The Reason Fast Food Menus Are So Big

It's not just you: Fast food menus truly do keep expanding. In 2023, we've already been able to try plenty of new options, from Wendy's Italian Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich to Burger King's Spicy Chicken Fries. Menus at fast food restaurants have been steadily packing in dozens of new items for years now. Researchers at Boston University found that between 1986 and 2016, the average restaurant menu added nearly 23 new items per year — an increase of 226 percent.

Why? As consumer tastes become more varied, these large chains hope to attract the largest customer base possible by offering something for everyone. Customer surveys have shown that diners strongly prefer a varied menu over a streamlined one, especially when new menu items are creative (via Forbes).

This wasn't always the case: A 1970s McDonald's menu, for example, contained about 20 options. Compare that to the 85 options in 2007, or the 145 the chain's menu had ballooned to include by 2013. But for plenty of reasons, just because a menu is getting bigger does not necessarily mean it's getting better.

When it comes to fast food menus, bigger isn't always better

Fast food menus are steadily swelling to include more and more options. The average casual full-service restaurant, for example, hands diners a menu containing nearly 150 options. But several high-profile food flops, discontinuations, and health concerns have shown that more variety does not necessarily guarantee higher quality.

Plenty of fast food chains have taken things too far in trying to innovate new menu items, from McDonald's pineapple Hula Burger in the 1960s to Taco Bell's more recent waffle breakfast taco. Just this year alone, customers have deemed plenty of menu expansion efforts to be less-than-successful, like Starbucks' olive oil-infused Oleato coffee, for example, one of several major food flops of 2023.

And as the number of options on fast food menus has increased, so too have unhealthy metrics like calories and sodium. Over the past three decades, entrees have gained an average of 100 calories and desserts have gained about 200 (per Boston University). Sodium levels have also risen multiple percentage points, and the food itself has become heavier. Luckily, though, the landscape is not all bad: Bigger menus have also given rise to plenty of fast food orders that are surprisingly good for you.