20 ESL Food Activities to Liven Up Your Next English Class
Everyone likes food, right? Not only is it (usually) delicious and absolutely necessary for life, the subject has its own set of vocabulary and verbs associated with it. It’s also a great way to incorporate culture into your classroom.
Here are 20 fun and effective ESL food activities that you can use to bring your ESL classroom to life.
- 1. Tutti Frutti
- 2. Potluck
- 3. Restaurant Role Play
- 4. Making a Shopping List
- 5. Fun With Cooking
- 6. Writing Recipes
- 7. Menu Creation
- 8. Recipe Sharing
- 9. Food Pyramid
- 10. Food Advertisements
- 11. Food Trivia
- 12. Cooking Class
- 13. Food Pairing
- 14. Food Pictionary
- 15. Cultural Cuisine Presentations
- 16. Food Debate
- 17. Food Idioms
- 18. Food Taboo
- 19. Food Magazine Collage
- 20. Food Charades
1. Tutti Frutti
Unlike complex prepared dishes, 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.
Divide the class into groups and have your students share and taste the food they have brought. Each student should think of several suitable adjectives to describe each fruit, writing these down on a handout.
Students in each group will write as many adjectives as they can think of for each fruit. You can use prompts, such as appearance, taste and texture. After this, ask a representative from each group to share with the whole class.
For this activity, have students bring a dish from their culture 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.
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.
3. Restaurant Role Play
A good start for arousing students’ interest in this lesson is this Mr. Bean restaurant video. Students will surely be amused by his misadventures and injecting some laughter into your lesson from the start will really kick things off.
After this, 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.
Then distribute printed copies of the groups’ menus and let students role play ordering food with them. Each group can write a short mini-play with their restaurant role play to perform in front of the class.
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.
5. Fun With Cooking
Select a cooking demonstration video 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 taught.
I would recommend teaching cooking verbs, such as add, drain, pour, grate, mash, squeeze, sauté, carve and knead before showing your students the cooking demonstration.
Then have students act out their own cooking demonstration. You can use real food of course, but if that’s not possible, they can mime or use props.
6. Writing Recipes
The first step is to 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 basics, have them work in groups and think of a creative recipe. 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, jalapeño chili, etc.
7. Menu Creation
Divide students into small groups and have each group choose a head chef. Then have them create their own restaurant menus. I’ve found that with the popularity of cooking shows and chefs depicted in movies and television, students get really into this, often writing rather sophisticated menus with a lot of exotic ingredients.
They can choose a theme, select dishes, and write descriptions using adjectives and food-related vocabulary. If you want to make this activity a bit more involved, you can instruct them to do a tasting menu of 6-8 courses.
They can also describe their idea serving location, including anything like decorations, chairs and tables, or even the uniforms that the servers and kitchen staff would be wearing.
8. Recipe Sharing
Have students bring in or research traditional recipes from their cultures and countries. I’ve found that students really enjoy sharing this kind of thing with their fellow students, particularly when you have a class with a lot of different cultures represented.
Then ask them to share the recipes with the class, explaining the ingredients and steps involved to make the dish.
You can add this to the Food Around the World activity, but if it’s not possible to bring food into your classroom, students can just share photos of the completed dish, or the steps involved.
9. Food Pyramid
Teach students about a balanced diet and the food pyramid. Each country has its own food standards, so, for example, if you’re teaching in the U.S., many students will not have seen the USDA’s food pyramid. They may find some of the recommendations strange, such as the amount of dairy the pyramid recommends.
Have them create their own posters or diagrams showing the different food groups and examples of food within each group. They can insert their own opinions on what makes a healthy diet here.
Afterward, students can present their creations to the class, explaining the importance of each group, and why they choose certain foods or food groups and why. From personal experience, this can end up being the source of a lot of great discussion and debate.
10. Food Advertisements
Ask your students to look through food magazines or peruse food related websites, such as Food & Wine, Food 52 or Bon Appetit and have them print out an advertisement that features some kind of food related product, from cheese or a Dutch oven pot to a convection oven or hot pot slow cooker.
Alternatively, they could also watch and select a YouTube ad related to food.
Ask students to show the ad or video they selected and then start a discussion on the methods and rhetorical devices used in the ad.
This is particularly good for getting students to practice using persuasive language.
11. Food Trivia
Ask your students to brainstorm (alone or in groups) and come up with five food trivia questions. They can be related to English food, Indian food or cooking and cooking equipment.
Some examples are:
- What is the key ingredient in Indian cuisine?
- What is Yorkshire pudding?
- What is the most popular food eaten in the United States today?
After you’ve got your list of questions, divide the class into teams and have them compete to answer the questions correctly. I promise that questions you think are easy will be difficult for many students who come from different cultural backgrounds. Likewise, students will easily know answers to questions that you can’t answer.
12. Cooking Class
If your classroom and school allows it, you can do some actual cooking in class. Or at least you can do the prep work before students (or you) take the concoctions home to cook, before you bring them back the next day for an in-class feast.
Put students into small groups and have them talk to decide which dish they will prepare. Have them write about a short script, sort of like the script to a cooking show, so they can explain making the dish to their fellow students.
Have them provide step-by-step instructions in English and guide the class through the cooking process. If you have the space and the time, this can be a really memorable activity. I’ve done it several times and, although it’s a lot of work, the results are effective learning of food related vocabulary and verbs.
13. Food Pairing
Food pairing is a concept that students are often already aware of, but if not, start this activity by explaining that certain foods complement other foods in the same way that food and wine are paired together.
Group students into small groups and give them each a list of ingredients. Ask them to categorize the ingredients based on categories that they invent. Possible categories could be: sweet or salty, texture differences from crunchy to smooth, or foods that don’t seem like they’d go well together but, for some reason, do, like peanut butter and pickles.
Ask them to choose 5–6 ingredients for a made up dish to create complementary flavor combinations.
For example, they could pair chocolate with strawberries or cheese with grapes. If any group thinks of something really weird or wonderful, consider asking them to prepare the dish and bring it the next week. I’ve done this and we got some interesting flavors going on.
14. Food Pictionary
Divide the class into teams and provide each team with a list of food-related vocabulary words. You can make these yourself or ask students to do it on slips of paper, which you can then add to a hat or bowl for them to draw from.
Ask one person from each team to come up to the board and draw a food item. Their team has to guess the word.
Because many students have played traditional Pictionary, they usually already know the rules, which makes the introduction short and sweet. From personal experience, this activity can get a lazy or sleepy class up and moving and ready to learn.
15. Cultural Cuisine Presentations
This is a small research project that can be done in groups or as a solo project. Assign each student with a country or region (France, North Africa, Thailand or Greenland, for example) and ask them to research and cuisine and food culture of their country or region.
Ask them to make some sort of artistic visual component and then ask them to do 5-10 minute presentations in front of the class on their findings.
This is great both for students who like to research and for those who like public speaking, and the duties can be shared based on what kind of things each student likes to do.
16. Food Debate
Choose controversial food topics such as vegetarianism, organic versus conventional farming, or the impact of fast food. I’ve found these subjects can inspire really great discussions that go much deeper than just food and eating.
Divide the class into two groups and have them debate the pros and cons of each topic, using arguments and evidence to support their positions.
If you’d like, you can also introduce a debate structure here:
- Introduction (1 minute)
- Main argument (2 minutes)
- Rebuttal (1 minute)
- Conclusion (1 minute)
Then the non-debating students can vote whose argument was stronger by a show of hands.
17. Food Idioms
There are a lot of food idioms in English. In fact, you, as a native speaker, probably haven’t even heard them all.
Introduce common food-related idioms that you could use are:
- Egg on your face
- Sour grapes
- Full of beans
- A piece of the pie
- In a nutshell
- Spice things up
- Sugarcoat something
- Cry over spilled milk
Discuss the idioms’ meanings and usages.
Then, have students create short dialogues or skits incorporating these idioms to practice their understanding and application.
You could also just read out an idiom and then ask students to conjecture what they mean. This can lead to a lot of laughter.
18. Food Taboo
Taboo is a classic game because you eliminate the key words that students usually go to for description. When they’re limited like this, it’s not only fun, it helps them come up with other creative solutions. Because of that, I go to this activity at least once a semester. The students also seem to have a lot of fun with it.
For the prep, you have to come up with a set of food-related vocabulary cards with several key words that they can’t use.
- Banana. Taboo words: fruit, yellow and banana.
- Spaghetti and Meatballs. Taboo words: Italian, pasta and spaghetti and meatballs.
You can do this as a class or in small groups.
19. Food Magazine Collage
Everyone’s got some old food magazines sitting around. If you don’t, ask at your local library or bookshop. They’ll often be willing to give you old issues for free.
Come up with several food related themes like “healthy,” “comfort foods” or “exotic foods” and have students create collages based on their chosen theme.
Afterward, they can explain their choices and discuss their collages with the class, practicing vocabulary and expressing their preferences.
I’ve found that students really enjoy some quiet time in a language learning classroom to give their brains a break from all that processing.
20. Food Charades
Charades is always fun in the classroom, so gearing this classic activity toward food is a no-brainer. Students of all ages love it and you, as the teacher, will have fun as well.
Write about 25-40 food-related words or phrases on slips of paper and place them in a bowl. Alternatively, and even easier, would be to ask the students to do this part, which will get them thinking about food before you start the game.
Then you can do a whole class activity or divide students into small groups. One person acts out the phrase as their teammates (or the whole class) guesses.
So there you have it: 20 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!