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A chicken nugget with a flag in it and mac and cheese
iStockPhoto/Getty Images (Bitten Nugget), Ketchup); hans.slegers/Shutterstock.com (Flag); ETorres/Shutterstock.com (Mac and Cheese Tray)
Nugget Nation/Mac and Cheese Mania

A look back at the surprising history of two food faves    

By Allison Friedman
From the September 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will read two related articles and compare and contrast what made two foods gain popularity among Americans. 

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: S
DRA Level: 40
Topics: History,

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Compare and Contrast: As you read these texts, look for how the chicken nugget and mac and cheese each became an American favorite.

Nugget Nation 

The delicious true story behind a fast-food favorite

Hamburgers were under attack!

For years, Americans had been in love with burgers. And few companies sold more burgers than McDonald’s. But in 1977, the U.S. government warned Americans that eating too many beef burgers was unhealthy. Eat chicken instead, experts said.

Chicken?!

McDonald’s leaders panicked.

The company had grown rich by offering tasty fast-food burgers at a bargain price. How could they make Americans fall in love with chicken the way they had with burgers?

The answer—the chicken nugget—would change fast-food history.

Hamburgers were under attack!

For years, Americans had loved burgers. And few companies sold more burgers than McDonald’s. But in 1977, the U.S. government warned Americans that eating too many beef burgers was unhealthy. Eat chicken instead, experts said.

Chicken?

McDonald’s leaders panicked.

The company had grown rich by selling tasty fast-food burgers at a low price. How could they make Americans love chicken the way they loved burgers?

The answer was the chicken nugget—and it would change fast-food history.

Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images    

Before the mid-1900s, chickens were hard to prepare. People ate them only as a special treat.

Chicken Genius 

But it wasn’t McDonald’s that first invented the nugget. That honor goes to a scientist known as America’s chicken genius: Robert Baker. In the 1950s and ’60s, Baker was working with farmers and chicken companies. His mission? To convince Americans to eat more chicken.

Until the mid-1900s, chicken had been a fancy food that people ate only for special occasions and Sunday dinners. Getting a bird on the table was a small battle. First, you had to raise one in your backyard or buy one at the market—often still alive and squawking. Then you had to kill the poor creature, drain its blood (yikes), scoop out its insides (double yikes), and pluck out its feathers in sticky clumps (ewww).

By the 1950s, cooks could skip this feathery mess: Plucked chickens were now available at grocery stores, cleaned and ready to cook. Yet even then, they took time to prepare. Back then, easy-to-cook foods like burgers, hot dogs, and fish sticks were popular. Few people wanted to wrestle a slimy bird into the oven and wait two hours for it to roast.

Grocery store owners lowered chicken prices again and again. But chickens remained stubbornly on the shelves. Desperate chicken farmers were struggling to make money.

Baker had to make chicken easier to cook and eat. But how? 

But it wasn’t McDonald’s that first invented the nugget. It was a scientist. His name was Robert Baker, and he was known as America’s chicken genius. In the 1950s and ’60s, Baker worked with farmers and chicken companies. His mission? To get Americans to eat more chicken.

Until the mid-1900s, chicken had been a fancy food. People ate it only for special occasions and Sunday dinners. Getting a bird on the table took work. First, you had to raise one in your backyard or buy one at the market—often still alive. Then you had to kill the bird, drain its blood (yikes), scoop out its insides (double yikes), and pluck out its feathers in sticky clumps (ewww).

By the 1950s, cooks could skip these steps. Grocery stores sold plucked chickens. The birds were cleaned and ready to cook. But they still took time to prepare. Back then, easy-to-cook foods like burgers, hot dogs, and fish sticks were popular. Few people wanted to wrestle a slimy bird into the oven and wait two hours for it to roast.

Grocery store owners lowered chicken prices again and again. Still, chickens did not sell well. Chicken farmers were struggling to make money.

Baker had to make chicken easier to cook and eat. But how?

The Nugget Is Born    

Courtesy of Cornell University

Like a chicken-obsessed Thomas Edison, Baker spent hours tinkering in his lab in Ithaca, New York. He and his team experimented with different mouthwatering creations. Chicken hot dogs! Chicken meatloaf! Chicken sandwich slices!

But Baker was especially proud of the chicken stick: a bite-size chunk of ground chicken coated with golden-brown batter. It had taken hours of experimenting to come up with a recipe that wouldn’t crumble apart when fried. No one had ever seen anything like it before. And just like that, the original nugget was born.

Baker and his team called their invention the “Chicken Crispie.” They published the recipe for anyone to copy for free. Yet this chicken masterpiece didn’t catch on—until nearly 20 years later, when McDonald’s was facing its big hamburger crisis.

Baker spent hours tinkering in his lab in Ithaca, New York. He and his team invented tasty foods. Chicken hot dogs! Chicken meatloaf! Chicken sandwich slices!

Baker was proudest of the chicken stick: a bite-size chunk of ground chicken coated with batter. He worked hard to come up with a recipe that wouldn’t fall apart when fried. No one had ever seen anything like it before. And that’s how the original nugget was born.

Baker and his team called their invention the “Chicken Crispie.” They published the recipe for anyone to copy for free. Yet their invention didn’t catch on—until nearly 20 years later, when McDonald’s was facing its burger crisis.

Instant Hit

After the U.S. government put out its burger warning, leaders at McDonald’s knew they had to come up with a new menu item—and fast.

The company’s head chef experimented with possibilities. Chicken pot pie? Taste-testers wrinkled their noses. Bone-in fried chicken? KFC already did that. Onion nuggets? Just . . . no.

But wait: What about chicken nuggets?

Right away, McDonald’s leaders knew nuggets were a winning idea. Luckily for them, the company had Baker’s Chicken Crispie recipe from years earlier to help them craft the perfect nugget.

In 1983, Chicken McNuggets launched in McDonald’s restaurants across the country. They were an instant hit. Diners who had given up burgers fell in love with this crispy creation. Later, experts would learn that these deep-fried nuggets were no healthier than burgers. But by then, it was too late—the nugget had already become an American classic.

Baker never made money off his most famous invention. But he achieved his goal: America turned into a nation of chicken eaters. Today, we gobble up more than 2.3 billion orders of chicken nuggets each year. And they aren’t just a fast-food item. They’re everywhere—cafeterias, kids’ menus, the grocery store.

So the next time you bite into a chicken nugget—or a tofu nugget—you
can think of Baker.

After the U.S. government put out its burger warning, leaders at McDonald’s knew they had to come up with a new menu item—and fast.

The company’s head chef tried some ideas. Chicken pot pie? Taste-testers wrinkled their noses. Bone-in fried chicken? KFC already did that. Onion nuggets? Just . . . no.

But wait: What about chicken nuggets?

McDonald’s leaders knew nuggets were a great idea. Lucky for them, the company had Baker’s Chicken Crispie recipe from years earlier. It helped them craft the perfect nugget.

In 1983, Chicken McNuggets launched in McDonald’s restaurants. They were a hit. Diners who had given up burgers fell in love with nuggets. Later, experts would learn that these deep-fried nuggets were no healthier than burgers. But by then, it was too late. The nugget had become an American classic.

Baker never made money off his most famous invention. But he achieved his goal: America turned into a nation of chicken eaters. Today, we gobble up more than 2.3 billion orders of chicken nuggets each year. And they aren’t just a fast-food item. They’re everywhere—cafeterias, kids’ menus, the grocery store.

So the next time you bite into a chicken nugget—or a tofu nugget—you can think of Baker.

Mac and Cheese Mania 

How a fancy dish from Europe became an all-American classic 

hellomart/SiStockPhoto/Getty Images    

The silverware sparkled. The candles glowed. Heavenly smells filled the elegant dining room. It was February 1802, and President Thomas Jefferson had invited 10 lucky guests to a dinner party at the White House.

The president was known for serving tasty and exotic meals, and the guests couldn’t wait to see what was on the menu. Soon, the table was heaped with deliciousness—tender beef, roasted turkey, fruit in every color of the rainbow. But that night, Jefferson was serving something extra special, a dish he had discovered in France: macaroni and cheese.

Today, Thomas Jefferson is famous for many important achievements. He helped America break away from England and become its own country. He was our third president. But food history experts also give him credit for another big accomplishment: helping start America’s macaroni and cheese craze.

The silverware sparkled. The candles glowed. Heavenly smells filled the dining room. It was February 1802, and President Thomas Jefferson was having a dinner party at the White House.

The president was known for serving tasty and exotic meals. Soon, the table was heaped with good food. Tender beef. Roast turkey. Colorful fruit. But that night, Jefferson was serving something extra special. It was a dish he had discovered in France: macaroni and cheese.

Today, Jefferson is famous for many things. He helped America break away from England and become its own country. He was our third president. But food history experts also give him credit for another big accomplishment: helping start America’s macaroni and cheese craze.

Fancy Food

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images    

Jefferson wasn’t the first to enjoy mac and cheese. People have been pairing pasta with rich, gooey cheese for centuries. The first recipes were written in Italy in the 1300s, during the time of the knights. From there, the dish spread across Europe.

But back then, you could eat mac and cheese only if you were rich—very rich. Kings and queens spooned the melty cheese and noodles out of golden dishes. Ordinary people could only dream of tasting such a fancy treat.

By the late 1700s, rich travelers—like Thomas Jefferson—were bringing mac and cheese to the U.S. Wealthy Americans found this luxurious food from Europe delightful.

Yet it wasn’t until much later that macaroni and cheese had its big breakthrough.

Jefferson wasn’t the first to enjoy mac and cheese. People have been pairing pasta with rich, gooey cheese for centuries. The first recipes were written in Italy in the 1300s, during the time of the knights. From there, the dish spread across Europe.

But back then, only the rich could eat mac and cheese. Kings and queens spooned it out of golden dishes. Most people could only dream of tasting such a fancy treat.

By the late 1700s, rich travelers were bringing mac and cheese to the U.S. Well-off Americans loved this luxurious food from Europe.

Still, it was many years before macaroni and cheese had its big breakthrough.

Hard Times    

By the 1930s, U.S. cooks had started making macaroni and cheese with cheap American cheddar instead of fancy Italian parmesan. Once a royal treat, mac and cheese had become a food almost anyone could afford. (Europe’s kings and queens would have been horrified.)

And in the 1930s, Americans were desperate for affordable meals. The U.S. was in the middle of a dark time: the Great Depression. Millions of people didn’t have jobs. Macaroni and cheese, cheap and filling, was the perfect meal for hard times. But although it was popular in some parts of the country, it was still unknown in others.

A pasta salesman in St. Louis, Missouri, was about to help change that. Unable to sell his boxes of noodles, he began rubber-banding them to packets of Kraft grated cheese. Soon, customers were snapping up these “meal kits.”

When leaders at the Kraft cheese company heard about the salesman’s tasty idea, they knew it would be a hit. They hired the salesman and turned his creation into a new product: “Kraft Dinner,” a box of noodles with a packet of cheese inside.

To families struggling through the Great Depression, Kraft Dinner seemed like a small miracle. A dinner for four people that you could make in minutes—and all for just 19 cents! In the first year alone, the company sold 8 million boxes. 

By the 1930s, U.S. cooks had started making macaroni and cheese with cheap American cheddar cheese instead of fancy Italian parmesan. Once a royal treat, mac and cheese had become a food almost anyone could afford. (Europe’s kings and queens would have been horrified.)

And in the 1930s, Americans needed affordable meals. The U.S. was in the middle of a dark time: the Great Depression. Millions of people were out of work. Mac and cheese was cheap and filling. It was the perfect meal for hard times. It grew popular in some parts of the country. But in others, it was still unknown.

A pasta salesman in St. Louis, Missouri, helped to change that. To sell his boxes of noodles, he used rubber bands to attach packets of Kraft grated cheese. Customers snapped up these “meal kits.”

Leaders at the Kraft cheese company heard about the salesman’s idea. They liked it! They hired the salesman. And they turned his creation into a new product: “Kraft Dinner,” a box of noodles with a packet of cheese inside.

To struggling families, Kraft Dinner seemed like a small miracle. A dinner for four people that you could make in minutes—and all for just 19 cents! In the first year alone, the company sold 8 million boxes.

An American Favorite    

Today, Kraft sells nearly a million boxes each day. Stacked on top of each other, those boxes would be 20 times higher than Mount Everest.

And whether from a box or homemade, macaroni and cheese is now beloved by people across the country. You can buy it at a corner store for $1. You can order it topped with lobster at a fancy restaurant. There’s even a National Macaroni and Cheese Day. (It’s July 14—start planning your celebration now.)

In other words, we’ve gone a little mac and cheese crazy. And it all began with Thomas Jefferson, who helped turn the little-known European dish into an all-American classic. 

Today, Kraft sells nearly a million boxes every day. Stacked on top of each other, those boxes would be 20 times higher than Mount Everest.

And whether from a box or homemade, mac and cheese is now loved by people across the country. You can buy it at a corner store for $1. You can order it topped with lobster at a fancy restaurant. There’s even a National Macaroni and Cheese Day. (It’s July 14. Start planning your celebration now.)

In other words, we’ve gone a little mac and cheese crazy. And it all began with Thomas Jefferson, who helped turn this European dish into an American classic.

This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

Your students will enjoy this video about the history of another classic American favorite, the chocolate chip cookie! If they’re ready to eat up even more, show this video about lobster.

Are your kids curious about what their parents ate for dinner when they were kids? What about their grandparents? This entertaining video will take them through a century of popular dinners by the decade. 

Chicken nuggets and mac and cheese may be yummy, but a steady diet of them isn’t recommended.  Help kids explore healthy food choices at this USDA site just for kids.    

More About the Story

Skills

Compare and contrast, vocabulary, problem and solution, supporting details, interpreting text, analyzing text, cause and effect, supporting an opinion, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors

Purpose

The articles explain how two foods—chicken nuggets and macaroni & cheese—became American classics.

Structure

Both texts include present-tense and past-tense passages.

Language

The articles include some challenging vocabulary (e.g. crisis, exotic, luxurious) as well as similes and other figures of speech.

Knowledge Demands 

The feature refers to Thomas Jefferson, the Great Depression, and the height of Mount Everest.  

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (30 minutes)

  • Tell students they are going to read about the history of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. Ask them to make a prediction: Which was invented first?
  • Have students preview the text features of each article, then ask them whether they would change their predictions. Invite a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 16.
  • Distribute the vocabulary Skill Builder to preview challenging words. Highlighted terms: mission, tinkering, original, crisis, classic, exotic, luxurious, Great Depression

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

“Nugget Nation”

Close-Reading Questions

  • What problem is presented in the first section of the article? What solution was found? (problem and solution) The article explains that McDonald’s had to find a way to sell chicken, because the government had reported that hamburgers were unhealthy. The restaurant solved this problem by introducing chicken nuggets.
  • Reread the section “Chicken Genius.” What challenges did Robert Baker face in the 1950s in trying to get Americans to eat more chicken? (supporting details) Chicken took too much time and effort to prepare. At the time, people were looking for quicker and easier foods to put on the table, like hamburgers or hot dogs.
  • In “The Nugget Is Born,” why does the author compare Baker to “a chicken-obsessed Thomas Edison”? Hint: Edison was an inventor famous for experimenting until he succeeded. (interpreting text) Like Edison, Baker patiently tried out many ideas in the process of inventing. If Edison had wanted to make a chicken creation (instead of a light bulb!), he might have acted as Baker did.
  • Reread the last paragraph of “The Nugget Is Born.” How does it help you understand what happens in the section “Instant Hit”? (text structure) The paragraph explains that Baker and his team published their chicken nugget recipe for anyone to use. This helps you understand how McDonald’s could quickly create the McNugget when it needed an alternative to the hamburger.

"Mac and Cheese Mania"

Close-Reading Questions

  • Reread the first section of the article. What surprises you about it? (critical thinking) Students will probably find it surprising that a person famous for participating in the American Revolution and becoming president of the United States also helped bring macaroni and cheese to the country. You’d expect him to have been too occupied with these important matters to be involved with introducing a new food.
  • In “Fancy Food,” the author says that macaroni and cheese was a “luxurious food” in the 1700s. Which details support this description? (supporting details) In the past, only very rich people could afford to eat mac and cheese. Kings and queens in Europe enjoyed it, and they ate it from dishes made of gold.
  • Reread the section “Hard Times.” Why was mac and cheese a “perfect food” during the Great Depression? How did it become popular across the country at that time? (cause and effect) During the Great Depression, many people lost their jobs and struggled to get by. Mac and cheese was a cheap and filling meal. It became popular across the country when a pasta salesman bundled Kraft grated cheese with his noodles to make a “meal kit.” The Kraft company heard about this and started selling Kraft Dinner as an easy, affordable meal.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • What is similar about the way chicken nuggets and mac and cheese became popular? What is different about it? (compare and contrast) Both chicken nuggets and mac and cheese became popular because they filled a need and because people enjoyed them. The chicken nugget became McDonald’s alternative to hamburgers, which had been deemed unhealthy. Macaroni and cheese provided affordable food at a time when many Americans were out of work. Mac and cheese had been eaten for centuries by wealthy people before a cheap version became popular. Chicken nuggets are much newer; almost no one ate them until the 1980s.
  • In “Nugget Nation,” the author points out that “experts would learn that these deep-fried nuggets were no healthier than burgers.” Do you think it’s good that nuggets have become so popular? Why or why not? What might be a healthier meal option? (supporting an opinion) Answers will vary. Some might claim that it’s good because nuggets provide a tasty option; you just shouldn’t eat them too often. Others might say it’s not good because many people face health problems from eating foods like nuggets.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Compare and Contrast

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Put students in small groups. Have each group read the lower-Lexile version of one of the texts then discuss how the food became popular. Next, pair each “nugget” group with a “mac and cheese” group to explain to each other what they learned.

For Advanced Readers

Invite students to write a short essay comparing Robert Baker with the St. Louis pasta salesman. Ask them to consider how they came up with their products, how these were received by the public, and what happened to each man as a result.

For ELL Students

These articles include a number of references to American history and culture that might be unfamiliar to newcomers. Be prepared to pause and explain them to students as necessary. These include Chicken McNuggets, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, the White House, St. Louis, and Kraft.

For Guided Reading

Work with students in your guided reading groups to unpack each article. Distribute our “Think About It!” Skill Builder (on-level or lower-level) to guide discussion and delve into the texts.