About This Word

fast food

or fast-food

[fast food]

What does fast food mean?

Fast food is any food quickly prepared and served, often at chain restaurants and typically associated with less expensive and less nutritious items like hamburgers, french fries, and soda.

See how it's used

fast food

Fox News

Where does fast food come from?

The term fast food dates back to at least 1951, an industry term describing the new, and now ubiquitous, trend of restaurants providing food—fast. Its earliest use characterized service (e.g., fast-food service) before extending to the food served itself.

The prototype for fast-food restaurants began in England when fish-and-chip shops first opened in 1860. This provided quick, portable, and filling food on the go for dock workers and other city dwellers. In 1921, White Castle opened the first modern fast-food restaurant selling the now-familiar hamburgers and fries. In the 1950s, the term fast food emerged to describe this kind of grab-and-go meal available at new car-friendly restaurants such as McDonald's, now synonymous with fast food across the globe.

Fast food had become so familiar, as a term and phenomenon, by the 1970s that fast food was used metaphorically for any mass-produced, cheap product (e.g., a fast-food education or the fast food of medicine).

Who uses fast food?

Fast food is widely used in speech and writing to refer to a meal or food item that is made and served quickly. It can be a noun (we ate fast food on our road trip) or adjective (fast-food fries are greasy but delicious).

Fast food typically connotes hamburgers and fries, as vended, often through drive-throughs, by leading brands such as McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Hardee's/Carl's Jr. But, fast food also includes sandwiches (Subway), burritos (Chipotle), fried chicken (KFC), pizza (Pizza Hut), Chinese food (Panda Express), desserts (Dairy Queen), and even coffee (Starbucks). Especially in Europe, fast food notably includes kebabs, gyros, and fish and chips.

Because fast food has been historically unhealthy, it sparked a backlash movement in the late 1970s that advocated for slow food. The idea is that food that takes longer to prepare—and is not ultra-processed—is healthier. Today, fast-food companies have taken steps to make their offerings healthier by offering options like salads.

Given historically low wages and challenging work conditions, fast food has also come to connote a mindless, dead-end job (e.g., He'll end up flipping burgers at a fast-food joint).

For example

If you don't prefer McDonalds French fries over other fast food, I'm sorry you feel that way

@richd1913, April, 2018

America's fast-food desserts straddle two very different categories: our country's most horrific edible disasters and our most cherished culinary treasures.

Daniela Galarza & Ryan Sutton, Eater, April, 2018

Everyone has to start somewhere. For these celebrities, it was flipping burgers and scooping ice cream at fast food joints from McDonald's to Dairy Queen.

Sarah Berger, CNBC, April, 2018

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