Last week, researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity released their Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score, which highlights than any research worth doing should be able to be distilled into a cutesy acronym, like FACTS. They also found that 84% of parents took their children to a fast food restaurant at least once a week. That's self-reported, so one can assume that the percentage may be higher, or that the actual number of visits per week was more. The full report can be found here if you want to wade through 208 pages of statistical analysis. Which is quite fascinating, and if you have the time, you may find some interesting findings in there that were not highlighted in their press release. I encourage all to keep learning. It keeps you young. Unlike the 84% of American Families who are visiting the drive-thru once a week.
One of the most pervasive arguments in favor of the drive-thru is that it is both fast and cheap. Until I see a 208 page report to back up this claim, I will not believe this. Assuming one is not travelling between cities on the interstate, think about the time involved: one wrangles the kids into the minivan, drives 10 minutes to the McDonald's, spends 5 minutes ordering, 15 minutes eating, 5 minutes trying to get the kids to leave the PlayPlace, re-wrangling the kids into the minivan, then driving 10 minutes home. You need to budget 45-60 minutes for the entire process. Even assuming one parent can just run through the drive-thru and leave the other at home, this is a good 20-30 minute process. You can cook dinner in less than 30 minutes, and if you throw something in the oven, or boil a pot of pasta, much of this time does not have to be devoted to pursuing dinner.
The other consideration is the price. 2 adult meals @ $6, and 2 Happy Meals @ $3 means that the happy family of 4 is spending $18 on dinner at McDonald's. While not expensive, that's also not cheap. Even buying the "expensive" organic food at the grocery store, you can easily feed a family of 4 a basic everyday dinner for less than this (no, one doesn't eat Lobster on Wednesday unless it's your birthday or you live in Maine).
I'm not sure when it became established that Fast Food was fast and cheap, but I will speculate. Perhaps when women entered the workforce but were still expected to maintain the house, time issues were truly a factor as women really did have two full-time jobs. Like I said, I don't know. But hopefully, as the line between gender roles blurs, and all family members can be expected to make out grocery lists, go shopping, and cook, then maybe we'll stop kidding ourselves and admit it: McDonald's is easier.