Healthy Baked Chicken Tenders {Recipe}

Healthy Baked Chicken Tenders

After my son's diagnosis with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) a decade ago, I tried different therapies and treatments or combinations of both to find what worked best for him. After a full year of intense therapies, he was 'discharged' as a success. That did not mean he was cured, it simply meant I was armed with how to maneuver him through the world at that time. Drug therapy on my toddler wasn't something I even considered so I turned to natural therapies for my son. The most important of which was a "brain friendly" diet.

Because SPD is a neurological disorder, it is important to ensure my son gets a load of healthy brain food, including "good" fats such as Omega-3. All children really need the healthy brain foods, but it is essential for my SPD son to have healthy brain food. It really helps him navigate through his days.

The human brain is about 60% fat and if you don't give your brain healthy fats, it will try to get fat any way it can. This is where some people turn to saturated fats. Children with neurological disorders, such as SPD, are highly susceptible to becoming junk food eaters because their brains crave fat. The brain will always crave the good fats, but if you don't feed the brain the good fats, it will search fat out in the bad fats. 

Since the diagnosis of SPD, my son has danced with his food. He is highly sensitive to textures and textures equal yuck to him. He will avoid 'yuck' foods at all costs. This led to many, many years of missing crucial vitamins, minerals and fats that his tiny brain needed to cope with his symptoms. Learning how to sneak those brain foods into his diet was a food dance.

We spent a year in food therapy to learn how to reduce his SPD symptoms with food. That is why I call it the food dance. I had to learn how to make simple but important changes to his diet to reduce his sensory symptoms.

Here are some of the most important foods that I use to help my son. I call it the SPD sensory integration diet or The Brain Diet.

Fish: Oily fish such as wild salmon, mackerel and tuna are all packed with DHA (docosahexanoic acid). This is one of the best forms of Omega-3. It took years to get fish in his diet and now he craves salmon. Big win!

Nuts: Nuts, especially almonds, are a great source of fats, vitamins (B, E, magnesium) and minerals and, excellent for your little one's brains. In a child's brain with SPD, the nervous system is affected, particularly the autonomic system. The fats and minerals in nuts help the brain in routing sensory and motor messages throughout the body. Getting nuts in my son's diet was tricky, but now we have a deal. He eats 5 almonds a day and I will give him 5 M&Ms. It's all a trade off. 

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Fruit: Berries like blueberries and strawberries contain antioxidants and help with coordination, memory and cognition. Luckily, my son has eaten strawberries all along. He eats strawberries every single day, they are one of the first foods on his plate at every meal.

Vegetables: Veggies containing antioxidants like C and E, such as bell peppers and broccoli. Veggies are not always the easiest to get my son to eat, but they are the easiest food to hide. My son will eat a broccoli stalk without issue, but not the tops? You could always try with cheese or dips, but my son is not about any dips or sauces. Try sneaking carrots into your sauces, I always do!

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Yogurt: Yogurt contains tyrosine, which is known to give you a little pick up and increase mental awareness. Thankfully the tubes of yogurt are delicious because my son has eaten one of these everyday for the past decade. But only the tubes, not other form of yogurt will do.

Beans: Beans are an excellent source of  vitamin B and fiber. Mashed up they can be a great addition to sauces, dips and soups. My son is not a fan of sauces, dips or soups, so getting beans in his diet has been extremely difficult. I keep introducing them though and won't give up.

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Oils: Oils are a fantastic source of Omega-3s. "Smart" oils like walnut, flax seed, olive and avocado are all excellent sources of Omega-3. Cook with them, make salad dressings or dips with them. Oil can be mixed in with muffins, cookies, smoothies and other treats. It does have a strong flavor. My son has no clue there is any other oil as I have cooked with it from the diagnosis. When we eat at other people's houses, he can't stand any food cooked in butter or other oils because his palate is used to the "good" oils.

The most challenging thing in my house has been coaxing my son to try anything new. His pallet is so sensitive, he will literally throw up right at the table simply because something didn't feel right on his tongue. His diet, for the longest time, consisted of plain penne (no other shape of pasta would cut it), bacon, strawberries, grape tomatoes and french fries. Over the years, as he has matured, I have been able to get him to try food that I have brain-ified. Pasta sauce made with yummy beans and veggies, spinach brownies, and the other day he actually ate a bite of mashed potatoes on his own volition AND swallowed it!

Food is no longer the battle that it used to be in my house. My son knows he needs these foods for his brain and he also can tell the difference on the days he does not eat "brain-ified" food. I'm happy he is able to begin to recognize that his mood and quirks are dependent on his diet. When my son shops with me at Mariano's, he searches out the color coded shelves and food items that he needs for a healthy brain diet. He loves to hand over #MyMarianos reward card knowing we have shopped successfully with a cart full of brain food.

The food dance was a lesson in patience. We had baby steps and giant leaps and falling back and getting back up moments. But we also had high five moments and lots of encouragement to inch our food dance along. If I could even get my son to lick something, I considered that a success at times. The bonus of all of this is we all eat healthier and know so much more about the food we eat.

What can be better than that?

One of my son's favorite brain-ified recipes is homemade chicken tenders.

There is no reason why you can't make a completely healthy version of chicken tenders at home and enjoy them. Juicy chicken tenders + a healthy, crispy coating + condiment of your choice = a healthy meal that you don’t have to be child to enjoy!

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Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders

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Ingredients for Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders:

  • 2-3 pkgs of chicken tenders, preferably organic
  • 2 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 cup flour (I use gluten free)
  • 1 pkg whole wheat panko breadcrumbs**You really can use any coating on the chicken tenders that you like. I have used a variety of nuts, almonds work well. Any type of flour, grain or cereal works great as well.
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • Real salt
  • coconut oil cooking spray
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Directions for Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders:

  1. Blend your spices together and add to your plain yogurt.
  2. Lay chicken tenders in a wide, shallow dish  and cover with yogurt mixture. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to overnight (OVERNIGHT IS BEST).
  3. Preheat oven to 375°F. Cover a cookie sheet with non stick aluminum foil. Set aside.
  4. Combine the flour and the panko and mix in  a large bowl. 
  5. Remove chicken pieces from the yogurt mix and dredge each piece of chicken in flour/panko mixture. Press so the mixture completely covers the chicken tenders.
  6. Place coated chicken pieces onto the baking sheet. Spray the tops of each piece of chicken with the coconut oil spray. Bake for 10 minutes; flip each piece of chicken over and coat with coconut oil spray. Bake for another 10 minutes, or until done.

This healthy recipe makes enough to serve a happy family of five with plenty left over for lunch the next day! These chicken tenders are fabulous cold over a delicious salad.