6 Savory ESL Food Activities to Sweeten Your Students’ English Skills
Having trouble finding activities that your ESL students truly enjoy?
I’ve got an idea for you.
Why not use food to capture your students’ interest?
After all, everyone loves food, right?
The theme of food, obviously, is a broad one: That means we can get a lot of mileage out of it. However, to use food to teach English comfortably and effectively, we need to know exactly what we’re shooting for.
The key is to plan your ESL activities with specific outcomes in mind.
For example, learning about names for food from different cultures, learning how to go grocery shopping, etc.
As you can probably imagine, brainstorming topics like these will make it easier for you to identify your target teaching language and vocabulary.
From there, you can branch out your food activities to cover whatever skills your ESL students may need or want to work on—such as reading or writing—or in-depth language topics, like learning and using prepositions.
In this way, food-related activities don’t have to be hemmed into a food unit.
They can be versatile teaching tools that lend themselves to various teaching outcomes.
Below are some useful food-related activities that you can use to bring your ESL classroom to life.
6 Super ESL Food Activities to Soup Up Your Students’ English
1. Tutti Frutti: Teaching Description Vocabulary with Fruit
Unlike complex prepared meals, fruit is easy to obtain for use in class. Also, fruit comes in a variety of colors, sizes, textures and tastes that are likely to appeal to learners of all ages. This makes it a great tool for building a versatile description vocabulary.
For this activity, you can print colored pictures of different fruit and give each student one. Have them write descriptions of the color, size, taste, smell and feel/texture of their fruits on their handouts. Students can share what they have written with the class.
This is a good platform for you to introduce new vocabulary such as tangy, sharp, hairy, fragrant, etc.
You can then conduct a matching exercise in which students match descriptions of fruit to the correct pictures. This can either be done on worksheets or as a class on the board. And yes, you need to set aside some time to prepare this!
Alternatively or as an extension to this activity, you can bring in actual fruit for a hands-on approach, which may be a good way of ensuring your students are familiar with whatever fruit they end up describing.
A good approach is to bring common or seasonal fruit to the classroom such as apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, peaches, mangoes, etc. Encourage students to see, feel, taste and smell the fruit and write down descriptions for each sensory category in handouts provided. Students love challenges, don’t you agree?
Inject a further element of challenge by encouraging your students to search for new words to describe the fruit given to them. They can use Google Translate or an online dictionary for this activity. This is sure to be a very engaging lesson, one which your students will never forget.
As an extension activity to the fruit descriptions, you can introduce an interactive lesson called “Going for a Picnic.” For this activity, have students bring food to class, planning in such a way that students within a group bring different types of food. You can allocate one type of food per student (e.g., cheese, cookies, dips, candies, cake, nuts, chips).
Divide the class into groups and have your students share and taste the food they have brought. Each student should think of a suitable adjective to describe each food, writing these down on a handout.
Students in each group will write as many adjectives as they can think of for each food item. You can use prompts similar to those discussed above, such as appearance, taste and texture. Get a representative from each group to share with the whole class. This is a great way to create bonding and make the lesson memorable and meaningful!
2. Food Around the World
For this activity, have students bring a dish from their culture or personal background for their classmates to try. Have each one of them give a short description of their dish, including how it is prepared. Elicit vocabulary from the dish presented and write it on the board. For example, if your student introduces falafel, you can write out vocabulary such as chickpeas, cumin, parsley and tahini. When assigning students the work for this activity, encourage each student to bring in relevant pictures of ingredients used.
As students try one another’s dishes, have them write words associated with each dish on handouts. As with the activity above, the words should relate to appearance, texture and taste, but you will likely be able to draw out a whole new set of vocabulary now. Students should share their work with the class. You can take this time to explain and offer constructive alternatives for any irrelevant or awkward vocabulary and acknowledge vocabulary that is useful.
If you’re teaching an advanced class, you can take things a step further and have students write out full recipes of their dishes. You may want to pre-teach or review cooking vocabulary such as grind, slice, chop, stir, etc.
The recipes can be shared on your class blog or an educational learning platform for students to try at their leisure. Towards this end of this blog post, I will show how you can teach recipe writing in more depth!
The FluentU video “Cooking Phrasal Verbs” may be useful for a quick brush-up on this terminology. There’s also a video on cooking at the famous NY restaurant the Four Seasons, and a number of other food-themed and cooking-related videos that your students may find engaging.
If students watch these videos on FluentU, they’ll be able to check the definition of any unfamiliar cooking word or phrase just by hovering their mouse over it. When they click on the word, they’ll see the option to add it as a flashcard to study later. They’ll also get more information about the word’s meaning and grammar, example sentences and other videos where they can hear it being used.
The FluentU program serves up more than just cooking videos—there are movie trailers, vlogs, funny commercials, inspirational talks and more authentic videos on this learning platform. If that sounds like something your students might enjoy, you can get a school subscription and your students will be able to use the program in their browser, the iOS app or the Android app.
3. Eating Out
A good start for arousing students’ interest in this lesson is a Mr. Bean video. Students will surely be amused by his misadventures and injecting some laughter into your lesson from the get-go will really kick things off.
This YouTube video showing Mr. Bean in a restaurant setting is a good one for teaching English vocabulary related to food and restaurants. There are several ways to approach this topic. One way would be to introduce word collocations associated with restaurants such as cloth napkin, silver cutlery, crisp rolls, etc.
Another way to warm up to this topic is to teach students how to order food and drinks at a restaurant. You can provide a sample dialogue and then have them practice using phrases like “I would like…” and “I prefer…to …” while pretending to order an appetizer, a main course and a dessert.
Also, this video is good for pre-teaching adjectives. It is set in a fast food restaurant and shows several types of food served in it. You can get students to identify the food shown and then get them to describe it. Videos are a great way to introduce vocabulary to your students!
Now that your students have got some restaurant vocabulary under their belts, it’s time for them to practice using it within a restaurant-related context. Have them work in groups of three or four to design a restaurant menu using multimedia tools such as WebstaurantStore or MustHaveMenus. Let your students pick a theme and design the menu with food images and prices.
In another lesson, distribute printed copies of the groups’ menus and let students practice ordering food with them. Have students order food from different categories: drinks, appetizers, entrées and desserts.
You can get them started by handing out a sample dialogue such as the following:
Waiter: Good afternoon. Would you like a drink, sir/madam?
Customer: Yes, please. I’d like ___.
Waiter: Would you like any appetizers?
Customer: Yes. I’d like ___, please.
Waiter: What about an entrée? What would you like?
Customer: I’d like ___, please.
Waiter: That’s a good choice. Would you like any dessert?
Customer: Well, yes. I’d like ___, please.
Waiter: So that’s… (waiter repeats the order)
Students can take turns being the waiter and customer. This way, they have one go at reading the dialogue and another at using the target language without referring to the dialogue. Get students to write out the complete dialogue after this conversation activity.
For intermediate- and advanced-level classes, you can introduce language related to menu recommendations, complaints and compliments.
For these classes, you may want to create a role playing card which mentions, for example, the complaints the customer can make about the food ordered and the solution to each problem that the waiter can propose.
For instance, on the “customer’s” role card, you could include the following problems:
- Not enough vegetables in the soup
- Roast chicken is not fully cooked
- Cheesecake has gone bad
On the “waiter’s” role card, you could insert the following solutions:
- Suggest vegetable spring roll, free of charge
- Replace the roast chicken, free of charge
- Suggest a cheese tart, free of charge
By providing the above problems and solutions, you can ensure students will be focused on using the target language, rather than being distracted and stressed by having to think about the problem or the solution in the dialogue.
The following links can be useful resources for integrating into the activity above or creating extension activities:
- This YouTube video on restaurant dialogue is a good way to teach students the target language for ordering food. It is very visual, which not only captures your students’ attention but makes it easier for them to make meaningful connections.
- This listening activity on ordering food assesses your students’ listening skills and teaches relevant vocabulary. There are three listening activities you can choose from based on a similar context. Each dialogue has slight variants to ordering food, which you can point out.
- This listening activity on the British Council website is also an effective resource for teaching your students how to order food at a café. The activity comes with multiple choice questions, a sequencing activity and worksheets that you can integrate into your lesson.
4. Making a Shopping List
Divide your class into groups of three or four. Let each group choose what kind of party they would like to plan. It is best to give them a list of possibilities: a dinner party, a birthday party, a wedding party, an end-of-school party, a Christmas party, etc.
Each group will then make a shopping list for the selected celebration, including food, decorations, invitation cards, gift bags, etc. Ensure that the lists include specific quantities, such as:
- 2 packages of balloons
- 1 package of paper cups
- 1 block of cheddar cheese
When the groups are ready, get them to share the lists with the class. You can encourage the class to give suggestions on other things to include or to recommend when they think existing things should be taken off the list.
Target vocabulary can revolve around quantities, packaging and items related to the specific celebrations and include words like package, block, cup, stockings, paper hats, pack, carton, etc.
For more advanced classes, you may want to include a further challenge by having each group work around a budget and estimate the price of each item.
5. Fun with Cooking
Cooking is an interactive activity that can be incorporated into your lessons. But we don’t have a school kitchen, you may be thinking. Not a problem! You can always improvise.
Here’s what you do: Select a cooking demonstration from YouTube, like this one on making potato pancakes, and introduce cooking vocabulary such as slice, dice, chop, stir, etc. Your students can copy down the recipe as they watch the video, and then circle any target vocabulary you have pre-taught.
I would recommend pre-teaching cooking verbs, such as add, drain, pour, grate, mash, squeeze, sauté, carve and knead, before showing your students the cooking demonstration. This is so that your students can make sense of what is going on during the cooking process as the verbs become familiar to them.
Here are a few more useful resources for integrating into the above activity or to use for assessment following the activity:
- This page shows clear pictures for a matching activity that your students can do with cooking verbs.
- The worksheets on this website are also useful resources for teaching cooking verbs. You can get them laminated so that you can use them again and again.
- To further assess your students’ understanding of cooking vocabulary, you can have them try out this fun fill-in-the-blank activity based around a story about cooking.
6. Writing a Recipe
Recipe writing is a fun and effective way to teach the English language. The first step is to pre-teach the elements of a recipe: For this, you can have your students source recipes from magazines to use as examples.
Introduce quantity (1 tbsp, a sprinkle, 3/4 cup) and descriptive words that explain methods used to prep foods (chopped, sliced, grated) found in the “ingredients” section of recipes, as well as relevant verbs in the imperative forms (pour, mix, add, blend) found in the “directions” segment.
Once your students have been taught the basic elements in a recipe, have them work in groups and think of a creative recipe they will eventually write. To make the task interesting, they can include one ingredient used in each of their teammate’s traditional or favorite foods. For example, they could create an imaginary pie dish that includes chickpeas, corn flour, couscous, curry powder, jalapeno chili, etc.
You may be amazed by what your students come up with! You can have each group present their recipes as a PowerPoint at the end of the lesson.
So there you have it: Six awesome ideas for teaching ESL with food.
Remember, food activities don’t have to be restricted to lessons on adjectives or food-related words.
They can also lend themselves to the teaching of grammar items, verbs, nouns, word collocations, etc. The only limit is your imagination and creativity.
You can do so much with food-themed activities to engage your students.
So, bring in some food!
Emmie Sahlan has taught English Language and Literature for ten years and has been teaching ESL for the past five years.