We’ve all heard of the McDonald’s Happy Meal. Thankfully, I grew up in a home where my dad instead coined it the “Sad Meal,” so sitting down to this so-called Happy Meal is not part my childhood memories. Though the Happy Meal is truly quite sad in it’s nutritional value, and McDonald’s ploys many young children to plead for this meal and adults to feed it to their children, there is one benefit (gasp!) that has come from the design of the Happy Meal itself.
A research team from the University of Arizona performed a study in which people were given the option to eat a meal with and without a nonedible motivation (such as a Happy Meal toy). The catch was that the meal with the nonedible motivation had less food. The University of Arizona posted the review from the study in which it states, “In a series of seven experiments, [researchers] demonstrated repeatedly that kids and adults often will pass on larger portions when given the choice of a smaller portion paired with a very modest non-food bonus. In fact, just the possibility of getting a “prize” incentivized people to forgo larger portions.” One particular aspect to the study was from a hypothetical situation in which children were merely shown pictures of a full size plate of food and a half size plate along with a toy. More often than not, the children chose the plate with a toy. But this study was not limited to children. Obviously kids are easily persuaded to choose a toy over food most days. But even the adults caved in, and more than once. When given the chance to win a nonedible prize for several days (in this case a $100 gift card or 10,000 frequent flyer miles), adults still chose to eat less. And just to make clear, throughout the studies, they discovered that people did not try to make up for the missed calories the next day. So no harm done there.
Do I think that McDonald’s is doing something good by enticing children and parents with their Happy Meal – NO! But I think we could learn something from their tactics. If non-food rewards-guaranteed and uncertain, in both hypothetical and real situations-make people significantly more likely to choose less food, then this could open up a whole new world of opportunity to change people’s eating habits and finding new ways to motivate kids without having to resort to sweet treats, Happy Meals or their favorite drink. It also means that, “If non-food rewards, even small and uncertain ones, can be just as engaging at a neurochemical level, then restaurants can potentially motivate healthier choices without jeopardizing sales, and consumers have more paths to avoid overeating.” One more step towards better health!