American English has a unique set of language nuances that differ from other native English-speaking countries. You start to see these differences in how common expressions, or idioms, come out in everyday conversations.
For example, if someone deceives you, an Australian person would say you let them ‘pull the wool over your eyes.’ In America, we would say that they ‘pulled a fast one on you.’ There are hundreds of examples, but we will look at American idioms by category to help break them down. The category in this article is food idioms!
Idioms are concise snippets of language that render immediate understanding between two parties. A simple expression is much more powerful than explaining your meaning in plain words. This is why they are so common in languages across the world! More often than not, we don’t even realize we’re saying them.
I grew up in the United States, so all of these idioms are hand-picked by me as something an American would actually say. I know the US is a massive country, and not every region uses the same expressions. Still, I am confident that I have a broad grasp of the language you’d hear in any corner of the United States.
How many have you heard of? Let’s begin to unpack these food idioms and their wacky origin stories. Time to learn something new!
Food Idioms In American English
It’s well-known that Americans love food. But did you know that we also love talking about food? Here’s a well-compiled list of common food idioms you’d hear in everyday conversation with an American.
A Piece Of Cake
Meaning: That task was surprisingly very easy to complete … it was a piece of cake!
How to use it in a sentence: I thought the exam would be so hard, but it was a piece of cake!
Origins: This expression sounds light and fun but has dark roots in the American south during slavery.
The term’ piece of cake’ comes from a cakewalk, when black slaves would compete to mock the gaudy, egotistical slave owners through dance on the cakewalk. The slave with the best performance would receive a cake. So, earning a reward was easy, or ‘piece of cake.’
Easy As Pie
Meaning: Both a simile and an idiom, the expression’ easy as pie’ is exactly what it sounds like. The task was easy, enjoyable, and required little effort … just like eating a delicious piece of pie! It is often interchangeable with the above expression ‘a piece of cake.’
How to use it in a sentence: Gathering the ingredients for the dinner party was easy as pie.
Origins: The origins of ‘easy as pie’ seem to go back to the 19th century. Back then, the word ‘pie’ was used to describe a kind person who went out of their way for others. This phrase stemmed from that and began popping up in newspapers and novels. I guess it stuck because we use this phrase in America a lot!
* other idioms used in American English that are similar to ‘easy as pie’ and ‘a piece of cake’ are ‘a walk in the park,’ and ‘easy-peasy lemon squeezy’
Take It With A Grain Of Salt
Meaning: Do not believe everything you are told because people can often over-exaggerate or tell half-truths.
How to use it in a sentence: Be careful. Take what you saw on TikTok with a grain of salt.
Origins: There are many salt-related idioms in English, and this one stems from Roman times. There was a famous tale of Pompey, who discovered a poison antidote while seizing the Palace of Mithrades. The poison antidote was instructed to be taken ‘with a grain of salt.’
The idiom came to mean that a grain of salt protected someone from poison. Over time, this transferred to protecting them from misinformation or misleading statements. Terrible things (akin to poison) spread through misinformation, so this idiom makes a lot of sense!
I Have Bigger Fish To Fry
Meaning: To have more important things to do. It suggests that you’re wasting your time on one task when there are more pressing matters.
How to use it in a sentence: I can’t stand here arguing with you all day, I have bigger fish to fry!
Origins: The origins are murky, but this expression had already gained traction in the 1700s before first seen in written form for the English transition of the famous Spanish novel Don Quixote.
It’s fascinating how translators use their own versions of expressions when transcribing from a different language! Sometimes a short expression is worth a thousand words.
You’re The Apple Of My Eye
Meaning: A valued, important person in a person’s life. Often used with extra devotion and love.
How to use it in a sentence: Charlie is my only grandchild and the apple of my eye!
Origins: This idiom dates back hundreds of years when proper eye care was vital if you wanted to keep your sight. Originally, ‘the apple of my eye’ referred to the pupil of one’s eye (the round solid part of the eye). Over time, the ‘apple of my eye’ transformed into a metaphor for something of value, like the person you love most in life.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread
Meaning: An exciting, innovative new development
How to use it in a sentence: Have you tried this new back massager? It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!
Origins: I know this one seems like a parody and over-exaggeration of dumb American phrases, but I promise it’s actually used in American English. Maybe the reason it’s used is that it sounds so silly!
The etymology is adapted from the famous advertising slogan used by the Chillicothe Baking Company in the 1920s. It goes like this: ‘The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.’
Almost 100 years later, no cutting-edge technology will ever top bread that has been sliced!
Bit Off More Than You Could Chew
Meaning: Someone agrees to do more than they can manage and struggles to keep afloat.
How to use it in a sentence: You play four sports, take 20 credit hours, and work two jobs. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!
Origins: This phrase dates back to 1800 America when people chew tobacco in public gatherings. One would offer a bite of their tobacco block to their friends, and people would eagerly take larger bites than appropriate. Soon, the phrase ‘don’t bite off more than you can chew’ caught on, and it is still used in America today, more than 200 years later!
Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk
Meaning: To be upset about something you cannot change. To be sad about something that has happened in the past.
How to use it in a sentence: I know you are mad about missing your flight but don’t cry over spilled milk. You will get on the next flight, and being upset over something you cannot change isn’t worth it.
Origins: This idiom originates from James Howell, a British author from the 1650s who famously wrote ‘no weeping for shed milk’ in his book of proverbs. ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk’ is the modern variation of his famous idiom.
*In the UK, the idiom is actually ‘don’t cry over spilt milk.’ The term ‘split’ sounds more posh than ‘spilled,’ doesn’t it?
To Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too
Meaning: You must make a choice; you cannot have it both ways. Usually, in decisions of contradictions.
How to use it in a sentence: If you want to go to that concert with your friends, you must find a job to earn money. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Origins: This idiom has a very literal meaning: ‘you cannot simultaneously possess your cake and eat it, too.’ You have to pick one. The phrase stems from writings dating back to 16th-century poets in England.
*similar phrases used in American English are ‘you can’t have it both ways’ & ‘you can’t have the best of both worlds.’
Rapid Fired Round Of American Food Idioms
|Idiom||Meaning||Use In A Sentence|
|In A Nutshell||Expressed in only a few words.||In a nutshell, you need to get therapy.|
|In A Pickle||You’re in a difficult situation and in need of help.||I’m in a pickle since I told both Halle and Jacob that I’d hang out with them tonight.|
|To Have A Lot On Your Plate||You are very busy; you have too many things going on at one time.||I have so much on my plate I can’t go see a movie tonight.|
|Rubbing Salt In The Wound||To make a bad situation worse for the person hurting.||I already feel bad enough for cheating on Eric. You don’t have to yell at me and rub salt in the wound!|
|Bring Home The Bacon||To earn money for your family.||I got a raise today, so guess who’s going to bring home the bacon?|
|Put All Your Eggs In One Basket||To overly rely on one specific outcome.||Don’t put all your eggs in one basket; only apply to one college.|
|A Tough Nut To Crack||A difficult person to know (usually a shy or introverted person).||Susie sure is a tough (or hard) nut to crack. I can’t even get 5 words out of her!|
|Eat Humble Pie||Make an apology and admit that you were wrong.||Greta should eat humble pie after she falsely accuses Peter of cheating.|
|Couch Potato||A lazy person.||She’s such a couch potato! Won’t she ever get up and help around the house?|
|Peas In A Pod||Very similar, meant for each other.||Bella and Max spend so much time together. They are two peas in a pod!|
|Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen||If too many people participate in the same task and try to take charge, nothing productive will get done.||Why is Katie on the marketing case too? With her, Blake, and Andrew working on the same case, there are definitely too many cooks in the kitchen.|
|Low Hanging Fruit||An action that takes no effort at all.||He chose to complete the easiest chores, he definitely picked the low-hanging fruit this time.|
|Bad Apple||An instigator who creates problems for others.||Oh, he lied about being sick to get out of the family gathering. He’s a bad apple.|
|Ride The Gravy Train||Someone who receives an excess benefit (usually money) with little effort.||The stock market just went up 1000%, so he’s riding the gravy train right now.|
What Was Your Favorite Food Idiom?
Is anyone else getting hungry from these descriptive food idioms? My favorites are ‘bringing home the bacon,’ ‘in a pickle,’ and ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread.’ What are yours?
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