Teaching English through Hands-on Food Lessons

from scratch

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach English of some children in a small fisherman village in Southeast Sicily called Pozzallo.  I wanted to approach this task innovatively, and, as always, food came to mind.  How could I weave in English and cooking together, and what are some of the benefits of doing so?

I consulted my mom, who once taught Tsol at MIT.  She challenged me to think out of the box with teaching styles to help the students engage more, eventually allowing them to learn in a more natural way.  By teaching English through cooking, it gives the student an insight into the daily life and cultural eating habits of an American.  For example, the ingredients and sizes we may use – like coconut oil and a cup of “joe” – might be foreign to those in Italy, especially a small town like Pozzallo.  In addition, cooking is a great way to introduce a form of measurement to students, bringing useful and practical experiences out of the sedentary ways of a textbook.  For example, the difference between teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, or ounces and pounds.  Do you buy 1 cup of chocolate?  No, you order 1 lb of chocolate.  I let my students hold a 1 lb block of chocolate to feel how much it weighs.  For me, bringing in that hands-on experience was key to help the students connect their mental knowledge to their senses.  Lastly, I helped them explore how to refer to sizes of foods.  For example, you don’t necessarily eat an almond, you eat almonds (or a handful of almonds).

So, I started my one-on-one classes with several Italian children ranging from the ages of 6-10.  Written below, I’ve outlined some of  my lessons, starting with introduction of the U.S. System of Unit.

Session 1: Introducing the U.S. System of Unit + ways of measurement

US system and Metric system

By introducing the U.S. System of Unit, the children were able to wear a quantitative lens of day-to-day life in America.  Here were a couple of the examples I set up:

  • 1 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 cup coffee
  • 1 lb chocolate
  • a dash of cinnamon
  • handful of almonds

array of ingredients

handful of almonds

I made the children hold the objects (minus the cinnamon) in their hand to feel the weight of each ingredient.  We also practiced pronunciation of the ingredients by utilizing them real-life ways (and adding in some nutrition facts along the way).  For example, “Coconut oil is lactose-free” or “I’ll have a cup of coffee with a dash of cinnamon.”  Come to think of it, kids ordering a cup of coffee may appear premature…  But then again, we are in Italy, and loving coffee begins early.  Nonetheless, by ingraining a sense of measurement, along with useful phrases, can help the student form a better understanding of the language they are studying.

Me and Lucia

Lucia and I going over the US system

Session 2: Shopping for food in the US

shopping for food in the US

For this session, I explained how typical Americans shop for food.  I showed them pictures of supermarkets like ShopRite, Wegman’s, and Whole Foods to give them an idea of the size of these stores (to which their mouths dropped).  Unlike the specialty stores here in Italy (think stores dedicated just to bread), I explained that individual specialty stores are not as common.  Instead, US supermarkets tend to be bigger than those in Italy, and are divided in sections (bakery, butchery, and sometimes a sushi place – an idea slightly foreign to the children).  In addition, I explained that there’s usually a whole prepared foods section where one can find pre-made pasta salads, cutlets, among other dishes.  Oh, and then there’s generally a whole aisle centered on cereals and granola :).

In order to further educate them as consumers, I told them that non-GMO (senza orgamismi geneticamente modificati) doesn’t necessarily mean organic (bio).  Organic pertains to how they are grown, not the actual seed.  Also, when the word “natural” (naturale) is on labels, it doesn’t always mean that it is truly “natural” – it has a looser definition.

Session 3: American foods + popular ingredients

american classics

I started off this lesson by showing my students some classic American foods, including when/where they’re consumed, and the ingredients found in them.  For example, I said that bagels originate from New York City, and are frankly only good in the NY/NJ area (sorry everyone else!).  In addition, I mentioned that they are typically eaten as breakfast or lunch as an “everyday” type food with some cream cheese (known as “Philadelphia” in Italian).  On the flip side, I pointed out that it is a American tradition to eat chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday.  This gave them an understanding of not only the classic American foods, but also the dietary factors of them.  I pointed out to my students that the typical American diet is high in refined and heavily processed foods, sugar, dairy/meat, and fat… We could do better.

american culinary trends

Minus the over-the-top milkshakes on this list above, I wanted to also show the children what healthy, and trendy foods America has to offer.  They were extremely excited as I showed them the innovative wave from America that was to come their way.  I explained that America has jumped on the “free” bandwagon with the hippest ingredients such as coconut oil, turmeric – you name it.  I not only wanted to show my students what the traditional American eats are, but also the newest, perhaps alternative foods as well.  Some weren’t quite fond of the health food bowl or the idea of raw fish (sushi is usually found in more urban Italian places), but were curious about the smoothie bowls and chia pudding.

Session 4: Smoothie Bowl

smoothie bowl

Smoothie bowl made by one of my students and I

I took their curiosity in smoothie bowls as a cue to add one more class to the list – a real cooking class.  I stopped by our Despar to pick up some antioxidant berry blends (think raspberries, blueberries, blackberries), and picked up bananas from our local produce truck.  Within minutes, my students and I made delicious smoothie bowls that they enjoyed 🙂 I gave them the recipe in English so they could replicate the smoothie bowl whenever they want, along with a bonus granola recipe.

Smoothie bowl

You can top the smoothie bowl off with some granola (my personal favorite), almond butter, or even chia pudding!


I thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching these children about American culinary culture.  Being in the opposite role of what I’m used to was humbling, and at the same time, much harder than I expected.  I’ve always appreciated teachers, but now I fully understand the planning, patience, and empathy it takes to be one (even if I did it for a limited amount of time).  I was very fortunate to spend time with students who were eager to learn, and their curiosity will always be inspiring to me.

Note: To protect the privacy of the children, their faces are not shown.

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