6 Easy Tips for Ordering Food in English Like a Local
Even after all your conversational English practice, ordering something to eat at a restaurant can still be a challenge.
You need specific vocabulary and expressions to succeed.
Here, you’re going to learn how to place orders for food, say the same sentences in a variety of different ways and sound more casual or more formal depending on your situation.
- 5 Easy Tips for Ordering Food in English Like a Local
5 Easy Tips for Ordering Food in English Like a Local
1. Ask If You Can Get Something
Being polite goes a long way in any language.
When most native speakers order something, instead of saying, “I want ___”, they’ll ask “can I get ___”
This sounds less demanding and can help the flow of the conversation. Firstly, if they don’t have what you want, it sounds more natural to change your order. Second, it makes you sound more polite to the person you’re ordering from.
Here are a few examples. Imagine you’re in a cafe and you’d like to get a drip coffee (this is coffee which is prepared by dripping hot water through coffee in a filter).
1. “Can I get a drip coffee, please?”
2. “May I have a drip coffee, please?”
3. “Do you have drip coffee?”
4. “Can I order a drip coffee?”
They’re all questions instead of demands. Especially when talking to strangers, you want to sound more passive (casual and polite). If the answer to your request is “no” for any reason, you can quickly change your mind and say something like, “oh, alright. Then can I have an Americano, please?” (Americano is a coffee drink made from espresso and hot water.) The reply will usually be something like, “Yes, you can. Anything else?”
2. Start Off With a Greeting
Again, politeness is everything when ordering.
Most places, in the United States especially, have employees who are paid mostly through tips.
Tips are based on how well they provided service. This means that the employees will try hard to make you happy.
Usually, when you go to the counter to order they will say “hello” and they might ask “how are you today?”
You always want to return their “hello” and ask “how are you?” If they don’t say “hello” first when you get to the counter, it sounds most natural to order by saying, “hi, can I get a ___?”
This is the best way to start an order because it shows respect for the employee. You can choose any friendly greeting to start off the conversation, like hello, hi, hey or how’s it going? (listed in order from most formal to most casual).
Usually, you’ll want to match the level of formality to the person who talks first. This means if they say “hi”, then you say “hi.” If they say “hello”, then so do you!
3. For Here or To Go
In some countries the expression for taking your food with you outside the restaurant, is to go or take out.
However, to go is usually used for both drinks and food (and anything else you might consume), while take out is only used for food. To go is far more commonly used by English speakers.
When you want to order your food and take it with you, there are a few options.
“Can I get this to go?”
“I’d like the Spaghetti and Meatballs, to go please.”
“Can I have the Fried Rice and Egg Rolls? Take out.”
If a place says that they have take out, they’ll probably ask you if your order is “for here or to go”. If they don’t ask you that, make sure you tell them what you want before paying. (Some places charge different amounts depending on which one you choose.)
If you want to eat in the restaurant you simply say, “for here” or “for here, please.”
4. Yeah or Yes
Some people say that using yeah isn’t a very polite way to talk, but it’s way more casual and comfortable for most native English speakers.
If you’re in a formal restaurant or hotel cafe, you will want to use “yes”. If you’re in any casual dining place, it’s not necessary. If your answer is yes to any question, you can nod your head (up and down a little) and reply with yeah, yep, sure or an mhmm sound. This is all about the tone of how you say it.
If you’re smiling and happily say “yeah” it isn’t rude. If you’re not paying attention and mumble “yeah”, it’s then considered rude. Here are some examples of casual alternatives (different choices) to yes.
“Is that all you’ll be ordering?”
“Would you like this to go?”
Another note is that when you do use “yes” to answer a question about adding anything, you want to say, “yes, please”. However, “yeah, please” sounds a bit awkward.
“Would you like cheese with that?”
“Would you like whipped cream?”
These words are generally said together quickly as if they were one long word. Because it’s a phrase, you say the words close together instead of including the pause. The longer you pause between the two the more formal, and eventually awkward, it’ll sound. The same can be said about “No, thank you”.
5. Always Be Prepared for Extra Questions
Especially when you go to a sit-down restaurant (this is a term for any restaurant that isn’t fast food or take out, but it doesn’t have to be anything expensive either) you may have more questions asked while ordering and after ordering.
Sometimes after ordering, you may want to quickly walk away to go sit down. Or, if you’re ordering multiple things, you may try to list everything you want to order at once with a group.
Instead, it’s best to pause for a short amount of time after ordering each item. That way, the employee can ask you more questions!
When ordering a coffee, you may need to specify if you’d like it iced (cold) or hot, or what size you want. Some places will ask you if you want cream and sugar, and then they’ll add it for you.
If you order eggs or steak you need to answer how you’d like them cooked. Eggs may be scrambled (mixed up and cooked in little bits), omelettes (cooked in a circle and folded), over easy (a simple fried egg) and sunny side up (fried egg cooked only on the bottom side, so the yolk — the yellow part — on top stays liquid).
You may be asked if you’d like any fillings (cheese, meat, vegetables and other things to put inside the egg) or side dishes (smaller plates of food which accompanies the main meal). You may also be asked if you want something on top of your food, a certain preparation style for your food, if you’d like to order any desserts and much more.
When the time comes to pay for the meal, they may ask you if you’re paying with credit, debit or cash. Always give time to let the employee ask these things.
If you know they’ll ask certain questions, you may want to state those answers beforehand to save them the trouble. Say what size order you want, or how you’d like your coffee. Ask for a steak and tell them if you want it cooked well done (cooked thoroughly), medium (average) or rare (less cooked, still red inside).
Always be polite and answer these questions, and never forget to end with a “thank you”
6. Practice Ordering Food in English (Before You Leave Home!)
Talk to yourself in the mirror, or simply talk out loud. Try using all these English phrases before you need to use them, so you’ll be ready when the time comes to order.
Now that we’ve talked about the different tips, let’s try putting them together in one sample conversation that you can use to practice.
“Hello, welcome to The Coffee House. How are you today?”
“Hello, I’m pretty good, how are you?”
“I’m great, thanks for asking. What can I get for you today?”
“Can I get a large coffee, please? With cream and sugar.”
“Yes, is that all for you today?”
“Would you like to try our new chocolate scone?”
“No, thank you.”
“Alright, one large coffee. Your total is $2.50. Will that be cash or card?”
“Please sign…here’s your receipt.”
“Please wait at the counter over there for your coffee. Thank you, have a nice day!”
“Thank you, you too.”
To hear how native speakers order food, I recommend listening to actual English speakers at your local restaurant. No English speakers near you? No problem, you can find videos on YouTube and authentic programs like FluentU, which turns videos made by native speakers (commercials, clips from movies and TV shows, etc.) into English lessons.
We all know how much Americans and Brits enjoy their respective cuisines (the eternal battle of burgers vs. fish and chips), so there are plenty of conversations and content about food on FluentU and around the internet.
I hope these tips will help you next time you’re ordering in English.
Remember, it’s more about the way you say things (your tone) than the words themselves. When said in a light tone with a smile, anything will seem more polite and natural. Also, remember to speak loudly and clearly in any food or drink environment, so that the employees can understand you.
Christine McGahhey is an American writer currently living in South Korea who has volunteered for several years to teach students and adults English.