The appeal of fast food is about more than “fast”
People in the thread below—I suppose this was inevitable—were reverting back to the liberal argument that fast food's popularity is mainly a labor issue, as in people work too hard and resort to fast food (against their will, no doubt!) because they have no options. This argument is juiced up by anecdotal evidence of this one woman you knew once who really did save an hour a day eating fast food or that college aged service worker who could only eat a burger during lunch. These arguments bother me for a couple of reasons. The first is they are throw-your-hands-in-the-air-and-give-up arguments. There's a whiff of making excuses for fast food's grip on America in lieu of trying to understand it so that solutions become evident. Since we all agree—right?—that policy should be aimed at improving the nutrition of all our citizens (not just those who can afford it), we can agree—right?—that merely biting on the corners of the problem by getting rid of food desserts and perhaps even having government programs to make sure there are workable kitchens in every home aren't enough. These are good things and will help people who are the percentage of fast food customers who are more desperate than really into the food.
But the problem is that if the fast food industry's marketing strategy was to sell only to people with no other options, they would go bankrupt. Kit-Kat in comments put it well:
Look, I believe people when they explain why it is they eat fast food, or imagining why someone else might prefer fast food. I don’t think that everyone who eats out is a lazy moron. But I think that we can over-excuse. There are some people for whom cooking at home is not a possibility. But all the fast food in the country is not being eaten by service industry workers who get off work at midnight and lack a functioning kitchen. A lot of it is being eaten by people who *do* have the time to cook at home and have access to a Safeway. Understanding why they choose not to is an important part of addressing the issue.
I'll point out that quite literally, if speed were the only consideration in buying fast food, most of it would not be so bad for you. (In fact, there's only whole chain that has dedicated part of its menu to catering to people who want something fast that isn't going to wreck them—Subway. But even then, most of their menu is crap.) The fast food industry would like us to believe that they can't help but serve mounds of grease and sugar and that this aspect of their business is unchangeable, but the reality is they sell mounds of grease and sugar because they know that's how you get more customers. We either deal with that problem, or we continue to pretend it's not there, which is basically giving up and deciding that we accept escalating rates of diabetes and heart disease.
I'll reiterate my points: a comprehensive understanding of why fast food sells so well involves accepting that people eat to relieve boredom and people eat to relieve stress, and fast food is perfectly pitched to achieve these ends.
I will also point out something I pointed out in comments. People who ride the extreme "fast food only sells because it's easy" argument tend to oversell how hard it is to cook and undersell what a pain in the ass it is to go to McDonald's. I used to eat out at fast food places (albeit, locally owned ones based in Austin that emphasized healthier choices than the major chains—but they will never get any bigger than they are because of this choice) a lot more because I bought the whole line about how eating out is easier. But gradually it dawned on me that it really wasn't. The time spent getting dressed, driving, waiting to order, waiting for food, and driving home would have been more than enough time to cook something simple. So I started cooking more. Which, in turn, turned on my no-doubt genetic predisposition to love cooking (or wevs, both my parents cooked at home a lot when I was a kid, so I think I was lucky to have those role models), and that's why I'm a more elaborate cook ofttimes than you need to be. But not always. I'm the queen of the stir fry when I have work to get done. (Which in turn causes people to yell at me in comments on CSA posts for being a boring cook. Oh irony, since the series was started in part to encourage people to talk more about simple, everyday cooking. It's worth wondering if this pressure to put out a 3-course meal every meal isn't what intimidates a lot of people out of cooking.)
One thing that I really do think is overlooked at lot—again, because it requires acknowledging the darker aspects of daily life we prefer aren't a problem—is the whine factor, aka the emotional labor of getting the members of your family who are unashamed about their preferences for grease and sugar to sit down and eat a healthy meal without whining about it. I got some emails from people complaining that Bittman overlooks how cooking is women's work, and I think that's somewhat unfair, for two reasons: 1) Bittman is one of the biggest voices out there encouraging people to learn how to cook 20-minute meals and if you actually listen to what he's saying, you can reduce your "women's work" workload by a lot 2) I really do think he imagines a more egalitarian distribution of work than most households enjoy. The latter is a bit of blindness—from what I understand, he does most of his family's cooking, so he's not seeing that most men don't help much, if at all. (And this is a complex problem. A lot of women, and I include myself in this category, are so incredibly possessive of the kitchen that men can't help if they want to.) But what he's absolutely overlooking in his claims that cooking and eating are fun, communal activities is that this is only true if your whole family is on board. I think that's big time male privilege. It's much easier if you're a man who's cooking to get everyone to be supportive of your work. But women tend to have their work taken for granted, and in real world terms, that means the whine factor.
I grew up in an extended family of people who love cooking. Even my dad cooked all the time. And yet, we still ate plenty of shitty fast food, as did my relatives. The reason isn't that they were too overworked to cook, per se, but some times they were too overworked to tolerate us kids pulling faces and saying, "Not THAT again, we ate that LAST month." The most brilliant aspect of fast food is it's basically whine-proof—it hits you on the "comfort food" level, and everyone is going to eat it and like it. We eat to feel pleasure. McDonald's is the masturbation of food. For the same reason someone might find that they increasingly prefer to masturbate than have partner sex—the latter takes coordination, everyone has to be on the same page, it's a lot of emotional work—someone might start making more and more of their diet fast food.
If fast food were only about speed, then 7-11 would put Burger King and McDonald's out of business. We have to think of the problem as more complex than that, even if doing so brings up uncomfortable solutions, like demanding a redistribution of agricultural subsidies and taxing fast food so that it's not so much a cheap pleasure as it used to be.