Chicken McNugget Theorem

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The Chicken McNugget Theorem (or Postage Stamp Problem) states that for any two relatively prime positive integers $m,n$, the greatest integer that cannot be written in the form $am + bn$ for nonnegative integers $a, b$ is $mn-m-n$.

A consequence of the theorem is that there are exactly $\frac{(m - 1)(n - 1)}{2}$ positive integers which cannot be expressed in the form $am + bn$. The proof is based on the fact that in each pair of the form $(k, (m - 1)(n - 1) - k+1)$, exactly one element is expressible.


The story goes that the Chicken McNugget Theorem got its name because in McDonalds, people bought Chicken McNuggets in 9 and 20 piece packages. Somebody wondered what the largest amount you could never buy was, assuming that you did not eat or take away any McNuggets. They found the answer to be 151 McNuggets, thus creating the Chicken McNugget Theorem.


Definition. An integer $N \in \mathbb{Z}$ will be called purchasable if there exist nonnegative integers $a,b$ such that $am+bn = N$.

We would like to prove that $mn-m-n$ is the largest non-purchasable integer. We are required to show that (1) $mn-m-n$ is non-purchasable, and (2) every $N > mn-m-n$ is purchasable. Note that all purchasable integers are nonnegative, thus the set of non-purchasable integers is nonempty.

Lemma. Let $A_{N} \subset \mathbb{Z} \times \mathbb{Z}$ be the set of solutions $(x,y)$ to $xm+yn = N$. Then $A_{N} = \{(x+kn,y-km) \;:\; k \in \mathbb{Z}\}$ for any $(x,y) \in A_{N}$.

Proof: By Bezout's Lemma, there exist integers $x',y'$ such that $x'm+y'n = 1$. Then $(Nx')m+(Ny')n = N$. Hence $A_{N}$ is nonempty. It is easy to check that $(Nx'+kn,Ny'-km) \in A_{N}$ for all $k \in \mathbb{Z}$. We now prove that there are no others. Suppose $(x_{1},y_{1})$ and $(x_{2},y_{2})$ are solutions to $xm+yn=N$. Then $x_{1}m+y_{1}n = x_{2}m+y_{2}n$ implies $m(x_{1}-x_{2}) = n(y_{2}-y_{1})$. Since $m$ and $n$ are coprime and $m$ divides $n(y_{2}-y_{1})$, $m$ divides $y_{2}-y_{1}$ and $y_{2} \equiv y_{1} \pmod{m}$. Similarly $x_{2} \equiv x_{1} \pmod{n}$. Let $k_{1},k_{2}$ be integers such that $x_{2}-x_{1} = k_{1}n$ and $y_{2}-y_{1} = k_{2}m$. Then $(x_{2}-x_{1})k_{2}m = (y_{2}-y_{1})k_{1}n$ implies $k_{1} = k_{2}$. We have the desired result. $\square$

Lemma. For any integer $N$, there exists unique $(a_{N},b_{N}) \in \mathbb{Z} \times \{0,1,\ldots,m-1\}$ such that $a_{N}m + b_{N}n = N$.

Proof: By the division algorithm, there exists $k$ such that $0 \le y-km \le m-1$. $\square$

Lemma. $N$ is purchasable if and only if $a_{N} \ge 0$.

Proof: If $a_{N} \ge 0$, then we may simply pick $(a,b) = (a_{N},b_{N})$ so $N$ is purchasable. If $a_{N} < 0$, then $a_{N}+kn < 0$ if $k \le 0$ and $b_{N}-km < 0$ if $k > 0$, hence at least one coordinate of $(a_{N}+kn,b_{N}-km)$ is negative for all $k \in \mathbb{Z}$. Thus $N$ is not purchasable. $\square$

Thus the set of non-purchasable integers is $\{xm+yn \;:\; x<0,0 \le y \le m-1\}$. We would like to find the maximum of this set. Since both $m,n$ are positive, the maximum is achieved when $x = -1$ and $y = m-1$ so that $xm+yn = (-1)m+(m-1)n = mn-m-n$.



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See Also