Junk Food Makeover: Healthier Chicken Nuggets

In our column, Junk Food Makeover, we challenge culinary nutritionist Tricia Williams to recreate iconic snacks with more wholesome, better-for-you recipes.

The Challenge
Believe it or not, chicken nuggets wereinvented by a scientist at Cornell University in the 1960s. Robert C. Baker--who theNew York Timescalled "something of a chicken Edison"--figured out how to process thewholechicken, including some of the less savory parts, into dunk-able, fun shapes (like dinosaurs). Little did this man know that his creation would become the go-to item on every kids' menu across the country.

Related: Junk Food Makeover: Tater Tots

One problem with nuggets, of course, is that the fast food versions we all love are mixed with less savory ingredients, like modified corn starch andsodium phosphates. So we asked Junk Food Makeover nutritionist Tricia Williams to try her hand at the kiddie crowd-pleaser.

"We sampled McDonald's McNuggets and Applegate Farms' chicken nuggets, and tried to aim somewhere in between the two flavor- and texture-wise," says Tricia. "But oh my gosh, all chicken nuggets seem to be made of compressed chicken parts, even Applegate Farms! We decided to pulse organic chicken breasts in a food processor to simulate the texture (as gross as that sounds). Then we coated the nuggets with quinoa flakes--kind of a mock panko--for the crispy factor and golden flax meal, which has anti-inflammatory properties. These nuggets will be a hit with the kids, who love anything that they can dunk or dip."

See also: Quick and Easy School-Night Dinners

The Result
One thing's for certain: Tricia and her team nailed the texture. The chicken nuggets were tender on the inside, and the breading was crispy on the outside. We would have liked a little more of that breading, which had an earthy flavor thanks to the quinoa flakes, but the homemade honey mustard and BBQ dipping sauces were right on. (Good ol' fashioned ketchup would have been delicious, too.) With a pinch more salt, these could definitely fool a child (and probably most adults).

Chicken Nuggets
by Tricia Williams and Elisabeth Nelson
Makes 26

Serve these little bites with homemade Honey-Dijon Mustard or Barbecue Sauce (click for recipe).

12 oz. ground chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup quinoa flakes
1/3 cup golden flaxseed meal
1/3 cup oat flour
1/3 cup arrowroot
3 large egg whites
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. safflower oil

INGREDIENT INFO: Golden flaxseed meal and oat flour can be found online at bobsredmill.com . Arrowroot, a thickening agent, is available in the spice section of many supermarkets and at natural foods stores and Asian markets.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Place chicken in a medium bowl and season with salt and pepper. Using a 1-oz. melon baller, scoop out 26 portions of chicken, transferring them to prepared baking sheet as you go. Chill chicken on sheet for 20 minutes.

Combine quinoa flakes, flaxseed meal, and flour in a small bowl. Place arrowroot in another small bowl. Whisk egg whites in a medium bowl until foamy. Gently press chicken portions to flatten slightly. Working with 1 portion at a time, roll chicken in arrowroot, dip in egg whites, and dredge in flaxseed mixture. Return chicken to baking sheet.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add chicken nuggets and cook, turning once, until browned and cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer nuggets back to baking sheet and cook in oven for 6 minutes. Serve immediately.

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