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The Only Thing You Should Eat at the Airport Is Chicken Nuggets

Stay away from the taco salad


This post originally appeared on March 25, 2019, in the inaugural edition of The Move, a newsletter for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

With several notable exceptions, airports are, by and large, culinary wastelands. Much like those $5 bottles of water hawked at their newsstands, airport food is stupidly expensive and, with few exceptions, extremely mediocre; most of the concepts with celebrity chef names attached to them are cash grabs, and with a captive audience, in-terminal restaurants simply don’t need to be very good to stay in business. Accordingly, as soon as I step foot onto airport property, my palate shrinks to resemble that of a 5-year-old: I would like an order of chicken nuggets and that will be all, please and thank you. My preferred specimens come from McDonald’s (God bless that crunchy, tempura-like crust), but I’ll also go for Wendy’s nuggets, which are breaded rather than battered but always juicier than I remember. But as long as they come frozen out of a bag and plunged straight into a deep-fryer, I’m good. The move is: If you find yourself stuck eating at an airport, chicken nuggets are your best bet.

Why does air travel transform me into such a finicky eater? Frankly, in-flight food poisoning changes a person. After a (suspicious, in retrospect) taco salad consumed at the culinary wasteland that is the Ontario (California, not Canada) airport, I spent the entirety of a three-hour flight home doubled over with my hand clamped firmly over my mouth; suffice it to say it was a formative experience in my eating career. Part of my reliance on the chicken nugget, then, is strategic: Now, the only food that passes my lips inside an airport has to be highly processed, to the point it couldn’t possibly harbor any funky bacterial growth.

But even if I didn’t harbor food-poisoning fears, only eating nuggets at the airport is a solid strategy. Helen Rosner posited in a Beard Award-winning essay that chicken tenders are the perfect food, writing, “There’s no narrative to chicken tenders, there’s no performance. That is the substance of their allure: If you’re ordering them, you don’t have to look at the menu.” The same applies to chicken nuggets. Airports are stressful even at the best of times, thanks to the snail-paced security lines, forced shoe removal, and invasive TSA pat-downs; defaulting to generic chicken nuggets requires zero consideration and offers a small refuge from the otherwise anxiety-laced process of navigating air travel. Most of us over the age of 12 probably indulge in chicken nuggets only very rarely, so eating them at the airport provides a specific sense of comfort (even if they don’t come flanked by a Hello Kitty toy), allowing us to return to a taste of our childhoods. It’s way too easy to drop $40 on an extremely mediocre and sad airport meal for one, but ordering that taste of nostalgia will rarely require you to fork over more than a $5 bill.

If you’re traveling somewhere far-flung, nuggets offer you one last taste of stereotypically American food in all its sanitized, deep-fried glory. And if you’re traveling somewhere not known for a robust food scene, a repast of nuggets sets the bar delightfully low for any meals to come. Additionally, while carrying hot food on an airplane can attract dagger-like stares from fellow passengers (too many smells in a recycled-air environment!), leftover nuggets are basically devoid of aroma, so they make a perfectly suitable in-flight snack. Safe travels, and enjoy your nuggets: Just be careful not to spill any dipping sauce on your seatmate, though I maintain that McDonald’s sweet-and-sour is worth the risk.

P.S. For more expert opinions about America’s best chicken nuggets, do consult Eater’s ultimate nugget rankings.

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