Here's a twist on an age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the nugget?
After all, it's hard for many parents to remember a time when tiny dinner plates decorated with cartoon characters weren't filled, in part, with golden-brown, roundish or boot-shaped objects, and accented with a colorful dipping sauce.
Twenty-five years after McDonald's introduced the Chicken McNugget to the world, the boneless, battered treat has clucked its way to the top of the list of kids' favorite foods - no matter if the nugget comes with fries and a toy in a little cardboard box or is poured out of a bag from the family freezer and microwaved for a quick post-soccer-game, pre-bath-time meal.
Kids love chicken nuggets so much, says author Michael Pollan in his best-selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, that the finger food is the reason chicken has edged out beef as the most popular food in America.
Frozen-food companies sell bags of nuggets in kid-friendly shapes, such as dinosaurs. Many a restaurant that offers a kids' menu tops it off with nuggets. Yet nutritionists point to chicken nuggets as a prime culprit in developing a taste for salty, fatty food among U.S. children, who are more likely now to be overweight and unhealthy than ever before. And many a mom who might favor grilled chicken breast and salad with dressing on the side for herself still struggles with feeding nuggets to her children.
"They're so easy, and they're kid-sized, and some companies even make them in fun shapes," says Annelies Koob of Cockeysville, the mother of a 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. "[But] I've really tried to phase them out of their life. I just don't buy them."
Some try to balance nuggets with more healthful foods. Patrick Huff of Washington says he realizes nuggets are "not the healthiest thing in the world" for his 6-year-old daughter, Sydnei.
"But she eats oatmeal for breakfast, so she can have chicken nuggets in the afternoon," says Huff, an educator.
Ann Cooper, author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, says, "McDonald's has taught an entire generation of children that that's all they can eat. And they're not going to eat anything else."
Joyce Weinberg, a New York catering expert, food-tour leader and mother of a 22-month-old, says, "Parents love them because they're 'hand-eating,' and they do have protein. And kids like them because they have a crunchy outside and they taste good."
"But," says Weinberg, "you don't want to clog up those tiny little arteries."
The ingredients for the McNugget, as described in Pollan's book as well as the documentary Super Size Me, include dreaded trans fats, TBHQ and something called dimethylpolysiloxane. That latter, long word is an "anti-foaming agent." And critics point to the fact that TBHQ is a derivative of butane.
"[Chicken nuggets are] not soda or candy, but that's how high it ranks for me [on the list of bad things for kids to eat]," says Cooper, who writes a blog at lunchlessons.org. "It's really bad and it's really bad for a number of reasons. Most chicken nuggets just aren't good food."
So what is a parent to do?
The good news is moms and dads aren't the only ones to realize that the chicken nugget is here to stay. And in the past few years, many chefs, retailers, school-dining programs and even fast-food companies have come up with ways to make the finger food more healthful.
Some have dumped the dark meat in favor of all-white meat breast pieces. Others have cut out the "chicken" in the chicken nugget all together, opting for soy, veggie or tofu nuggets.
In a new cookbook, funnyman Jerry Seinfeld's wife, Jessica, says she hides vegetables such as spinach, broccoli or beet puree in the homemade chicken nuggets she prepares for her three children, or she makes "faux" nuggets out of tofu and flaxseed meal.
"When I serve [tofu nuggets], my kids think they're eating chicken or cheese," Seinfeld says in her book, Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food.
Perdue recently launched a baked whole-grain nugget made with white chicken meat toasted with whole-grain bread crumbs, says Chris Alexander, senior marketing manager of Perdue Ready-to-Eat Chicken.
This past summer, Ian's Natural Foods company - which specializes in more healthful food choices for kids - unveiled what it calls the first ever organic chicken nugget, made with organic chicken and bread crumbs, and without bleached flours or hydrogenated oils.
Even some college campuses have spruced up their cafeteria menus to get fast-food-loving students to choose more healthful chicken nuggets.
"Rather than pull run-of-the-mill, chopped, formed, who-knows-what's-in-it from the freezer and drop them in the fryer, we now serve boneless, skinless chicken breast" carved into pieces, says Dave Furhman, director of dining programs at the Johns Hopkins University.
Then there are others who have taken the chicken nugget to an even higher level: They've made it gourmet.
"Absolutely," nuggets are gourmet, says Michel Richard, renowned chef of the Washington restaurant Citronelle.
"It's one of the best-sellers in my new restaurant, Central," Richard says. The chef is even presenting his recipe - complete with sea salt, thyme, peanut oil and poaching - at the Gourmet Institute in New York this month.
McDonald's push to clean up the chicken nugget has made the finger food even more popular.
In 2003, the mega-company switched its nugget recipe to one with all-white meat. The result, says Chris Mann, owner/operator of four McDonald's restaurants in Dundalk and Essex: "14 percent fewer calories; 16 percent less fat; 20 percent less saturated fat and 32 percent less cholesterol than the old chicken nugget."
The move, Mann says, made the four-piece nugget offering (the best-seller at Mickey D's) a better choice calorie-wise than a grilled-cheese sandwich, a hot dog or a slice of pizza. (But the four-piece box of McNuggets still has 1 gram of trans fats and the six-piece box has 1.5 grams, according to the company's Web site.)
The switch was a boon for the company, as well.
"You wouldn't think that it would make a huge difference," Mann says. "But the numbers of chicken nuggets that we began selling really jumped through the roof."
Even more nuggets? The idea makes Cooper cluck her tongue.
"What if we didn't have chicken nuggets?" Cooper, who also is the director of nutrition services at the Berkeley, Calif., Unified School District, asks. "What if we just said, 'OK. We want to roast or saute or grill chicken?' Children do not need chicken that looks like stars and giraffes and dinosaurs. Just serve children real food."
Tofu Nuggets (With Spinach or Broccoli or Peas)
1 cup whole-wheat or white bread crumbs
1 tablespoon flaxseed meal
1 tablespoon grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 cup spinach or broccoli or pea puree
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 (14-ounce) package extra-firm tofu (preferably with calcium)
1/2 teaspoon salt
nonstick cooking spray
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, flaxseed meal, parmesan and paprika. Set aside.
In a shallow bowl, mix the puree and egg with a fork, and set the bowl next to the bread-crumb mixture.
Slice the tofu 1/2 -inch thick and cube it or cut into shapes with a cookie cutter. Sprinkle both sides with salt. Dip the tofu pieces into the puree mixture, then roll them in the bread crumbs until the tofu is completely coated and you can't see the puree.
Coat a large nonstick skillet with cooking spray and set it over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil.
Add the tofu nuggets in a single layer (be careful not to crowd the pan!) and cook until nicely browned on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and cook until the crumb coating is crisp and golden, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
From "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food," by Jessica Seinfeld
Per serving: 303 calories, 16 grams protein, 15 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 27 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 54 milligrams cholesterol, 553 milligrams sodium