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fast food

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noun

food, as hamburgers, pizza, or fried chicken, that is prepared in quantity by a standardized method and can be dispensed quickly at inexpensive restaurants for eating there or elsewhere.

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Origin of fast food

An Americanism dating back to 1965–70

Definition for fast food (2 of 2)

fast-food
[ fast-food, fahst- ]
/ ˈfæstˈfud, ˈfɑst- /

adjective

of or specializing in fast food.

Origin of fast-food

An Americanism dating back to1965–70
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

ABOUT THIS WORD

What does fast food mean?

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

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.

A prototype for fast-food restaurants were fish-and-chip shops in the U.K. starting in the 1860s. These 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).

How is fast food used in real life?

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 (e.g., we ate fast food on our road trip) or adjective (e.g., 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 been used to connote a mindless, dead-end job (e.g., He’ll end up flipping burgers at a fast-food joint).

More examples of fast food:

“Today is National Fast Food Day! Did you know Robert C. Baker, the inventor of the chicken nugget, was a Purdue alum?
—@LifeAtPurude, November 2017

“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

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for fast food

fast food

noun

food that requires little preparation before being served

adjective fast-food

(of a restaurant, café, etc) serving such food
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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