There’s no order that can take you back to childhood as fast as a fast-food chicken tender basket. But as delicious as they are, not all chicken tenders are created equal. As the primary ingredient is often chicken breast, they’re loaded with muscle-building and hunger-stomping protein, but some are higher in nutrients we may not want so much of.
As with many fast food choices, chicken tenders can come with plenty of unwanted sodium and saturated fat depending on the breading, oils, and seasonings used. We chatted with dietitians to find which fast-food chicken tenders they love and which ones they’ll pass on. Keep reading for our list of the eight best and worst fast-food chicken tenders to make a better choice the next time a craving strikes.
How we chose the healthiest fast food chicken tenders
- Hold the sodium. Like most fast food, chicken tenders can be exceptionally high in sodium. Depending on the breading and type of seasoning used, some tenders can have almost a day’s worth of salt in one serving. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, as this nutrient can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
- Easy on the saturated fat. Tenders that are made from chicken breast will naturally have lower amounts of saturated fat, but more could be lurking in the breading and the oil that’s used to fry them. Recent research has debated whether or not saturated fat is responsible for increasing heart disease or possibly overall diet patterns that happen to include increased saturated fat, the Dietary Guidelines currently recommends less than 10% of calories come from saturated fat, or 22 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie diet.
- Account for calories. While we’re not looking for the lowest calorie options (we want to be filled up, after all), tenders that rack up over 500 calories just for the chicken are higher than we’re looking for. After all, you’re probably going to enjoy your tenders with a side or two as a complete meal.
Read on to discover what to order next time you’re craving chicken tenders at the drive-thru, and for more healthy fast-food orders, check out 10 Best & Worst Fast-Food Chicken Nuggets, According to Dietitians.
5 Healthiest Fast-Food Chicken Tenders
Best: Carl’s Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders
Per 3-piece: 260 calories, 13 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 770 mg sodium, 13 g carbs (2 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 25 g protein
Carl’s Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders have only 770 milligrams of sodium per 3-piece meal, making it one of the lowest sodium options on our list. This meal adds only 33% of the DV for sodium to your day and just 260 calories. With the 25 grams of protein from all-white meat chicken, you’ll feel full and satisfied after eating these healthy tenders.
Best: Chick-fil-A Chick-n-Strips
Per 3 pieces: 310 calories, 14 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 870 mg sodium, 16 g carbs (0 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 29 g protein
America’s favorite fast food joint doesn’t disappoint when it comes to tenders. Three Chick-fil-A Chick-n-Strips has just 2.5 grams of saturated fat, just 11% of the DV, and 37% DV of sodium, with almost 30 grams of protein from the chicken breast tenderloin used.
Best: Sonic 3-Piece Crispy Chicken Tenders
Per 3-piece: 350 calories, 18 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 1,010 mg sodium, 26 g carbs (2 g fiber, 8 g sugar), 21 g protein
Sonic Crispy Chicken Tenders are made with 100% white meat chicken, are low in saturated fat, and have 21 grams of protein. While they do have over 1,000 milligrams of sodium, it’s less than half the amount recommended in one day and they’re loaded with flavor. While they’re not healthy for an everyday meal, these tenders are a good choice to enjoy occasionally, explains Kayley George, MS, RD, LD.
Best: Buffalo Wild Wings Naked Chicken Tenders
Per 3-piece: 160 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 1,140 mg sodium, 0 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 37 g protein
“The Buffalo Wild Wings Naked Chicken Tenders are a good lean protein option, as the 3-piece naked tenders provide 37 grams of protein and only one gram of fat,” says Mandy Tyler, M.Ed, RD, CSSD, LD. For a complete, balanced meal, Tyler recommends pairing the tenders with a garden salad instead of the typical french fries.
Best: Church’s Chicken Tenders
Per 3-piece: 330 calories, 18 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 1,296 mg sodium, 18 g carbs (3 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 24 g protein
A three-piece original Church’s Chicken Tenders has plenty of flavor with only 1,296 milligrams of sodium or 56% of the DV for sodium. While this is higher than we’d like to see for one meal, the tenders are large and filling and only contribute 3 grams of saturated fat to your day, with 24 grams of protein to help keep you full.
The 3 Unhealthiest Fast-Food Chicken Tenders
Worst: Popeyes Chicken Tenders
Per 3 pieces: 460 calories, 20 g fat (8 g saturated fat), 1,820 mg sodium, 35 g carbs (1 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 38 g protein
“Popeyes chicken tenders boast 460 calories, 20 grams of fat (8 grams of saturated fat and 1 gram of trans fat), 1,820 milligrams of sodium, and 35 grams of carbs,” says George. With 8 grams of saturated fat, just one serving has 36% of the daily value, not to mention the 79% DV of sodium these tenders have.
Worst: Culver’s Buffalo Chicken Tenders
Per 4 pieces: 540 calories, 28 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 1,920 mg sodium, 36 g carbs (4 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 36 g protein
“The Buffalo Chicken Tenders at Culver’s are considered one of the worst chicken tenders due to their high calorie and fat content, as well as their high sodium content,” says Wan Na Chun, MPH, RD, CPT of One Pot Wellness. Sure, the meat comes from chickens that are fed a vegetarian diet and raised humanely, which we can appreciate, but the 1,920 milligrams of sodium per serving easily put them on the list of the unhealthiest fast-food chicken tenders.
Worst: Jack in the Box Crispy Chicken Strips
Per 4-piece: 620 calories, 31 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 2,350 mg sodium, 42 g carbs (4 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 44 g protein
A four-piece meal of Jack in the Box Crispy Chicken Strips has an astounding 2,350 milligrams of sodium, or 103% of the recommended daily value in just one meal. Eating these chicken strips will likely put your daily sodium intake well over 4,000 milligrams, especially if you enjoy them with a side of fries.