Dinner time! 10 food-related idioms

Bitten off more than you can chew?

This week’s blog post is about two topics close to my heart: food and language (probably in that order).

Although Britain is not as known for its gastronomy in the same way that perhaps France, Italy or Spain are, English is full of food-related idiomatic language.

Idiomatic language in my experience is something that really interests students and is also one of the hardest areas to truly master.

In terms of understanding idiomatic language, a quick glance at the GSE shows us that we’re in C1 territory.

In terms of the productive skills, the challenge is probably greater. I remember doing a lesson on idioms with an excellent teen class who were eager to please. The following week, one of my pupils, Ignacio, included no fewer than nine idioms in his letter of complaint! Using idioms naturally comes from repeated exposure, but looking at them in class is still worthwhile I think: a knowledge of the most common ones is useful for understanding, they tend to generate enthusiasm and students may be more likely to notice idioms and analyse their usage (context, tone) in the future. Students often find it interesting to compare idioms to those in their own language too.

Here are ten of my favourite food-related idioms, complete with examples and explanations:

  1. To eat you out of house and home

‘The kids are eating me out of house and home!’ Used by parents, lamenting the amount of food they need to buy to feed their kids – often teenage boys on growth spurts. This expression makes me think of one of my Spanish favourites ‘Mejor comprarle un traje que invitarle a comer’ (better to buy him a suit than invite him round for lunch).

  1. To butter somebody up

‘You’re looking great today! I just love that outfit. And have you been working out?’

‘Stop buttering me up. What do you want?’

Flattering or praising somebody because you want something from them.

  1. To spill the beans

‘It was supposed to be a surprise party for mum, but Tom spilt the beans and she found out.

Used when someone reveals information that was supposed to be secret. Another idiom with the same meaning – this time related to animals – is ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.

  1. To be full of beans

‘Samuel’s had a three-hour nap and now he’s full of beans!’

Used to talk about someone who is energetic and enthusiastic. To take beans-related language even further, what about this famous rhyme popular with young children?

  1. To have your cake and eat it

‘You can’t have your cake and eat it – big tax cuts and better public services isn’t going to happen.’

Meaning the same as ‘You can’t have it both ways’ this expression is often used to talk about two things which are incompatible – once you’ve eaten your cake you no longer have it: it’s gone! This expression has cropped up a lot in brexit coverage, used by those who perceive that Britain would like the benefits that being in the EU offers without having to follow its rules.

  1. To cherry pick

Mrs Brown’s friend worked in the nursery school and told her what the children were like, so she cherry picked the best ones for her class in primary school!

This expression has to do with choosing the options that offer you an advantage, or using information selectively to prove what you want to show. It is another expression that has cropped up a lot in brexit coverage, with the EU warning Britain that they can’t ‘cherry pick’ the trade rules that they like whilst opting out of the ones they don’t.

  1. It’s not really my cup of tea

‘Rugby’s not really my cup of tea, I’m more of a cricket man’

Meaning the same as ‘Not really my thing’ it can be used to talk about just about anything / anybody you’re not too keen on.

  1. Not for all the tea in China!

I’m never going to that hotel again, not for all the tea in China.

This idiom is used to reject something out of hand – ie, you won’t do it under any circumstances or for any price. China is the world’s largest tea producer and it’s perhaps not surprising to find tea idioms in English, though the Brits are actually quite a long way behind the Turks in the tea-drinking stakes!

  1. Take it with a pinch a salt

I know Sharon said she got a scholarship to Harvard, but she’s been known to distort the truth, so I’d take it with a pinch of salt!

This idiom is used to suggest information should not be taken too seriously or at face value, perhaps a story told by a person who is prone to exaggeration or telling lies! *Grain of salt in American English.

  1. To put all your eggs in one basket

Investing all your money in shares in one company might not be the best idea – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

If you drop the basket and all your eggs are in it, you’ve lost everything! Better to keep your options open, diversifying investments or applying to a number of jobs instead of just one.

There you have it! Ten food-related idioms in English! Now, I’m off to the vending machine for a snack…


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