Everyone’s Favorite Topic: Talking about Food in the ESL Classroom

By Cathy Sunshine

Everybody loves to eat! And most people also like to talk about food. Food gives us energy and nutrition, but it’s also tied up with beliefs, customs, emotions, and memories. If you ask our students what they miss most about their countries, many will describe a favorite food that’s typical in their culture.

Food is also a practical and useful topic. Adult students deal with shopping, cooking, and serving food to their families every day. And quite a few of our students work in restaurants. Lessons around food can teach a number of skills: choosing a healthy diet, reading nutrition information on package labels, using the US system of weights and measures, understanding prices, interacting with store clerks, and more.

Here are some food-centered discussion questions and activities that can be adapted for all levels.

Here's one student's favorite, Argentine meat empanadas.

One of my students recommends delicious Argentine meat empanadas.

Discussion Questions

  • What’s your favorite food in your country? Describe how to prepare it. When do people typically eat this food—is it part of the daily diet or a dish for special occasions?
  • Have people’s eating habits changed in your country? How? Is there a difference between what people eat in the cities and in the rural areas?
  • What’s your favorite food here in the United States? Are there any foods here you don’t like? Is there a food you haven’t tried yet but would like to try?
  • Do you eat fast food? Why or why not?
Chebujen (Rice with Fish), Senegal's national dish.

Chebujen (Rice with Fish), Senegal’s national dish.

A Typical Food in Your Country

For this activity, have students work with partners, pairing students from different countries if possible. Each student describes to their partner a traditional food in their country and explains how to prepare it. Advanced students can write recipes. Then the partners take turns presenting their foods to the class. You can use the iPad to find pictures of the foods online (and make everyone really hungry).

A Holiday Meal in Your Country

Ask students to think of a festive occasion in their country—such as a birthday party, quinceañera, or national or religious holiday—and the special foods that are typically eaten then. Students from the same country can work in pairs. Each student or pair of students should choose a special occasion and write a menu for the holiday meal, then present their special meal to the class.

Global Cuisines

Chinese, Thai, Italian, French? Have students break into small groups to discuss the world cuisines they have sampled. After 10 minutes, the whole class can come back together to share. Ask each student to name their favorite cuisine (other than their own country’s) and their favorite food from that cuisine, such as Chinese — pork fried rice. One student can keep a running tally on the board to reveal the first, second, and third most popular cuisines among students in the class.

An Ethiopian meal is eaten with the fingers.

An Ethiopian meal is eaten with the fingers from a shared platter.

Food Customs

Every culture has customs and rules around food. For example, in some countries where meals are eaten from a shared bowl or platter, it’s polite to eat only with your right hand, never with your left. Have students break into small groups to discuss food-related customs in their countries. Each group should identify one custom that their countries have in common and two that are unique to a single country in the group. The groups then share their findings with the class.

Food Myths

Every country (including the United States) has myths and beliefs related to food. Ask students to think about ones they’ve heard. When Dan and Alayna gave this topic to the Advanced Plus class last week, students revealed some interesting food myths from their countries, such as the notion that watermelon seeds will sprout and grow in your stomach. One student told of being required to eat a nut on the lunar new year in her country so her eyebrows wouldn’t turn white!

myplate_blueUnderstanding Food Groups

The US government no longer uses the food pyramid we’ve come to know. It’s been replaced by MyPlate. This is a place setting with a plate and glass, divided into five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. The new graphic is simpler and easier to work with. However, the Ventures series still uses the pyramid in lessons on food, so if you’re teaching that unit in the textbook, you can adapt the activities below to use the pyramid instead of the plate.

Download the MyPlate graphic and make a copy for each student. Write the names of the five food groups as category headings on the board. Ask the class to think of as many foods as they can that belong to each group. Students can come to the board and write the names of foods under the appropriate heading. Teachers may need to help complete some categories, suggesting, for example, beans, nuts, and tofu for the protein group in addition to meat, chicken, eggs, and fish. When there are a dozen or so foods in each category, ask students why we need foods from each group. For example, grains provide energy, dairy foods contain calcium for strong bones, fruits have fiber and vitamins, and so on.

You can, if you want, add a sixth category, “junk food.” Students usually have a very good idea which foods these are, and know that they’re unhealthy. Ask them to explain why.

For additional practice, bring in some empty, clean food containers (such as milk cartons and cans of beans), plastic foods (available in the volunteer lounge), and real foods (such as potatoes and onions). Divide these items among the students. Students then take turns bringing their items to the front, one by one. The student should present the food to the class, say its name, and then write the name on the board in the proper food category.

Yummy junk food.

Yummy junk food.

Keep a Food Diary

To extend the healthy eating lesson, students can keep a food diary, writing down everything they eat for a day or more. It may help to make a simple form with a space for each day, which students can take home and fill out, then bring to class. Alternatively, you can ask students during class to remember and write down everything they ate the day before. The teachers should do the same.

Students then share their food diaries with partners (or with the class, if the class is small). Encourage students to identify the healthy and unhealthy foods in their classmates’ meals and make suggestions (for example, “You could eat a salad with your dinner”). Students generally don’t seem sensitive about confessing to junky diets, since hey, this is America! But to set the right tone, teachers can share their own food diaries, confessing to some unhealthy eating and cheerfully receiving advice. (And if you have any students who seem to struggle with eating or weight issues, you might want to pick another activity.)

Yummy junk food.

The US has a fast food addiction, and it’s spreading to other countries.

Our Unhealthy Lifestyle

Most students have noticed that the United States has an obesity problem, and many are interested in talking about why. In my Advanced Plus class, we read several newspaper articles about the unhealthy effects of fast food, smoking, and lack of exercise. This led to intense discussion about food habits and lifestyles in the United States and the extent to which these are starting to affect immigrant communities. Students also noted the spread of American fast food to their own countries.

Shopping for Food

Activities related to food shopping are particularly good for the middle levels. Students can plan a dinner or a party and make a shopping list of foods, specifying the quantities they will need. This is good for learning the difference between count and noncount nouns and expressions used with them such as “How many?” and “How much?”

They can study supermarket advertisements clipped from the newspaper and then create ads for their own markets, focusing on how to write quantities and prices. This provides practice with money amounts (we write $1.59 but say “a dollar fifty-nine” or “one fifty-nine”).

Or you can “play grocery store.” Bring in a selection of fake-food items and divide the students into two groups, the store clerks and the shoppers. The clerks set up the store with foods for sale, marking prices. The shoppers work together to compile a shopping list and then go shopping at the store. This activity helps students learn words for units and containers such as a loaf of bread, pound of meat, and head of lettuce. The role-play provides practice with shopping language (and it can get pretty funny when certain “shoppers” decide to haggle over prices with the “clerks”).

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