3 Genius Ways to Uplevel Homemade Chicken Tenders

Upleveled Homemade Chicken Tenders

Homemade chicken tenders are like the holy grail of kid food, aren’t they?

Unless a kid is hard-core against meat, I’ve yet to meet a child (or any meat-eater, really) who doesn’t love a good homemade chicken tender.

The problem, though? Homemade chicken tenders can be dry, tasteless, and the bottoms get all gummy.


I mean, my kids would still eat it. With enough ketchup, they’ll eat anything, actually.

Lucky for you, I’ve made approximately 9 billion chicken tenders in my life.

And along the way, I’ve figured out a handful of sneaky hacks and tricks that will seriously uplevel a plain old chicken tender.

Are you ready to hear what they are?

I outlined them in this video I made with my kids on Facebook Live in my private Facebook group, Busy Mamas Cooking In Tiny Kitchens (I’d love for you to join the community, btw!)

Oh, and you’ve been warned: this video is REAL LIFE, DUDES. My son was teething and crabby and clingy. He wouldn’t let me put him down so I had to cook without the use of both hands. My daughter dumped like, 18 tons of Parmesan cheese into the breading mix (whoops). My son dropped chicken tender on my shirt and then ate it anyway (and I had to go change).

This is life when you’re cooking with kids in the kitchen, and I’m sure many of you can relate! Plus, my kitchen’s not the tidiest, there are toys littering the background, and the linoleum on my rental apartment floor is truly hideous.


We got dinner made, and that’s the important part!

And here’s the recipe! I don’t usually use a recipe when I make tenders – it’s more of a general thing.

1/2 pound of chicken + 1/2 cup white flour + 1 egg, whisked + 2 tablespoons mustard + 1 cup panko breadcrumbs + 1/2 cup parmesan.

Mix the egg and mustard together in a large bowl. Mix the panko and parmesan together in another large bowl. Dredge the chicken in flour, then the egg/mustard mix, then the parmesan/panko mix.

Fry until golden brown and crispy, and drain on a paper-towel lined plate


Bake in a 400*F preheated oven, on top of a cookie rack lining a sheet pan. This helps (facilitate airflow above and below the tenders)


YUM! Do your kids loovvveee chicken tenders as much as mine do!?

One-Pan 20-Minute Lemon Chicken Piccata


I get chicken piccata whenever we go to an Italian restaurant for dinner, and I never realized how easy it is to make it at home! She includes a really simple parmesan spinach orzo recipe to go on the side, too. My husband loved this recipe.


Something about chicken piccata feels so fancy to me, but surprise! This one-pan wonder only takes 20 minutes from start to finish.

I’ve got a few ways for you to cook this easy lemon chicken piccata, and all of them are simple and perfect for a weeknight dinner. Chicken piccata is also one of those wonder dishes that tastes better a day or so after it’s made, so this recipe is also a banging idea for make-ahead lunches and meals!

Traditional chicken piccata, a dish that originated in Italy, is made with chicken or veal that has been pounded thin and then cooked quickly in a simple sauce of lemon and butter.

Over the years, cooks began jazzing the lemon sauce up with the addition of capers, whose briny bite rounds out the flavor and takes the dish to the next level in flavor.

I like to prepare my chicken piccata one of two ways: with chicken (or veal, if I’m lucky) cut into bite sized pieces and then floured and cooked, or with thinly pounded chicken cutlets. Both quick quickly and taste great, although each bersion brings a different benefit to the dish.

My recipe for chicken piccata starts with flouring the chicken pieces and then quickly drying them in oil until they’ve browned.

If you choose to cook this dish using bite-sized pieces of chicken, it will take a few more minutes to cook since you’ll need to turn each little bite-sized piece individually – but you’ll maximize the texture of the chicken, since each piece will have 4 full sides of chewy, fried, lemony yumminess (and yes, ‘yumminess’ is a technical term 😉)

A quicker version calls for flouring strips of chicken that have been pounded thin with a mallet. This way won’t offer the full surface-area-chewiness that cooking with smaller pieces will, but the strips will cook slightly faster, since there’s only one flip to make as the chicken browns.

It’s your call – but either way, you’re the real winner here with this tasty, easy, one-pan weeknight recipe!

Whichever way you toss it (fry it?), it’s still a great recipe to keep in your repertoire.

Chicken piccata feels ‘fancy’ enough for dinner parties (I won’t tell anyone how easy it is if you don’t tell anyone!) and like I said, it makes for banging leftovers; that lemon sauce only deepens in flavor as it sits. It’s so good, I may or may not have been known to eat this baby cold and straight out of the fridge #guilty.

Simple Chicken Piccata with Spinach and Parmesan Orzo
Author: Ruthy Kirwan
  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts
  • ½ cup white flour
  • 1-2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground pepper
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil divided
  • 2 cups uncooked orzo
  • 2 cups fresh baby spinach
  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan
  • 2-3 shallots thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • ¼ cup lemon juice plus 1 tablespoon zest
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  1. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces. Alternatively, pound the chicken into thin cutlets. 

  2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with salt and pepper. Add the cut chicken pieces and toss to coat.
  3. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil until shimmering. Add the chicken pieces in an even layer and cook, turning once or twice until browned on both sides. Remove the chicken from the pan once browned, and set aside. Do not wipe the pan.

  4. While the chicken is cooking, boil the orzo. Fill a medium pot with water halfway, then cover with a tight-fitting lid and bring to a boil. Add the orzo and cook, testing occasionally for doneness, about 5-8 minutes. The orzo is done when completely soft all the way through, but still retains a bit of chewy bite. Drain orzo and then return to the pot.
  5. Remove the pot from heat and add in parmesan, then season with salt and pepper. Stir the orzo to thoroughly combine the parmesan, then add the fresh spinach. Toss the spinach with the cheesy orzo until spinach has softened and wilted, then set aside until service.
  6. After the chicken has cooked and has been removed from the pan, add another tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and beginning to brown, about 3-5 minutes.
  7. Add the garlic to the pan and cook, 1-2 minutes, until cooked through and fragrant.
  8. Add the chicken stock to the pan, deglazing the onions, and use a wooden spoon to scrape any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
  9. Add the lemon juice, zest, and capers, and stir to combine. Let the sauce come to a simmer, then add the chicken back to the pan.
  10. Cook until the chicken is heated through and fully cooked, about 3-5 minutes, then serve with the orzo.
Recipe Notes

You can use chicken cut into bite-sized pieces, or chicken that has been pounded into thin cutlets - your call. 

Instead of shallot, substitute one small white onion, thinly sliced

Smoked Kielbasa, Beer, and Vegetable Chowder (Cold Weather Comfort Food!)

Literally the most perfect cold weather comfort food! She gives instructions on how to use different kids of ingredients too, like changing up the veggies and using different meats and what to do if you have no cream. Made this easy chowder when we were snowed in last week and it was really good!

Literally the most perfect cold weather comfort food! She gives instructions on how to use different kids of ingredients too, like changing up the veggies and using different meats and what to do if you have no cream. Made this easy chowder when we were snowed in last week and it was really good!

In the cold weather, there’s no better dinner than comfort food.

I mean, the idea of this is nothing revolutionary: a big bowl of any comfort food on a wintery day makes the whole house feel cozy and warm.

But there’s only so many times I can make a pasta or casserole, or toss something in the crockpot.

So this time, I got a little creative. And the result is this smoky kielbasa, beer, and vegetable chowder!

The reason this beer and kielbasa chowder works well as a cold weather comfort food is obvious once you look at the ingredients: there is cream, and potatoes, and thick slices of smoked kielbasa, with the earthy flavor of a hoppy beer underneath.

And I threw in some potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions to, you know, healthify it.

It helps that I know I’m not going to be pouring this winter body into a bikini anytime soon, you know? We can afford to live a little with a smoky, beer-y chowder.

You can let yourself go a little loose here with the ingredients; this is a soup, after all. Soups are made to let you stretch out a little in the kitchen.

After all, cold weather comfort food has another quality; you didn’t have to leave the warmth of your home to make it.

In this recipe, I used carrots, onions, and celery. But you could also throw in a handful of spinach, some frozen or canned corn, chopped rutabega – basically, whatever you’ve got on hand.

And if you’re short on cream? Make a separate pan of toasted roux by cooking together butter and flour until they’re light brown, then slowly whisk in milk and add the finished product to the soup after the stock/broth.

It’ll have a similar texture, though not as creamy as using cream. I mean, obviously. But if it doesn’t mean you have to run to the grocery store in a freaking blizzard and pick up a carton of cream, then that’s a good thing.

No kielbasa in the house? Use bratwurst! Or any kind of smoked or cured sausage, really. Every year my dad gets a smoked venison summer sausage that would be banging in this soup. Pick a sausage that has a bit of body and a good amount of flavor.

This is a bossy soup and it needs building blocks that speak loudly, if that makes sense!

And as for the beer – use what you’ve got. Try not to go crazy dry or hoppy here; something with a smooth and nutty flavor, like a brown ale or a mellow IPA. Think of something that would complement whichever sausage you would use, and go from there.

Smoked Kielbasa, Beer, and Vegetable Chowder
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
30 mins
Total Time
45 mins
I love this chowder because it’s a great cold weather comfort food. Full of hearty ingredients and served bubbling hot with crackers, it’ll make you forget how cold it is outside.
Servings: 4
Author: Ruthy Kirwan
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large russet or golden potatoes diced (about 1 pound)
  • 1 large yellow onion diced
  • 2 large carrots diced
  • 2 stalks celery diced
  • 2 pounds smoked kielbasa sliced into coins
  • 12 ounces beer
  • 3 cups chicken or pork stock
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  1. In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions and cook until the vegetables have started to soften, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the beer and deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon to release any brown bits that are stuck there.
  3. Add the kielbasa and stir to combine with the vegetables.
  4. Add the stock and cream and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  5. Cook 15-20 minutes on low, stirring occasionally, until the soup has reduced and thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and serve hot.

Winter Salad with a Pomegranate Citrus Vinaigrette

This is such a tasty, crunchy winter salad! I like how there's pomegranate seeds both in the salad and the dressing. PLUS she has a GREAT video on how to open a pomegranate without getting juice everywhere- really helpful!

This is such a tasty, crunchy winter salad! I like how there's pomegranate seeds both in the salad and the dressing. PLUS she has a GREAT video on how to open a pomegranate without getting juice everywhere- really helpful!

Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean your winter salad has to be drab or out of season!

Make this winter salad recipe with the best of the season’s produce, all topped with a tangy pomegranate vinaigrette.
Here’s how I eat vegetables when it’s cold outside: they’re either roasted with olive oil and salt, or they’re tossed together with a slightly bitter salad mix and topped with some sort of vinaigrette.

Is it boring to eat vegetables only one of two ways?


Hell no!

Is it creative?

Ok, no. It’s not.

But it means I get to eat in-season produce that tastes good and fresh. And it can happen even when the temp outside is hovering in the negative digits.

I love this easy winter salad recipe in part because pomegranates are just so dang tasty.

They’re like little jewels of tangy sweetness, and winter is their seasonal time to shine.

Never had pomegranate seeds before? I gave them to my ultra-picky daughter and to my surprise, she popped one in her mouth. Her eyes got wide and she quietly took the whole bowl away from me and carried it away to eat on her own. It was a winter fruit miracle!

I’ve even got a quick tutorial on how to best open a pomegranate fruit and get those sweet jewels out.

If you’re not gentle with fresh pomegranates, the juice tends to go EVERYWHERE, making your kitchen look like the final scene from Macbeth.

But those delicious seeds are trapped beneath a honeycomb of bitter white pith. How do you get them out without tweezers?

Here’s how (it’s so easy, you’re gonna love this)

On top of the pomegranates, I've also got this delicious salad topped with crisp, fresh fennel, sweet tangerines, and sugared bacon.

Never done the sugared bacon thing before? There's a reason people call it 'bacon crack'.

If you layer bacon strips with a little brown sugar and then bake, the sugar melts into the rendering bacon fat. Once cooled, the sugar becomes a thing, sweet, hardened layer on top. It's essentially bacon candy, and I dare you to eat just one piece!

All in all, this winter salad is layered with more goodness than you could imagine. It's the best of cold weather produce (uh, plus hothouse lettuce) tossed with tangy vinaigrette. I'm making it for our Valentine's Day spread- but you could give it to someone you love anytime the wind's a-blowin' outside and you feel like tucking into something fresh and delicious.

Winter Salad with Fennel, Pomegranate, and Tangerine with Pomegranate Vinaigrette
Servings: 4
Author: Ruthy Kirwan
for the salad:
  • 4 cups your favorite salad mix
  • 1/2 fennel bulb green stalks, and woody end removed
  • 2 tangerines
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds divided
for the vinaigrette
  • 1 lemon or 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
  1. Add the salad mix to a large bowl.
  2. Slice the fennel bulb half into strips, then add to the bowl with the salad.
  3. Using a sharp knife, cut away the rind and pith of the tangerines. Slice each into thin rounds, and add to the salad bowl.
  4. Add half the pomegranate seeds (1/4 cup) to the salad bowl.
  5. Pour the other half of the pomegranate seeds into a container with a tight-fitting lid.
  6. Add the remaining vinaigrette ingredients to the container, then cover and shake until completely combined and emulsified, about 1 minute.
  7. Serve the vinaigrette with the salad.
  8. The salad will keep, undressed, for up to two days. The vinaigrette will keep, separate and tightly sealed, for up to 1 week.

20-Minute Chinese-Style Chicken and Lettuce Wraps

Every time we go to P.F. Changs, I order the chicken lettuce wraps. This is a way easy version! My family loved it and it's ready in like 20 minutes so super simple.

Every time we go to P.F. Changs, I order the chicken lettuce wraps. This is a way easy version! My family loved it and it's ready in like 20 minutes so super simple.

These Chinese-Style Chicken Lettuce Wraps are simple, delicious, and make a fabulous make-ahead meal for busy weeks or weekly meal prep!

Want to know a secret? This is more or less the same sauce I make my 15 Minute Beef and Bok Choy Lo Mein with. Same easy sauce, two delicious dishes- both read in under 20 minutes!

Come on. I can’t get any easier than that.

For a girl who loves her Seamless food delivery app like it’s my third child, even I admit- it’s faster to make each of these dishes sometimes than it is to wait on the delivery guy to scooter on up to my front door.

(And instead of a tip, I just pour myself a glass of wine. #besttipever)

The easy make-ahead-ability of these chicken lettuce wraps is why it’s so perfect to have on hand for busy weeks.

Whether you’re on the ball and always make your meals ahead (tell me your secrets!) or you’re a planner who likes to meal prep out your lunches for the week, this is a great recipe to have in your back pocket.

Another thing I love about this recipe is that it doesn’t require a lot of advanced planning to pull off! All of the sauce ingredients are pantry items that can hold for a while, including the crushed peanuts added for garnish at the end.

If you’ve got chicken in your freezer and lettuce in your fridge – or you can grab a head of lettuce on your way home from work – you’ll be able to crank this recipe out quickly once you get home, saving you some time, money, and a helluva lot of effort.

Because let’s be honest: the best kind of weeknight recipe is one that doesn’t require a ton of forthought.

You know the kind I mean: recipes that you can make when the mood strikes, or when the ish hits the fan, and you’re scrambling for a quick meal.

Recipes you turn to on the nights you can’t stomach another evening of takeout, or boxed mac and cheese and a side of roasted vegetables.

Yeah, I know you know what I mean. I may or may not have had my share of those nights, also!

Make these chicken lettuce wraps as the main course, or just a side.

I like to sometimes serve these chicken lettuce wraps not with lettuce, but over rice instead. The sauce is unctuous and tasty, light yet filling, and it works well with any vehicle you choose, be that a starch or a vegetable.

Plus, the kids like this dish! 👐

I take out the peanuts for my son since he’s too young to chew on them yet (where are your molars, boy!?) and my daughter eats it with ketchup which makes me cringey but hey. You can’t win them all.

When a bossy, stubborn three-year-old eats her dinner without further complaint, you hand over that ketchup. Am I right?

In any case, these chicken lettuce wraps are a perfect weeknight dinner for the entire family, ketchup or no!


Chinese-Style Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Prep Time
5 mins
Cook Time
15 mins
Total Time
20 mins
This easy dish uses the same sauce base as the Beef and Bok Choy Lo Mein and is then topped with zesty green onions and crunchy peanuts. Roll it up in Bibb lettuce leaves for an easy meal or side. I crush my own peanuts by pulsing dry roasted, unsalted peanuts in the food processor until chopped. You can also buy pre-crushed peanuts sometimes in the nut aisle of your grocery store. The chicken portion of this dish freezes great! Cook the chicken as instructed, then wrap tightly with separate containers of peanuts and diced green onions and freeze everything together for up to 8 weeks. Thaw, reheat the chicken and top with the peanuts and green onions and serve in fresh lettuce cups.
Author: Ruthy Kirwan
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound ground or diced chicken
  • For the sauce:
  • 1/3 cup beef broth
  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 3 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 3 tablespoon oyster sauce
For garnish and serving:
  • 6-8 Bibb lettuce leaves washed and gently dried
  • ¼ cup crushed unsalted peanuts
  • 2 green onions white ends trimmed, minced
  1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the vegetable oil until shimmering.
  2. Add the chicken and cook, crumbling with a wooden spoon or spatula, until it starts to brown.
  3. While the chicken is cooking, add the sauce ingredients to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Secure the lid, then shake the contents of the container until the brown sugar and ground ginger have dissolved. Alternatively, you can add the sauce ingredients to a large bowl and then whisk until they are incorporated.
  4. Pour the sauce into the saucepan and stir to combine with the chicken. Turn the heat to low and simmer, cooking until the sauce has started to reduce a bit and the chicken is cooked through, about 3-4 minutes.
  5. Remove the chicken from the heat. Spoon evenly into lettuce cups and top with the peanuts and green onions.

Easy Butternut Squash Pasta with Roasted Kale and Creamy Ricotta

This is such an easy recipe with only 6 ingredients! I like making it when it's cold outside, because it needs a pretty hot oven, but it's really simple to make. It stores pretty well, too, for making ahead of time.

This is such an easy recipe with only 6 ingredients! I like making it when it's cold outside, because it needs a pretty hot oven, but it's really simple to make. It stores pretty well, too, for making ahead of time.

My deep and unabiding love for roasted butternut squash knows no bounds, and this easy butternut squash recipe showcases just what I love about this versatile ingredient!

This isn’t the fastest recipe in the whole wide world, but it is incredibly simple. Olive oil, salt, and a hot oven will do most of the flavor building here.

And isn’t that what’s great about roasting vegetables? It completely turns their original flavor profile upside down. It brings sweetness to the forefront and just ups the game in terms of flavor.

In fact, if turning on my oven didn’t make my kitchen feel like a sweat lodge in the middle of August, I’d probably be roasting veggies straight up through summer.

Here’s why I love this butternut squash recipe, especially in the winter.

It combines chewy and creamy textures with sweet and nutty flavor profiles. it’s all topped with a delicious dollop of creamy ricotta cheese. Pretty tough to get any yummier than that, amiright?

In fact, due to my butternut squash love, I recently compiled this huge recipe roundup 12 Cooks Reveal Their BEST Butternut Squash Recipes for the Holidays

That post also includes my favorite tip on how you, too, can cut into a butternut squash and not feel like you’re about to cut your arm off in the process.

(Trust me. It’s a butternut squash recipe game changer!)

Don’t forget that roasted kale! (I know, right!?)

Have you had kale this way before? Tossed with olive oil and a bit of salt, roasted in a hot oven (~400*) for about 10-ish minutes, and kale is suddenly NOT the typical hipster food your vegan aunt is always gushing about (though her raw kale ways is pretty delicious too, just saying). It’s so much more.

Roasting totally changes the game when it comes to kale, and if you’ve never been a big kale fan, I really implore you to try it this way. It makes is ‘meatier’, blend-able, and gives it this nutty flavor that is hard to describe. You’ve got to try it for yourself!

Last but certainly not least, top the whole big bowl off with a spoonful of creamy ricotta cheese.

Ricotta is what really ties this dish together, making each and every component work.

(or is that werk? I’m not cool enough to know, I don’t think)

The ricotta becomes a defacto sauce, mixing with the creamy butternut squash and chewy tubes of pasta, with that roasty kale goodness.

This is a dish that winter meals are made of.

This is a dish that you make on a Saturday when you’re busy at home but want something simple and tasty.

This is a dish of just 5 ingredients that make you thank the lord for hot ovens and olive oil. Yes, please, and thank you!

Easy Butternut Squash, Roasted Kale, and Ricotta Rigatoni Pasta
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
45 mins
Total Time
1 hr

Servings: 4
Author: Ruthy Kirwan
  • 1 large butternut squash peeled, deseeded and diced (about 4 cups)
  • 2 large bunches of curly kale stems removed and roughly chopped (about 2-3 cups)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil divided
  • 3 teaspoons sea salt divided
  • 12 ounces rigatoni pasta
  • 1/2 cup 4 ounces whole-milk ricotta cheese
  1. Preheat the oven to 450*.
  2. While the oven is preheating, spread the butternut squash evenly between 2 rimmed sheet pans. Drizzle with 2-3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Toss with hands to coat.
  3. Place the squash in the oven and roast 35-45 minutes, or until soft and cooked through and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.
  4. While the squash is roasting, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. Drain and set aside.
  5. On a rimmed sheet pan, spread the kale evenly and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sea salt and toss with hands to coat.
  6. When the butternut squash is roasted and removed from the oven, add the kale. Roast for 8-10 minutes or until the edges have begun to crisp and the kale has wilted and softened. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.
  7. Toss the pasta, roasted butternut squash, and roasted kale together in a large bowl. Taste and season with more salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
  8. Serve hot with dollops of cold ricotta cheese on top