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Food, dish, meal, or cuisine? – Espresso English


Hello students! A lot of English learners get confused about the words food, dish, meal, and cuisine. These all refer to the general topic of eating, but there are some important differences in how we use each one.

In today’s lesson, I’ll explain when to use these words so that you’ll understand them clearly. If you want to learn more, check out my e-book, 600+ Confusing English Words Explained.

Table of Contents


Food is the most general word, referring to anything you can eat. A banana is food. A hamburger is food. A salad is food. Simple things (like a piece of bread) and complex things (like a seafood stew with many ingredients) are all in the general category of food. In everyday English, you’ll often hear sentences like:

  • What’s your favorite food?
  • Let’s go get some food.

The word food is usually singular – so you should say “I ate a lot of food (not foods) last night.” But there are some exceptions – we use foods, plural, when specifically talking about multiple distinct types, for example, “At the international festival, I tried foods from around the world.”


The word dish has two meanings. One is a physical object used to hold, cook, and serve food. When we talk about washing the dishes, we are washing the plates, bowls, pots, pans, spoons, forks, etc.

The word dish can also refer to one prepared item of food, like a lasagna or a fruit salad. If you go to a type of social event called a potluck, each person who attends brings a dish – one person brings a salad, another person brings an apple pie, another person brings beef stew, etc. Each of these prepared items of food is a dish.

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At a restaurant, you might encounter the terms main dish (a large amount of food – like a steak) and side dish (a small amount of food that accompanies the main dish – like a small bowl of broccoli).


The word meal refers to the customary time/occasion of eating food. Most people eat 3 meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meal also refers to all the food eaten during one of these occasions – so one meal can include multiple dishes. Dinner is one meal, but you might have chicken, rice, salad, and ice cream. Each of those is one dish, and when eaten all together on one occasion, they are a meal.

A meal may include many dishes.

You might have a big/heavy meal (with a lot of food) or a light meal (with little food). A meal can be elaborate (with many different and complicated dishes) or simple (with just a few easy-to-make dishes).


The word cuisine describes a typical manner/style of preparing food. We usually use this word with with country adjectives (Italian cuisine, Brazilian cuisine, Moroccan cuisine) or ethnic or regional adjectives (Cajun cuisine, Jewish cuisine, South Indian cuisine). In everyday English, however, many people simply say “food” when talking about getting something to eat:

  • I love Chinese food.
  • Do you want to try some Ethiopian food?

When talking more specifically about the techniques and traditions, then we would say cuisine:

  • Palm oil is used prominently in West African cuisine.
  • The chef specializes in French cuisine.

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