Adult Happy Meals Could Help Us Eat Smaller Portions

By Noah Kaufman |
ADULT HAPPY MEALS FWX

© KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

As it is the second week January, many people are desperately clinging to their New Year’s pledge to eat better by their once Cheeto-dusted fingernails. But, according to new research, a key to healthier eating habits has roots that predate any New Year’s resolution—in fact, they go all the way back to our childhoods.

Researchers from the University of Arizona and USC took a cue from McDonald’s Happy Meals and investigated what would happen to adults’ eating habits if their meals came with a prize—in this case, a side of cash.

According to the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research: “In a series of experiments, the researchers found that the majority of children and adults chose a half-sized portion paired with a toy or monetary prize over a full-sized portion without.”

Now, it shouldn’t be shocking that adult human beings will do just about anything for money, but what is interesting is that, even if the “prize” the adult happy meal comes with is uncertain, the subjects still made the healthier choice to eat less. Instead of offering an actual prize, researchers tried simply offering the chance to win $10, $50 or $100 and found that subjects elected more often to eat a half a hamburger for what amounted to little more than a lottery ticket. And subjects made that choice even when they reported being hungry.

As to why subjects would give up tangible food for the mere possibility of a prize, the researchers think it’s because uncertain prizes are more emotionally evocative. Or, in the immortal words of a Peter Griffin, “A boat’s a boat, but a mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat.”

MacInnis acknowledges that so far these results are limited to her lab results but she’s ready to see what will happen in the real world. “Field testing of our findings should be conducted in future research to see whether actual restaurant patrons choose smaller portions if those smaller portions are paired with a nonfood premium.” I don’t know, after my experience with the Powerball this week, I’ll just stick with the whole burger. 

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