The chicken nugget is a paradox: Its name implies a vague lump-like shape, but it almost always takes on a much more specific form, be it a dinosaur or a letter or a cartoon character. And while any adult nugget fan knows in their heart which shape is superior (it’s the dinosaur), kids live by a different set of rules.
For adults, it often comes down to a matter of surface area — and more specifically, the number and shape of the corners and crevices — for optimal dipping, in ketchup, barbecue, or even honey. Take a star-shaped nugget, for example: Want to get creative and dip each point into a different sauce? Go for it! And sure, whimsy is important, too. Whether it’s a dinosaur or an animal shape, one is never too old for the eternal debate of which to eat first: the head or tail. Got a busy adult life? Maybe you prefer to stick with a simple nugget like a McDonald’s boot or even a plain old oval-ish lump to dip quickly once and move on with your day.
But it’s the preferences of true chicken nugget connoisseurs that drive the most impassioned and, quite frankly, wildest debate, and the real experts are the youngest among us: little kids. An adult can nerd out about the best ratio of meat to breading, but why does a kindergartner stubbornly refuse one shape and worship another? It’s a riddle. “I don’t like the round ones,” said Silas, 5, of Ankeny, Iowa. “They’re ucky.” (Silas prefers dinosaurs. Obviously.)
The preservation of our species may not depend on understanding the chicken nugget shape preferences of children, but digging into their nugget standards might reveal something important about ourselves or, perhaps, something more esoteric about the true nature of nugget quality. After all, as Quinn, 4, of Frederick, Maryland, mused, “Chicken nuggets are great because they are super good.”
Eater decided to explore the crucially important topic by means of a very scientific* survey of parents and kids from around the country, garnering more than 100 responses from families in 24 states. The survey offered eight choices of shapes — round, star, dinosaur, boot (such as at McDonald’s), cartoon character (such as SpongeBob or Minions), animal, fries, rings, and “other.” As it turns out, most kids were less concerned about shape and more interested in talking about the overall “yumminess” of nuggets or about what to dip them in (mostly ketchup) or simply why they’re so great. Or as 5-year-old Dash in Los Angeles said, “If someone said they didn’t believe me, I would just open their mouth and put one in, and then they would know.”
Of course, these mashups of questionable chicken parts coated in breadcrumbs are just a vehicle to remind us that in the end, kids are probably smarter than us and maybe we should pay more attention to their opinions. Here’s a thought: Add a kid to every advisory board. Eat some chicken nuggets together. Solve the world’s problems.
With that, here are the best chicken nugget shapes, ranked, according to children ages 3 through 7.
(*note: extremely unscientific)
Dinosaur nuggets, unsurprisingly, are the favorite. They first hit supermarket shelves in the 1990s, likely invented by chicken giant Perdue and popularized by the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, so they’ve had about three decades to cement themselves as the prevailing nugget. Over half of the survey respondents answered “dinosaur,” for reasons ranging from surface area to breading-to-chicken ratio to fierceness. Many elaborated with details on the particular type of dino that is the preferable shape.
On dinos in general:
- “If they are round, you get less nugget, and the tail and legs give you more nugget.” — Dylan, 6, El Segundo, California
- “Because they are marching into my belly, and I eat their heads.” — Jaya, 3, Los Angeles
On T. rex:
- “T. rexes are big, and the bigger the nugget, the more ketchup you can put on it.” — Finnegan, 6, Annandale, Virginia
- “Because of the roar. Roar!” — Alexander, 5, Hudson, Massachusetts
- “It has a good ratio of crumb to meat.” — Charlie, 5, Framingham, Massachusetts
- “There is a T. rex inside of me.” — Dean, 4, Boston
- “Because that’s the only kind I get to put ketchup on, because T. rexes are meat eaters and the ketchup is like blood.” — Gus, 4 1/2, Somerville, Massachusetts
- “He’s kind of fierce, and I like fierce things.” — Jackson, 5, Phoenix
- “This dinosaur is really good at killing each one of them, and it’s my favorite dinosaur.” — Cory, 6, Audubon, New Jersey
- And, terrifyingly, “Because it’s like eating a face.” — Apollo, 5, Ocean, New Jersey
On the other dinos:
- “[Pterodactyl] because it looks like the Batman symbol.” — Wyatt, 6, San Diego
- “[Brontosaurus] is the best because it’s so long. It’s longer than the other kind.” — Ian, 6, Falls Church, Virginia
- “Velociraptor because it can run faster than people.” — Graham, 4, Manhattan, New York
- “[Indominus rex (Jurassic Park’s fictional cross between a T. rex and a velociraptor)] because I love it. The other shapes are more crunchier. I play games with them — the fight arena game. They kick out other opponents so they will be eaten. There is always a winner, and he gets the grand prize of ‘LAST TO BE EATEN!!!!’ ” — Quinn, 4, Frederick, Maryland
Ah, branded pop culture tie-ins. It’s no surprise that kids get excited about nuggets shaped like their favorite characters, although only about 7 percent of respondents chose this option — enough to come in second place, but far behind dinosaurs.
- “Marshall from Paw Patrol because I’m a fireman and so is he.” — Finnlay, 3, Long Island, New York
- “Chicken nuggets will be the best if they are Minions dressed as dinosaurs.” — Tessa, 5, Washington, D.C.
- “Spider-Man because he has spidey eyes and he has a spidey web.” — Sam, 4, Wareham, Massachusetts
At first glance, one might think McDonald’s chicken nuggets come in an indistinct blob shape, but they actually come in four specific shapes. Eater included the boot on the survey since it’s the most easily recognizable of the four, and about 6 percent of respondents voted for it, with mostly straightforward reasoning: It’s a good shape for catching dipping sauce and for holding, and it’s less likely to come apart than other shapes, some respondents said.
- “It’s yummy.” — Said, 4, Medford, Massachusetts
- “Because God made our tummies round.” — Grace, 5, Stamford, Connecticut
Tie: Star and Round
Star-shape and round nuggets tied for fourth place, with about 5 percent of respondents each. Several children expressed that they just love stars, noting that they’re “pretty” or “beautiful.”
- Stars: “Because it’s out of this world.” — Cee, 4, Austin, Texas
- Round: “It’s easier to eat.” — Iselle, 6, Chantilly, Virginia
- Round: “A circle is round like the wheel and tire of a vehicle or a ball.” — Lewis, 3, Cary, North Carolina
The survey offered eight choices of shapes — round, star, dinosaur, boot (such as at McDonald’s), cartoon character (such as SpongeBob or Minions), animal, fries, and rings — but respondents could also choose “other.” Several respondents who went that route used the write-in option to praise letter-shaped chicken nuggets, particularly letters in their names. Molly, 3 1/2, of Los Angeles, and Mia, 6, of Oceanside, New York, for example, were both partial to M-shaped nuggets. Sadly, none chose to explain why. Still, we feel the fifth-ranking shape is worth mentioning — and might be worth incorporating into more elementary school literacy efforts.
And finally, just over 2 percent of respondents favored ring-shaped chicken nuggets, an under-the-radar pick that might please the adults who used to wear Bugles on their fingers.
- “Because you can put the chicken nugget on your finger.” — Avery, 6, Washington, D.C.
- “Because they get toasted all around, which makes the chicken soft AND crunchy. Where do chickens go when they get toasted?” — Anneliese, 4, Ossining, New York
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein