Everyone thinks that they know how fast food restaurants first came to the United States. The story, at least as McDonalds itself tells it, has it that genius businessman Ray Kroc came across a small shack serving hamburgers and fries at low prices and amazing speed in a US backwater. Seized with a vision of what this business could one day become, Kroc bought it and started expanding the company until it became the global giant that we know and love (or hate) today.
The real story is a little bit more complicated than that. Not only were the Kroc brothers not the first to the game (accounts vary but it seems like the pre-World War II chain White Castle was the first operator to give the chain fast food game in the United States a serious go). It can also be argued that the diners that spanned the US in the 1920s and 30s were the real first example of convenience food taking off in a big way.
It’s also necessary to look around the globe to get a real idea of how people consume and use convenience food. Bento boxes have been a part of Japanese eating culture for decades, and are the main way that people eat on the go. Sandwiches have been the convenience food staple in the UK for years, and while true finger food has been slow in coming to the French market, it has been possible to eat an entire three course meal (and have a glass of wine) at lunchtime within an hour.
Fast food has truly come into its own since the 1990s due to a combination of factors. The first is the increasing health consciousness of American consumers, which has forced McDonalds and other major players to reformat their menus to reduce the amount of calories in their most popular options, and to introduce newer and healthier selections. It has also allowed a number of new players into the game which trade on their healthy credentials. Whilst it is certainly not true that the American diet has suddenly become a paragon of health, it certainly is true that American diners have far more choice in what they eat than ever before. An American who decides to have a Big Mac for lunch was likely presented with a large number of other options. The fact that they choose the burger is their decision, rather than something that was forced upon them.
Fast food has completely changed the way that Americans eat food, and made it far easier for people to eat on the go. The pivot towards healthy options has made it far easier for fast food to be part of a balanced diet.