Gluten free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people choosing to avoid gluten for medical reasons or simply as a lifestyle choice. For those following a strict gluten free diet, navigating food choices can be challenging, especially when dining out or eating processed foods. One common question that arises is whether chicken tenders are safe for gluten free diets.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Some examples of foods that contain gluten include:
- Bread, pasta and baked goods made with wheat flour
- Barley, rye and most beers
- Many breakfast cereals
- Foods coated with batter or breadcrumbs
- Soups, sauces and gravies thickened with wheat flour
- Soy sauce, salad dressings, seasonings and broths that contain malt vinegar
For most people, consuming gluten is not a problem. However, for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and fatigue. The only treatment is adhering to a strict lifelong gluten free diet.
Are Chicken Tenders Gluten Free?
Plain chicken tenders are a gluten free food. Chicken tenders are essentially strips of boneless, skinless chicken breast that are breaded and fried. The chicken itself does not naturally contain gluten. However, the breading and preparation method can introduce sources of gluten, such as:
- Breading: Typical breading contains wheat flour, which contributes gluten. Frying in oil shared with gluten containing foods can also be a source of cross contact.
- Marinades and seasonings: Many packaged spice blends, marinades and seasoning mixes contain gluten sources. Malt vinegar, soy sauce and broth/stock are common culprits.
- Cooking equipment: If fried in oil previously used to cook breaded, gluten containing foods, chicken tenders can pick up traces of gluten. Shared cooking tools and surfaces can also transfer gluten.
So in their plain, unbreaded form, chicken tenders are naturally gluten free. But sauces, spices, breading and cooking methods commonly used at restaurants and in processed chicken tender products often introduce gluten during preparation. This makes it tricky for gluten free individuals to determine if prepared chicken tenders are truly gluten free.
How to Choose Safe Gluten Free Chicken Tenders
For those avoiding gluten, chicken tenders can be part of a healthy gluten free diet with careful selection:
- Prepare them at home. Making baked or grilled chicken tenders at home using gluten free ingredients allows for full control over cross contamination.
- Check ingredient labels. When buying packaged chicken tenders, read the ingredient list carefully for wheat, barley, rye or ambiguous ingredients like starch, breading or seasoning.
- Look for certified gluten free. Seek out chicken tender products with certified gluten free labels, which have met regulated standards for testing and safety protocols.
- Ask restaurants questions. Inquire about ingredients, preparation methods and possibility of cross contact at restaurants before ordering chicken tenders.
- Avoid excessive breading. Opt for lightly breaded or panko-style breading, which creates a crispy texture with less breading volume.
Call ahead to the restaurant when possible to explain your dietary needs. Many restaurants are willing to accommodate requests for gluten free preparation. You can request tenders be cooked in a clean fryer, plain or lightly breaded with gluten free flour and avoid high risk seasonings.
Safest Options for Gluten Free Chicken Tenders
These preparation methods and ingredients offer lower risk gluten free chicken tender options:
- Plain tenders cooked in dedicated fryer
- Grilled with gluten free seasoning
- Baked with gluten free breadcrumbs or panko
- Air fried plain or with gluten free flour dredge
- Cornmeal or rice flour breading
- Gluten free soy sauce or tamari
- Fresh lemon juice, vinegar, herbs and spice rubs
Some specific brands recognized as gluten free chicken tenders include:
- Tyson Naturals Gluten Free Chicken Strips
- Perdue Gluten Free Chicken Breast Nuggets
- Applegate Naturals Gluten Free Chicken Strips
- Bell & Evans Gluten Free Chicken Tenders
- Mary’s Gone Crackers Gluten Free Chicken Tenders
Are Chicken Tenders Healthy?
Chicken tenders can be part of a healthy diet, but it depends on the preparation method. Plain grilled or baked tenders are the healthiest options. Heavily breaded, deep fried tenders should be an occasional treat. Here’s how chicken tenders compare nutrition-wise:
|Chicken Tenders (85g)||Grilled||Baked||Fried|
Baked or grilled tenders have significantly lower fat and carbs compared to fried. They also pack more protein per serving. Lightly breaded baked tenders are a happy medium providing a crispy texture with less fat than deep frying.
Gluten Free Substitutes for Chicken Tenders
For those who still want a gluten free option for that crispy, chicken tender-like craving, these alternatives may satisfy:
- Pork or shrimp poppers – Chopped pork or shrimp coated in cornmeal or gluten free panko breading.
- Cauliflower wings – Roasted cauliflower florets seasoned and coated in gluten free flour or breading.
- Quinoa tenders – Quinoa patties breaded with gluten free crumbs and baked.
- Tofu nuggets – Crispy baked tofu cubes coated in gluten free breading.
- Eggplant sticks – Baked breaded eggplant slices satisfy the crunchy craving.
- Turkey or salmon patties – Ground turkey or salmon patties breaded and pan-fried in gluten free flour.
Gluten Free Dipping Sauces
What good are tenders without tasty, gluten free dipping sauces? Whip up these restaurant favorites at home:
- Honey mustard – Mix 2 tbsp gluten free mustard, 2 tbsp honey, and 1 tbsp olive oil.
- BBQ sauce – Combine 1 cup ketchup, 3 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 2 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp chili powder, 1 tsp paprika, 1 tsp black pepper and 1/4 tsp salt.
- Ranch – Whisk 1 cup mayo, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tsp dried parsley, 1 tsp dill, 1 tsp onion powder, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.
- Buffalo – Mix 1/2 cup hot sauce, 1/4 cup butter, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 tsp garlic powder and 1/2 tsp pepper.
Meal Ideas Featuring Chicken Tenders
Chicken tenders aren’t just kid food! These grown-up gluten free meal ideas incorporate chicken tenders:
- Tender salad – Top a fresh salad with grilled tenders, avocado, hard boiled egg, tomatoes, chickpeas and gluten free dressing.
- Southwest bowls – Fill a bowl with baked tenders, seasoned rice, black beans, salsa, corn, shredded lettuce and guacamole.
- Tender wraps – Stuff gluten free tortillas with tenders, caramelized onions, spinach, Swiss cheese and spicy mayo.
- Tender parm – Toss breaded baked tenders in gluten free marinara sauce and top with melted mozzarella and parmesan.
- Asian lettuce cups – Stir fry minced tenders with gluten free teriyaki and serve stuffed in lettuce leaves with rice, peppers and green onion.
Cooking Tips for Gluten Free Chicken Tenders
Follow these simple tricks for tender, juicy homemade gluten free chicken tenders:
- Pound chicken breasts thinly to ensure even cooking and tenderness.
- Soak tenders in buttermilk then dredge in a mix of gluten free flour, cornmeal and spices for a crispy coating.
- Use potato or tapioca starch for an ultra crispy, light breading.
- Let breaded tenders rest 5-10 minutes before baking to help coating adhere.
- Bake on a wire rack lined sheet pan at 425°F for even browning on all sides.
- Fry breaded tenders inexpensively in just 1-2 inches of oil rather than deep frying.
- Check internal temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure doneness of 165°F.
- Toss fried tenders in sauce right out of the oil while still hot.
Storing and Reheating Leftover Chicken Tenders
Cooked chicken tenders will keep 3-4 days refrigerated. For longer storage, freeze cooked tenders up to 2-3 months. Some tips for freezing and reheating:
- Allow cooked tenders to cool completely before freezing in an airtight container.
- Add a layer of wax paper between tenders to prevent sticking if freezing in bulk.
- For best texture, thaw frozen tenders overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
- Reheat thawed tenders in the oven at 350°F until heated through, about 15 minutes.
- Baked or grilled plain tenders can go straight from freezer to oven or grill to reheat.
- Microwave breaded tenders on a paper towel lined plate for 1-2 minutes, checking frequently.
- Toaster ovens work great for quick reheating of a few frozen tenders straight from the freezer.
Common Food Allergies and Chicken Tenders
Those with food allergies can also enjoy chicken tenders safely with a few accommodations:
- Egg allergy – Avoid breading or coat tenders with gluten free breadcrumbs rather than flour and egg wash.
- Soy allergy – Use tamari rather than soy sauce and look for brands using sunflower oil for frying instead of soybean oil.
- Dairy allergy – Opt for baked tenders and make dipping sauces with oil substitutes instead of butter.
- Shellfish allergy – Ensure tenders are not cooked in the same fryer as breaded shrimp or other shellfish dishes.
As with any food allergy, carefully inspect ingredient labels and proactively ask questions when dining out. With proper precautions, people with food allergies can still find safe ways to incorporate chicken tenders.
Chicken tenders can be part of a healthy gluten free diet with some added care in ingredient choices and preparation methods. Opt for plain grilled or baked tenders made at home using gluten free ingredients. When buying pre-made tenders, check the labels closely and look for certified gluten free brands. Ask questions when ordering tenders at restaurants to ensure a gluten free meal. With the right accommodations, gluten free individuals need not miss out on this popular appetizer and meal staple.