There are over 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.
Worldwide, there are over 35,000 restaurants!
But McDonald’s is just one of many fast food places around the world.
Fast food chains are groups of restaurants (which are also sometimes called fast food joints) that use the same name, style and food.
They’re places where you can get fast and cheap food, and where you’ll always know exactly what you’ll get, no matter where in the world you are. In other words, it’s the perfect food for the fast-paced world we live in.
Fast food restaurants are especially common in the U.S.—just think about how many McDonald’s are there!
If you plan on visiting or living in the U.S. or another English-speaking country, fast food restaurants are cheap and filling. Some places are even trying to be healthier, and to give customers enough information so they can make healthy decisions.
You might have eaten at a fast food restaurant before. But do you know the correct English words to order fast food?
By the end of this article you will!
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A Short History of Fast Food
When you think of fast food, do you think of America?
It’s no surprise—the first fast food restaurants started in the U.S., and America continues to be home to many of the world’s fast food joints.
In the mid-1900s, fast food restaurants began to open, starting with White Castle. Although today they’re known for not being very healthy, back then the restaurants were meant to show people that food eaten outside of home could be delicious too.
Once people got a taste of hamburgers that someone else had cooked, they wanted more. More and more fast food restaurants opened, following the example of White Castle. That’s why today many fast food restaurants look so similar. The idea of quick food, prepared right in front of you as you wait, came from back then.
Different Types of Fast Food
You might only picture McDonald’s when you think of fast food, but there are many different kinds of fast food restaurants. Some examples of fast food chains are:
- Burger King serves hamburgers, fries and more, similar to what McDonald’s serves.
- Subway serves sandwiches on long heroes (you’ll learn more about those heroes in a bit).
- Starbucks serves many different kinds of coffee drinks and small snacks to go with them.
- Chipotle serves burritos (rice, beans and meat in a corn or wheat tortilla wrap) and tacos (meat and toppings in a shell).
- iHop serves breakfast foods like pancakes and waffles.
- Arby’s serves steaks and sandwiches.
And there are many more! That means that these days you can always find the right fast food to suit your tastes and fit your budget.
Luckily, most of these places also use the same kind of vocabulary! However, there are a couple of differences to keep in mind.
Why is there different vocabulary at different fast food restaurants?
Fast food restaurants love to make up new words! It’s all about being a brand, which is the image of a company. They want their customers to know they’re special and different from other fast food places.
Places like McDonald’s want their food and meal names to make people think of their restaurants. For example, you probably know that a Happy Meal is a McDonald’s kid’s meal. Even if you don’t know that, though, you can figure out that a McChicken sandwich is probably another McDonald’s dish, because it starts with Mc.
If you come across a strange word in a fast food restaurant, try to separate the real word from the brand name!
How to Order Fast Food in English
Fast food restaurants are meant to be really quick. That includes the ordering part!
That means that, no matter which restaurant you go to, you’ll probably have a similar experience ordering.
Placing your order requires similar phrases at every fast food joint. When ordering, you can start your order with these sentence starters and phrases:
- “I’d like the…”
- “I’ll take the…”
- “Do you have any…”
- “I’d like to place an order to go.”
Usually, the server will ask you any additional questions he or she needs to know after you place your order.
- “Would you like any sauces with that?”
- “Small, medium or large?”
- “Is that for here or to go?”
After that, it’s just about listening to the questions and making your choices.
If you want anything special done with your order (like a pickle on the side, separate instead of inside your hamburger), you’ll need to tell the server when you’re ordering.
After the order is done, the server will tell you what your total is—that’s the amount you need to pay.
30 English Fast Food Vocabulary You Absolutely Need to Know
For a quick introduction to food vocabulary to help you talk about fast food and food in general, check out the video below. You’ll learn how native English speakers talk about, order and describe different types of food.
Be careful, as even watching the video might make you hungry!
For more top learning content and English tips, subscribe to the FluentU English YouTube channel and hit the notification bell.
General Fast Food Vocabulary
The great thing about fast food is that it can be eaten on the go. Carry-out, also known as take-out, is what you get when you’re not planning to eat at the restaurant. When you get take-out, ask for your food “to go.”
2. Eat in
The opposite of carry-out, eating in means staying at the fast food restaurant to eat your meal. When ordering to eat in, ask for your food “to stay” or “for here.”
3. Drive through
This is sometimes misspelled on purpose as “drive thru.” This option lets you order your food without even needing to get out of your car. Just pull your car up to the special drive thru window, place your order and drive around to the next window to pay and pick it up.
A franchise is a group of restaurants that are under the same brand owner, but operate on their own. The main brand provides the ingredients and menus, but each store has its own owner and manager. Many fast food restaurants are part of a franchise. McDonald’s and Burger King are franchises, and so is Starbucks.
Understanding the Menu
Like any restaurant, fast food restaurants have menus which show you the items you can order and how much they cost. Many fast food places have the menu on a large board on a wall, so it’s easy to see all the options when you’re ordering.
If you’re having trouble choosing the food you want, you can let the restaurant do it for you. Some places have special “combos” (short for combinations, although no one ever says the full word). These combos are pre-created meals that usually contain a few different food items and a drink.
Sometimes you even get your food cheaper when ordering a combo.
When asking for a combo, you can usually just request it by a number, along with whatever else you want to add. For example, if you like the meal option on the menu that’s labeled with the number 5, you can say: “I’d like a number 5, please, with a side order of fries.”
Since the world has become more interested in knowing what’s in our food, many menus now also show nutritional information. This information tells you what’s in your food.
Fast food restaurants don’t usually give you the full ingredients, but you’ll find some useful information like sugar, fat and calorie content. This is meant to help you make healthy decisions about what you eat.
This is a fancy way of calling a drink, especially one that isn’t water. It’s that simple!
9. Soft drink
A soft drink is usually used to refer to a carbonated drink like soda. Really, the phrase can be used to speak about any non-alcoholic drinks. An alcoholic drink is sometimes called a hard drink.
10. Fountain drink
Many fast food restaurants have soda fountains, which are machines where you can pour yourself a soft (usually carbonated) drink. Since the server doesn’t need to know what kind of soda you’ll choose, you can simply order a fountain drink and make your own decision later.
A slushie is a cold drink made with blended, crushed ice and sweet flavoring. These aren’t very good for you, but they sure taste good!
A smoothie is a (sometimes) healthier alternative to a slushie. Smoothies are made of ice, milk or ice cream and real fruit.
Okay, so you probably know what coffee is. In case you don’t, it’s a bitter drink that gives you a boost of energy.
But what’s a latte? Or a mocha? Or a frappuccino?
This chart shows you what’s what, so you can know exactly what you’re getting the next time you visit a Starbucks.
Types of Bread
A sub is a type of long bread that’s commonly used in fast food sandwiches. Many native speakers might not know this, but the sub is named after the submarine (a ship that can go underwater) because they’re similar in shape. You can also call a sub a wedge, hoagie, hero, grinder or many other names, depending on where in the world you are.
A bun is a round bread with a flat bottom and a rounded top. Buns are sometimes also called rolls. They’re most commonly used for sandwiches or hamburgers.
A muffin is somewhere between a small cake and a sweet bread. Some fast food restaurants sell them for breakfast, and they’re delicious when eaten with a coffee.
More common in England, a scone is a small, lightly sweetened bread, often served with fruit and tea.
In North America, a biscuit is a small, round, unsweetened, soft bread. In the UK and Ireland, a biscuit or bisquit is hard and sweet, more like an American cookie. Knowing this can prevent disappointment!
The main part of a meal is called the main dish. Smaller items and snacks that are served with the main dish are called side dishes or sides.
In addition to getting your meal, fast food places also have a range of condiments. Condiments are sauces and other things that are added after food is cooked to add to or enhance its flavor. Some condiments you probably know are ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, salt and pepper.
No, this isn’t about putting on clothes! Salad dressing is the sauce you add to salad for flavor, like ranch dressing.
22. French fries
French fries are thinly sliced potato pieces which are fried or deep fried (covered completely in oil during cooking). They’re usually served with ketchup or other condiments like BBQ (barbecue) sauce. In England, french fries are called chips, while in America the word chips is used to refer to thin potato crisps.
23. Hash browns
Hash browns are another potato side dish. They’re made of potatoes and onions, which are cut into small slices, mixed together, shaped into a thin cake and fried until brown and crispy.
24. Onion rings
Onion rings are cut onion circles that are deep fried into a crunchy, tasty treat.
Types of Meat
A burger, short for hamburger, is a patty made of meat (or tofu, in the case of vegetarian burgers).
Burgers are usually served on buns with lettuce, tomato and onion. The most common meat used to make hamburgers is beef. Although the ham in hamburgers makes it seem like burgers are made of pork, they can actually be made of pretty much any meat including turkey, beef and even chicken.
26. Chicken nuggets
Chicken nuggets are small pieces of chicken that are soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.
A sausage is a long piece of processed meat, usually served with breakfast platters and sandwiches. The most common meat for sausage is pork, but turkey and chicken sausage is good too.
28. Hot dog
A hot dog is a type of sausage that has a distinctly long and thin shape. Hot dogs are usually served in a long bun with ketchup, mustard and relish (a condiment made with pickles).
Bacon is a very flavorful, thin slice of meat that’s fried and usually served with breakfast dishes, especially with eggs.
30. Angus beef
Some fast food restaurants boast that they serve Angus beef. Angus beef comes from a specific type of cow and is known for being flavorful and tender (soft). Keep in mind that some fast food restaurants mix their Angus beef with other, less expensive cuts of beef!
Does this vocabulary all sound delicious?
Are you getting hungry yet?
Well, go get some food—you’re completely ready to order fast food in English like an expert!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
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