Turn Up the Heat with These 5 ESL Cooking Lesson Activities

Hey, want to cook up some new ESL activities for your students?

Everyone likes talking about food, but how do you bring that into the classroom?

If your ideas are only half-baked, you might need a little help. We’ve got just the tips to get your next class sizzling.

Turn Up the Heat with These 5 ESL Cooking Lesson Activities

In this post, you’ll learn how to teach your students everything they need to know about talking about cooking and preparing food—great for anyone who’s ever wanted to read an English recipe book!

Things to Remember When Teaching ESL Cooking Lessons

First things first: When you’re teaching a practical cooking class, you have to pay extra attention to health and safety. Make sure all of your students wash their hands before starting and that they know how to use all utensils safely.

If you’re teaching young learners, you should do all the cutting and chopping yourself instead of letting them use knives.

In conversation lessons, you’ll also want to be considerate of cultural differences. Food, tastes and dining etiquette vary from country to country, which is something to keep this in mind when teaching in a multicultural environment. What’s delicious to one person may be disgusting to another, especially across different cultures. It’s fine to talk about this, but just be careful not to cause any offense.

You’ll also have to cater to different levels in your classroom. Vocabulary for food, cooking methods, kitchen utensils and taste can be complicated, and many students will find it challenging if they don’t use them in daily life. For this reason, you want to make sure that your students have ample time to learn new vocabulary words. After all, if your student doesn’t even know the difference between a fruit knife and a steak knife, they may have a harder time memorizing those terms.

Oh, and one more thing: Be mindful of any food restrictions students may have, especially students coming from backgrounds where pork or beef isn’t eaten. As a rule, it’s always a good idea to touch base with your class beforehand so that everyone’s able to participate in your cooking lesson.

Make Learning Fun with These 5 Cooking Activities

Now that we’ve covered the groundwork, let’s look at different ways to bring cooking into the classroom.

1. Describing Food

This is a vocabulary building exercise that introduces students to adjectives related to food and give them a chance to use them.

To set the theme, ask your students to describe different foods. There are several ways you can do this, depending on the size and ability of your class. Here are some of them:

  • Show flashcards with pictures of different types of food
  • In groups or as a class, ask students to list one food for every letter of the alphabet
  • Ask students to discuss their favorite foods in groups and why they like them

As students describe the food presented on the cards, they may already be able to use words like spicy, sweet and delicious. However, they’re likely to struggle to give you more than those basic descriptions, and this is an opportunity for you to fill the gaps in their vocabulary.

Provide a worksheet with lots of different words to describe food. You can easily whip this up with Microsoft Word. At the top of the sheet, list lots of different food-related words. Underneath that, leave empty boxes with headings like:

  • Taste
  • Texture
  • Origin
  • Preparation

Then, let students separate the words into the appropriate boxes. Have them guess first, providing clues if you need to. After they’re done, go through the correct answers with the class.

If you want some ready-made materials to help you with this lesson, you can use Kaplan’s food vocabulary lesson or ISL Collective’s worksheet for describing food. Both are great for coming up with a list of less-common food descriptions.

Once the class has learned the meanings of these words, you can use the vocabulary covered to create a guessing game. Individual students can take turns to describe foods, while others try and guess what they’re talking about.

Finally, have your students use this vocabulary to write an elaborate, descriptive menu. For example, “smoked salmon salad” would become “Norwegian smoked salmon on a bed of fresh baby spinach”. Explain that students need to make their menus sound as appealing as possible. You can help them here by showing them some samples of menus. Most restaurants post their menus on their website, so simply search for a restaurant that you like on Google and download their menu.

2. Write Your Own Recipe

This activity is a great way to practice describing sequences and writing instructions. They’ll learn how to use words like: first, next, after that, until and later—all within the theme of cooking.

Start off by asking your students a simple question: “Do you know how to fry an egg?”

While everyone should know the answer, describing it in English might be a little difficult. Walk them through the recipe, asking for steps and writing the correct vocabulary and structure out on the board. This should include the ingredients, equipment and method that need to be used.

After everyone is comfortable with the concept, put your students into groups and them come up with their own recipes. They can use the one already written on the board as a guide, and ask you for help with vocabulary along the way. Just make sure they choose something a little more complex than a fried egg!

If your students need a little more structure and guidance with this activity, you can use some worksheets for support. You don’t have to make them yourself, though. Here are some places where you can download ready-made worksheets:

  • OneStopEnglish has a recipe writing worksheet where students can fill in the blanks and practice using sequence words correctly.
  • LinguaHouse offers a worksheet on cooking, drinking and eating, which comes with an audio clip which can be used as an extra listening activity. However, you’ll have to create an account on the site to get access to it.
  • BBC has a “Cooking Test” lesson plan, in which students have to create a recipe with a random selection of ingredients. This includes some strange ones for an extra challenge.

Also, teaching cooking lessons is just one way to give students practical exposure to the English language. If you really want to help them reach fluency, add FluentU to your curriculum. Unlike the textbooks and learning material that focuses on drilling vocabulary and grammar rules, FluentU takes a different approach to language learning by using real-world material used by actual English speakers.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

3. Foods of the World

This is a conversation activity which gives students the freedom to practice fluency when talking about food.

To kick things off, brainstorm different countries then have students write different foods and drinks from each one. Students can use this to discuss which ones they’ve tried, which ones they haven’t, and which ones they would like to try. This can include some “bizarre” foods, like fried ant eggs from Thailand, balut from the Philippines and black pudding from the UK.

If you need some inspiration, British Council has a “World’s Weirdest Food” lesson plan for this purpose, and the YouTube Channel, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, has a number of videos you could incorporate in your lesson.

4. Cooking Competition

If you have the facilities to cook in the classroom, give your students a hands-on cooking experience. This is a great way to get them active and engaged with something different. Simply provide the recipe and equipment, then put students into groups. At the end of the class, taste each group’s food, then give feedback and proclaim a winner.

Kids’ cooking recipes always work well for younger students. This lets you choose something easy, so you’re able to keep everything under control. Plus, you’ll have to spend more on your ingredients. And keep in mind, if you try something too complicated, you might not have enough time to finish cooking before the class finishes.

5. TV Chefs

Get your students to practice their presentation and public speaking skills in this cooking class! This activity is a great way to combine all of the vocabulary and grammar students have learned in the previous activities in a fun, practical activity. Plus, it’ll also get them working in teams.

TV Chefs works as an extension or a follow-up lesson after the cooking competition. Students can get to cooking again, but this time, they’ll have to create a video at the same time. Have them prepare a simple dish in groups. As they do so, they’ll have to record video and describe what they’re doing, as if they were presenting a cooking show.

This will involve some preparation time. You’ll have to provide some ingredients, but if you’re comfortable, you can give them creative freedom with the recipe. You’ll also have to help them write the scripts to follow when they’re recording.

To do all of this, you can use the British Council lesson plan on TV chefs.

Get Things Moving

ESL food activities are perfect for injecting some energy into the classroom. As well as learning some new sentence structures and vocabulary, students can use their imaginations and create something new. Most importantly, they can get out of their seats and move around the classroom.

In active classes, students are happier, more engaged, and more able to learn. Try implementing that principle into some of your other lessons, too.

Emma Thomas is an ESL teacher in Bangkok with more than five years of experience in teaching students of all ages. You can read more about her experiences as a teacher in Thailand at Under the Ropes.

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