Chicken is a staple protein within food culture. It's affordable, lower in saturated fats than red meats, delicious, and — most importantly — very versatile. 

Among all the chicken trends, few are as iconic as chicken nuggets. These crispy and tender bites of chicken are offered in fast food combo deals and packaged in grocery store freezers, often in fun and kid-friendly shapes like dinosaurs. 

Read on to learn about the culinary trends related to chicken nuggets and their variations, including their appeal, their popularity, and the innovative ways they are being prepared and enjoyed today.


Consumer Insights

The chicken nugget is a common staple food in childhood, and in adulthood, many people snack on it as a comfort food. We find that adult snacking often happens while the consumer is engaged with electronic media. Snacking tends to occur while consumers watch TV, use their home computer, or play video games. Food brands can engage consumers using the media they consume via television commercials, online advertisements, or brand deals with gaming creators and consoles. 

Since the pandemic, consumers are more aware of their health and what they put into their bodies. We find that kosher, vegan, and vegetarian snacks appeal less to consumers in general but that younger respondents are more open to them. Younger consumers also lean towards bolder flavors and chicken-themed restaurants, which creates openings for plant-based chicken. Generally, the snacks with the most appeal give consumers energy, have calming/stress-relieving effects, and are high in protein and low in sugar.

Consumer emotions also drive snacking behavior. Consumers often snack to feel invigorated mentally or physically when it's not time for a full meal. Other times, they want to treat or reward themselves. Snacking is also social: shareable choices like chips and salsa or chicken tenders/nuggets are strongly preferred over snacks that can't be shared. 

Finding ways to leverage snacking times to connect with consumers in their homes, emphasizing chicken nuggets' energizing and protein-providing capabilities when packaging, and developing strong emotional bonds with consumers are all essential for moving forward. Understanding consumer snacking habits, consumer preferences, and their psychological motivations to snack may help improve sales and drive incremental traffic.


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Retail Trends and Insights

Although frozen foods have grown considerably more popular in the past few years, a slowdown in volume sales suggests that consumers will turn to other options as their spending habits adjust. Frozen foods are regarded as flavorful and convenient, but the category is often an afterthought for when other options are not available. This leaves room for frozen foods to improve so that they can be part of people's mealtime strategies. 

Since frozen foods are also used to introduce international cuisines, new flavors and foods can attract new consumers or create new occasions for existing frozen food consumers. Flavor innovation has long been a source of the category's success, especially with the subcategory of fusion cuisines. In recent years, innovative private labels that fused different cuisines have helped private label sales outpace the category's growth. Seven in 10 consumers regard frozen snacks as great ways to try different international cuisines, representing an opportunity to further draw upon international influences within the category.

Tapas allow consumers the ability to indulge in a diversity of ingredients, textures, and flavors all in one meal. While a tapas spread may be more common in food service or in-home entertaining, wouldn't it make for a wonderful weeknight ritual or routine? 

Chicken nuggets can be a tapas spread all by themselves! Their bite-size, adaptable nature means they can be flavored in various ways and complemented with an array of dipping sauce combinations. 

Over the last three years, the top flavors for retail chicken have demonstrated breadth and a dramatic flair. Flavors included buffalo, grilled, spice/spicy, and teriyaki. In other words, chicken can enter a vast range of flavor profiles that many fusion cuisines or snacks hope to cover. This is reflected by the emerging retail chicken flavors over the last three years, including ginger sesame, basil pesto, jerk & Jamaican, Hawaiian, BBQ & Korean, chipotle, and more.


Related: From Wings to Nuggets: A Look at Chicken Consumption Trends


Food Service Trends and Insights

Due to its versatility as a protein, the poultry option is available on more than eight out of 10 U.S. menus. For the last five-plus years, the most popular flavors paired with a chicken dish have been Chinese, spicy, garlic, and sweet. The fastest-growing pairings were Cotija, melon, savory, and lemon herb.

The contemporary evolution of chicken dishes is what we like to call the Chicken Flavor Lifecycle. It's a way to innovate chicken dish pairing trends like chestnut or raspberry and develop them into proven favorites. So far, favorite ingredients paired with chicken include tomatoes, fries, lettuce, onions, and rice. Depending on the part of the U.S., the fastest-growing pairings with chicken are ingredients like poblano peppers, potato buns, kale, or buttermilk ranch. 

Although popular herbs and spices like black pepper, basil, and ginger are current favorites for chicken pairing, ingredients like cinnamon, cilantro, and lemon pepper are on the rise. Dipping sauces like BBQ, buffalo, and honey mustard will always have a spot in our hearts, but exciting sauces like sriracha, Nashville hot, and chimichurri breathe new life into chicken nugget flavors. All in all, the versatility of chicken and the wide array of flavors available mean that chicken nugget permutations are practically infinite.


Flavor Trends

Flavor trends have grown and dimensionalized between 2022 and 2023. In 2022, there was a decrease in a desire for sweetness and alcohol that 2023 has ridden into a more savory and lower-ABV era of food and drink. Veganism has also expanded into new cuisines; more and more food is being designed to be vegan without compromising taste. In 2023, there is more attention to multi-layered smokiness and umami tastes, and to cuisine that incorporates the chef's heritage or immigration stories.

Playful nostalgic foods are now being reimagined into gourmet junk food or experimental global childhood flavors. In 2022, there was a growing flavor focus on regional cuisines especially with Chinese and Japanese cuisines which then shifted into mainstream hyper-regionality within and beyond SE Asian flavors.

Clearly, 2023 brings some new and interesting culinary trends like the desire for comforting dishes, healthier dining, and international flavors. Diversity and variation seem to be the basis of a stimulating experience, but the current shift toward consumers spending more time at home means a shift toward snacking. 

This is why chicken nuggets can be seen as the holy grail of snacking or dining: they can cover a vast range of flavor profiles, provide for consumer health preferences, and embody convenience and comfort. And they can look like dinosaurs.


Want to learn more about chicken products, flavors and trends? Contact us today!

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