detroit Lions. But as anyone who's ever tried an Impossible Burger knows, plant-based meat products aren't necessarily worse than their animal-based counterparts anymore. And these come from the infallible bastion of prepared foods that is Trader Joe's! No way they could be that bad, right?
Actually, yes they could, and they may in fact be the worst thing you could eat at Trader Joe's that's not from the organic soap section. These are effectively like eating a warmed-up piece of compressed sawdust, and would probably be more useful for house construction than actually eating.
Trader Joe's should be embarrassed to sully their good name by putting it on these things, and if you spent half an hour fighting for a parking space to buy a bag you definitely wasted your time. If your mouth has an abundance of moisture, and you need something to soak literally every drop of saliva out, Trader Joe's Chickenless Crispy Tenders might be useful. Otherwise, leave them in the freezer where they belong.
11. Applegate Organics Chicken Strips
Between the rustic, natural-foods-inspired packaging and the claims of organic, white meat chicken, one could easily mistake Applegate Organics Chicken Strips for something approaching high quality. The box touts the chicken's natural, humane treatment, with no antibiotics used, ever. But look a little closer and you'll see they're also billed as "formed and breaded organic white meat patties." Which, if you're not so familiar with the world of poultry processing, means they're made a lot like Chicken McNuggets.
We baked these for the purposes of the taste test, so maybe if they were fried they would have a little more heft. But hot out of the oven, they taste like a big mouthful of indiscernible chicken-y mush. They're essentially heavily-processed blobs of ground chicken that have the consistency of salty oatmeal. If you needed proof that organic products can be just as low-quality and unappetizing as their chemically-concocted brethren, these are it. McOrganic Nugget might be a better name for Applegate's strips — if an inevitable lawsuit wasn't sure to follow.
10. Perdue Chicken Breast Tenders
If a chicken strip could taste like neglect and disappointment, it would be Perdue's chicken tenders. These sad ground and formed strips taste like latchkey kid nights when children of parents who had better things to do heated these up alongside a heaping portion of loneliness and canned corn. These strips taste like the first step on the way to mid-30s therapy, and should probably include a trigger warning.
On the quality scale, they sit somewhere between elementary school cafeteria and minor league baseball concession stand, and are probably only enjoyed by people too young to know better. They're tasteless, mushy, and beg for something, anything, to make them taste better. Dipping the strips in excessively sweet barbecue sauce or honey mustard helps, but sauce still can't mask the miserable texture and processed flavor. Much like the parents who leave these for their children, Perdue can do better.
9. Simple Truth Organic Buffalo Style
Buying a bag of Kroger's organic chicken strips is a little like buying a used car from a sleazy salesman. You know the ones, the unscrupulous shysters who preface every statement with, "I'm not gonna lie to you," immediately alerting you that whatever comes next is going to be a complete fabrication. When a bag of tenders bills itself as the "Simple Truth," we know it's going to be filled with lies.
Simple Truth's packaging includes pictures of big, fluffy, whole-meat chicken tenders. Just look at those things! They'd be good enough to serve at an airport TGI Fridays! But as soon as you open the bag and pull one of these out, you know the Kroger fix is on. The tenders are too small to be whole chicken pieces, and are very much the ground and formed variety you'll remember from schooltime snacks of yesteryear. Okay, yes, the bag does clearly say "tender-shaped patties." But seriously Kroger, who reads anymore?
Flavor-wise, they come on with a bit of heat, and for that they deserve credit. But it quickly gives way to a rancid, cheesy flavor, as if somehow Kroger's version of the "Simple Truth" also involves putting bleu cheese in its buffalo sauce. These are yet another gross perversion of expectations, leaving us to wonder if we can ever trust Kroger again.
8. Trader Joe's Breaded Chicken
From the outside, even after you pull them out of the bag, Trader Joe's Breaded Chicken looks beautiful and high-quality. They're big, meaty strips covered in generous amounts of pepper-flecked breading, and with the Trader Joe's name on them you expect them to be nothing short of spectacular. However, these are, in effect, the 1980s Trans Am of chicken strips. They may look great, but once you try one out, you realize it's a piece of junk.
These taste like Trader Joe's took all their fabulous bread that was too stale to sell, turned it into dust, then threw it on some chicken. The breading is almost chewy, not crispy, and the chicken has a chlorinated flavor that's a bit unnerving. People affected by the Trader Joe's halo effect might beg to differ, but if you put these strips on a plate and told them they were from Walmart, they'd likely believe you. The only way these might be remotely palatable would be frying them in a lot of grease, then tossing them in buffalo sauce, then serving them at a party full of people who've already been drinking for a while.
7. Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders
Gardein's vegan chicken tenders are the ideal choice for a parent trying to sneak healthier food into their unsuspecting children's diet. First, the plant-based meat inside the tender is no worse than a lot of the processed chicken we tried during this glorious experiment, and could easily fool a kindergartener who didn't know any better. Not that filling a kid with soy protein isolate and wheat gluten is a healthy choice, per se, but it might be preferable to chemically-treated poultry.
Secondly, if your kid is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs but your cabinets are filled with muesli and granola, Gardein's Seven Grain Crispy Tenders are a good way to get them eating whole grains. The tenders look like they're breaded in cereal, but it's not the delicious cornflake breading we remember from grandma's kitchen. These seem to be breaded in something vaguely resembling bulk cereal from the local natural foods co-op, and while its makeup is a mystery, it's still pretty good. They manage to lend a faint crunch to an otherwise mushy "chicken" tender. Pair this stuff with a glob of organic ketchup and some sugar-free barbecue sauce, and you might just trick a child into a somewhat nutritious meal.
6. Tyson Panko Breaded Chicken Tenderloins
Chicken nomenclature can be a very confusing thing. Do you know the difference between a chicken tender and a chicken strip? I nugget and a popper? A breast and a wing? Okay, you probably know that last one, but if you're not reading carefully you can end up with a lot more chicken than you bargained for with Tyson's Panko Breaded Chicken Tenderloins. At first glance, one might thing "tenderloin" means the same thing as "strip." It's basically a tender, with "loin" tacked onto the end, right? Not in Tyson's vocabulary, apparently.
These tenderloins are monsters, so don't expect to down half a dozen at once. This in no way diminishes their quality, as the large, flaky pieces are covered in a light, crispy panko breading that makes them perfect for a quick, low-calorie lunch (they clock in at 210 calories apiece). The breading brings a buttery, sweet taste, almost like a crescent roll or a croissant, so if you're looking for pepper and spice this isn't for you. But thrown in an air fryer, they could be a nice fried chicken alternative, and they make a great addition to a salad.
5. Perdue Chicken Plus Chicken Breast and Vegetable Tenders
Grinding up chicken, mixing it with vegetables, and calling it a chicken strip sounds downright blasphemous to a chicken strip purist. No part of a chicken is naturally mixed with vegetables, and therefore it's an abomination. Now, take that same mixture, make it round, and call it a chicken meatball, and it's a downright delicacy! Just don't you dare call it a strip.
If you drop what you think you know about chicken strips for a minute and think of this more as a flattened meatball, and it's actually pretty fantastic. The flavors of corn and other veggies add a complexity to these strips not often found in other varieties, much less frozen ones. The breading is a little excessive, though it gives these Chicken Plus tenders a crunch and texture they might not otherwise have. They're ground and formed, so they're not going to hold up to a high-quality whole meat strip. But if you're trying to sneak a few vitamins into your chicken strip experience, these beat the pants out of dipping them in beet puree.
That said, if parents out there are considering these as a sneaky way to get their kids to eat vegetables, there are better ways to do it. These aren't loaded with nutrition, so deep-fried veggies might be a better course.
4. Perdue Simply Smart Organics Breaded Chicken Breast Tenders
There really are two categories chicken tenders fall into: whole meat and ground-and-formed. Whole meat tenders are almost always preferable, and are accordingly oftentimes more expensive. But if you're opting for the ground and formed variety, Perdue's Simply Smart are the way to go. They've got the right mixture of a chewy inside and a crunchy outside, and definitely have the strongest texture of any not-whole-meat strips.
In a pinch, Perdue's Simple Smart Organic Breaded Chicken Tenders could pass as a low-quality restaurant chicken strip. They're the kind you'd find on the kid's menu at a fancy restaurant and end up ordering because you weren't big on foie-gras topped pork belly. The breading is flaky and a little greasy, almost like a panko batter. It's actually cornmeal, and while not quite as delectable as cornflake-covered chicken it still brings a more-natural texture than most on this list. These strips are not masterpieces, but they're a marked improvement over Perdue's other offerings. For the money, they're still a solid value.
3. Caulipower Chicken Tenders
Sometimes it's good to break with tradition. Chicken strip die-hards might sneer and bristle at a strip breaded with a gluten-free mix of cauliflower, rice flour, and brown rice breading. And, no, Caulipower's strips don't bring the waves of fluffy, greasy breading that a traditional tender might. What they do bring is a flavor heretofore unseen in the world of chicken strips, and one we happily welcome.
At first bite, one might think Caulipower injected chicken broth or chicken flavor into these strips, as they taste almost like a chewier interpretation of gourmet chicken stock. The breading does, in fact, contain chicken bouillon, along with a magical mix of spices including paprika, onion, garlic, and other, undisclosed secrets. The result is something that could almost pass as a curry or masala: a spicy, complex blend of flavors that brings a new experience in every mouthful. They're set off by the clean crispiness of the rice and cauliflower breading, a gluten-free alternative that might be better than the original. For unique flavor, these are the best chicken strips out there. You've just gotta be ready for something out of your chicken comfort zone.
2. Wayne Farms Gourmet Chef's Craft Chicken Breast Chunks
These are labeled as "chunks" on the bag, but once you pull one out you realize the size is much closer to a tender. The bag also claims Chef's Craft hired professional chefs, who have carefully selected ingredients to infuse a restaurant-quality dining experience into these fine frozen pieces of poultry. If their version of a restaurant is a grocery store deli counter, then they absolutely nailed it. And we don't mean that in a bad way. If you've ever rolled up to a nice grocery store deli and gotten yourself a nutritious lunch of chicken strips and jojo potatoes, these are a pretty close approximation. For frozen strips, that's quite the accomplishment.
The thick, peppery breading offers a hearty texture, leading into whole-meat bites of chicken. They're allegedly gluten-free, and if you bake these instead of frying them they can be a slightly less bad-for-you alternative to getting chicken strips at the grocery store. If you were to get these in a cafeteria, or even a mid-range diner-style restaurant, you'd be very pleased. Ordering strips of the same quality at a baseball game would probably set you back $14.
1. Foster Farms Crispy Strips
If Trader Joe's all-meat strips are the '80s Trans Am of chicken, these are the Aston Martin. They are equally as high quality as they are beautiful, and James Bond himself might well use these to fuel up before an afternoon of evading sharks and jumping into helicopters. The big, meaty strips are covered in a generous layer of breading. They're crispy, spicy, and a little bit sweet, and there's just enough on each piece that it never feels overwhelming.
The texture is just the right blend of sinewy flesh and tender meat, and when set against the immaculate breading it's a little slice of clucking heaven. One could serve these in a high-end restaurant and aside from asking, "Why are you serving chicken tenders in a high-end restaurant?" you wouldn't get any complaints. They blow strips from places like KFC and Popeyes out of the water, and might even give DJ Khaled a run for his money. Because while his new strips are pretty freaking good, Foster Farms are, in fact, da best.