KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs: Lesson 9 FOOD FOR THOUGHT

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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs


Honey, Honey  ABBA

In this season of KA Wordcast, we have been looking at important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other expressions that “crop up” all the time in everyday British and American English.  And we’ve shown you how the phrases are used so you can put them to use in your own writing and conversation.

If you’ve been listening to previous Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Wordcasts, you already know what idioms and phrasal verbs are.  But for those of you tuning in for the first time, here’s a quick “make-up” lesson to get you “caught up.”

An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative, that is, a metaphorical or symbolic, meaning separate from its literal or real meaning, which usually can’t be understood just by looking at it.  Here’s an example of one that probably looks and sounds very strange to you: “cook up a storm”

Obviously, to “cook up a storm” doesn’t mean to literally conjure up (create) a thunderstorm or hurricane as a witch or wizard might do.   No, when your mom says, “I’ve got ten people coming for dinner tonight.  I’ll have to COOK UP A STORM,” she means that she will have to prepare and cook a lot of food to make sure all her guests are happy. Look at this example.

Jacob:             You’ve been COOKING UP A STORM.  Everything looks and smells delicious.

Bella:              Well, I wanted to make you a special birthday dinner. 

FYI: Whenever you do (or make) something “up a storm,” you do a lot of it, and often with a lot of skill. You can also talk, sing, and dance “up a storm,” as in:

Whenever my former elementary-school classmates and I get together, we TALK UP A STORM about our school days.

On New Year’s Eve, all the party guests were SINGING and DANCING UP A STORM. 

A phrasal verb, on the other hand, is an idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both. In our previous lessons, we’ve stressed how important it is to use the correct combination of verb and other element, and we’ve looked at several examples where not doing so can lead to trouble.  “Eat out” and “eat up” are two more cases in point.  To “eat out” simply means to eat at a restaurant or at someone else’s home.

I don’t feel like cooking tonight.   Why don’t we EAT OUT at McDonald’s or order in some pizza?

“Eat up,” on the other hand, means to finish eating all of something or to eat with a good appetite, as in:

We’re happy to have you as our guest tonight, so EAT UP, Ricky.  You don’t have to be shy.  Here, have some more mashed potatoes.

Because of these subtle differences in meaning, phrasal verbs, like idiomatic phrases, must be learned.    You can’t usually “work out” what a phrasal verb means just by looking at it.

Today we will be looking at lots of food-related idiomatic expressions.  This lesson is available to download in PDF format.  There is also an exercise sheet with a “pre-test” exercise that you can download from the website to test your knowledge before the lesson begins.  Then, after the podcast, you can check to see how well you did and how much you have learned.

Many of today’s phrases involve some kind of food item—cream, peas, beans, cake, and so on. But you may be surprised to find that most actually have little to do with eating.  All of them, however, are good, useful phrases.



Our first idiom, FOOD FOR THOUGHT is used figuratively to mean something to seriously think about or consider.  The food that you eat provides nourishment for your body; FOOD FOR THOUGHT provides “nourishment” for the mind.  Something to ponder, mental stimulation, ideas to contemplate, and intellectual nourishment are other, more formal ways to say FOOD FOR THOUGHT.

Thanks for that great speech, Marty.  You’ve given us all a lot of FOOD FOR THOUGHT.

Your suggestions about ways we can improve communication between teachers and parents have given us a lot of FOOD FOR THOUGHT.

Sean:               Here’s FOOD FOR THOUGHT.   If the World Wide Web shut down for a week, how would you cope?

Heidi:             I’d be at a complete loss.  I depend on the Internet for practically everything.



Cream is the fattest, and often considered the best part of milk.  A crop is a plant grown for food.  The phrase CREAM OF THE CROP, therefore, literally means the best part of a crop of food.  But as an idiom, CREAM OF THE CROP means the best of anything.  The French term crème de la crème, the finest, prime, top choice, and the pick of the litter are similar expressions.

We have selected you for this special research project because you are our school’s top-ten scholars, the CREAM OF THE CROP.  So don’t let us down.

Only students who are the CREAM OF THE CROP get accepted to Keio University’s law department, so you may have to go to a cram school if you want to get in.

A lot of new games have come out this year, but this spy-action adventure is the CREAM OF THE CROP.  It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing a game.



If something is NOT YOUR CUP OF TEA, that something, whether it’s an activity, person, or thing, is not your favorite or preference. It can also be something that doesn’t interest you.  In other words, it’s a more polite or subtle way of saying “I don’t like …” or “I’m not interested in …”

Julian:            I have tickets for a Mozart concert this weekend.  Want to go with me?

Mary:              Thanks for asking, but no thanks.  Classical music isn’t my CUP OF TEA.

Foreign films may not be everyone’s CUP OF TEA, but I really enjoy them because they offer insight into other cultures and how other people live.

Mick:              Jill and I are meeting for lunch in the student union cafeteria later.  Want to join us?

Colleen:         To be honest, Jill is NOT really MY CUP OF TEA.  All she ever talks about is fashion, and I’m just not interested.

Even if quizzes aren’t your CUP OF TEA, you should come out to Quiz Night on Friday.  The proceeds will go to buying uniforms for your son’s Little League team.



The expression FULL OF BEANS has a couple of uses.  First, it describes a person who is very lively, energetic, or enthusiastic.  One theory about the phrase’s origin comes from horse racing.  When beans were added to a horse’s feed, they gave the horse a burst of energy and made it more likely that it would win a race.   Synonyms include spirited, exuberant, and tireless.   Informal equivalents include peppy, feisty, and perky.

Teacher:        You’re FULL OF BEANS today, Myles.  What’s going on?

Myles:              I’m just really excited about the class trip, Mrs. Clifford.

My three-year-old sister wakes up bright and early every morning, FULL OF BEANS.  Then she bounces into my room and wants me to play with her.

Every January, I’m FULL OF BEANS and ready to take on the New Year with enthusiasm, but by mid-February, I’m already back to my old bad habits. 

FULL OF BEANS has another, less positive usage.  When we say that someone is FULL OF BEANS, we mean that he/she is nonsensical or badly misinformed.  Usually we mean it in a more teasing or humorous than in a truly critical way.  Note that this usage is mainly American.

You can’t believe a word Jeffery says. He is so FULL OF BEANS.

Jeremy says he’s training to run a marathon, but I think he’s FULL OF BEANS.  A runner-in-training just wouldn’t eat as much fast and junk food as Jeremy does.

This review of my favorite new TV show says that it will probably be canceled after a few weeks on the air, but I think the reviewer is FULL OF BEANS.




The verb “spill” is found in several English idioms, where it means to “divulge” or “let out.”  To SPILL THE BEANS means to “give away” or “tell” a secret or a surprise.  Why beans?  Some historians suggest that it goes back to an ancient Greek voting system involving a jar and different colored beans.  Other similar informal expressions include let slip, let out, and let the cat out of the bag.

Gavin:             Ryan found out that we were having a surprise birthday party for him.  I wonder who SPILLED THE BEANS?

Vanessa:        Well, don’t look at me!  I was looking forward to it being a surprise just as much as you were.

I never meant to SPILL THE BEANS about who was bullying you, Terry.  But Mom and Dad kept asking me why you were so unhappy, and I had to tell them.

Cam:               Can I trust you not to SPILL THE BEANS, Nick?

Nick:               Sure.  What is it?

Cam:               My dad has a new job in California, and we’re moving next week.  So Friday will be my last day here at school.   



When someone says calls a person a HARD NUT TO CRACK,” what does it mean?  Well, imagine how hard it can be to crack a certain kind of nut, and you can probably figure out that a HARD NUT TO CRACK is used to describe a person who is stubborn or difficult to understand.  A problem or situation  that is a HARD NUT TO CRACK is difficult to solve.

“We played well last week,” Coach David said to his team before the match began. “But the Vikings will be a HARD NUT TO CRACK, so we’ll have to up our game today.

Adam:            I can’t figure out what the new teacher expects from us. He changes his mind all the time and doesn’t explain things very well.

Rachel:           I agree that he’s a HARD NUT TO CRACK, but he’s also new at teaching, so maybe he’s just nervous.   Let’s give him a chance. 

Your band may have found some success here in the UK, but getting recognition in the United States will be a much HARDER NUT TO CRACK. 

“The suspect refuses to talk,” the detective told his partner after emerging from the interrogation room. “She’s going to be a HARD NUT TO CRACK.”



Americans love sweets, so cakes and pies show up in a lot of American idiomatic expressions.  PIECE OF CAKE, which describes something that is very easy to do, is probably the most common these days.  In fact, it is used so frequently that it’s now more of a cliché than an idiom.  Synonyms include undemanding, straightforward, simple, and elementary.  Some informal expressions include child’s play, kid’s stuff, easy as pie, a breeze, a cinch, and a snap.

John:               How did your exam go? 

Roxy:              It was a PIECE OF CAKE.  I’m sure I aced it.

Justin:            You’ve rehearsed that song so many times, playing in front of an audience should be a PIECE OF CAKE for you.

Kim:               I know, but I’m still a bit nervous. 

Helena:          I never said that practicing yoga would be a PIECE OF CAKE.

William:        Maybe not, but you didn’t tell me it was going to be this hard, either.



Cake is delicious on its own, but when you add a thick layer of creamy frosting or icing, the cake tastes even better.  Our next idiom, ICING ON THE CAKE, refers to something that is added to something already good that makes it even better: it’s an enhancement, an improvement, a bonus.

Getting into Harvard was a major accomplishment, but getting that full-tuition scholarship was ICING ON THE CAKE.  Congratulations.

Ross:             Happy Birthday, Mom.  I hope you’ve had a great birthday.

Janice:          Wonderful.  And your coming home for the weekend is the ICING ON THE CAKE. 

Coming in first in the Sussex County marathon was exciting enough.  But to be handed my medal by an Olympic gold medalist was the ICING ON THE CAKE.

Cathy was thrilled that the publishing company decided to publish her first novel.  Getting an advance was just ICING ON THE CAKE.



When two people are LIKE TWO PEAS IN A POD, it simply means that they (often friends or relatives) are very similar or alike.  The phrase can be used to talk about how similar two people look or behave, but it can also be used to describe two people’s close friendship or other relationship.  Just like twins, two of a kind, spitting image, lookalikes, and carbon copies are synonyms for the former usage.  As thick as thieves is a close equivalent for the latter.

As far as looks are concerned, twins Jennie and Annie are like TWO PEAS IN A POD, but the similarities stop there.  Jennie is shy and studious, while Annie is outgoing and athletic. 

Although brothers Hayden and Samuel are more than five years apart in age, they are LIKE TWO PEAS IN A POD, both in looks and personality.

Simon:           Tristan and Jay are LIKE TWO PEAS IN A POD.  You’d think they were brothers!

Rae:                Well, they might as well be. They’ve been playmates since they were in diapers.



While LIKE TWO PEAS IN A POD means to be similar or alike, LIKE CHALK AND CHEESE means the exact opposite.  We use this expression to talk about two people or things that are nothing like each other.  Poles apart and like comparing apples to oranges are near equivalents.

I don’t have anything in common with my big sister Lizzy.  She and I are like CHALK AND CHEESE.

The difference between customer service in the States and that in Japan is like CHALK AND CHEESE.  Japanese store clerks are so much more efficient and friendly. 

Gail:                How does life here in the UK compare to your experience living in South Africa?

Jamie:             It’s LIKE CHALK AND CHEESE.  I feel safe here, even in London, whereas in Johannesburg, I was always looking over my shoulder.



To SELL LIKE HOTCAKES, with the figurative meaning “to be in great demand and sell in large numbers,” first appeared around 1840. Some etymologists believe that the origin of this expression comes from the fact that hotcakes (or pancakes), which have always been popular at events such as county fairs and socials, sold as fast as they could be made.

We’re having a bake sale to raise money for the school band’s trip to China.  Let’s hope everything SELLS LIKE HOTCAKES.

These new sneakers are SELLING LIKE HOTCAKES!  Every kid who walks into the shop seems to want a pair.  We’d better order some more.

This new eco-friendly electric car is SELLING LIKE HOTCAKES.  Production can’t keep up with demand. 

Ever since the Oscar-winner’s untimely death, DVDs of all his films have been SELLING LIKE HOTCAKES.



Imagine that you walk into a chicken coop and find the floor scattered with eggs.  You don’t want to break them, so you walk very carefully.  To WALK ON EGGSHELLS can be used literally to mean to walk or take steps in a careful, gingerly manner, as in:

Ever since Peter slipped on the ice and sprained his ankle last winter, he’s been WALKING ON EGGSHELLS whenever he goes outside on a cold day, whether there’s ice on the ground or not.

More commonly, to WALK ON EGGSHELLS means to try very hard not to upset someone or something.  Synonyms include inoffensively, diplomatically, tactfully, and delicately.

Carrie:           How’s Dad?

Russel:           He’s stressed about work, so we’ve all been WALKING ON EGGSHELLS.  You’re lucky you’re away at college.

When you have a teenager in the house, you have to learn to WALK ON EGGSHELLS. They are so sensitive at that age!

Kris’s artwork isn’t that special, if you ask me.  I’m tired of WALKING ON EGGSHELLS around her and pretending that she’s a great artist.



As you may have guessed, the phrase TO HAVE A LOT ON ONE’S PLATE doesn’t mean to literally have a lot to eat (though of course it can mean that, too).  TO HAVE A LOT ON YOUR PLATE means to have so many responsibilities or so many things happening in your life that you are having a hard time coping or keeping up.  To have a lot going on, to be swamped, and to be up to one’s neck in work or homework are other phrases we can use in its place.

Fred:              I’m sorry for not coming to your party on Saturday.  I’ve GOT A LOT ON MY PLATE right now, what with tests and school interviews coming up.

Candy:            I understand.  Maybe you can come next time when you’re not so swamped.

Hank:             Don’t ask your mom for any more favors right now.  She has A LOT ON HER PLATE at the office.

Katie:              I hate this!  Ever since she started working, she has no time for me!

After this morning’s mudslide, which left hundreds of people severely injured, the emergency room staff at Seattle Grace Hospital has MORE THAN ENOUGH ON ITS PLATE. 




The expressions that we’ve looked at so far are common idioms (with a couple of cliché phrases tossed in).  But there are lots of food-related phrasal verbs that you should know as well.  Here, we’ll take a brief look at a “handful” of them.



This phrase is similar to “eat out,” which we covered in our introduction.  It’s a slightly more formal way to say to have a meal outside the home.

Both my parents work full-time and don’t feel like cooking when they get home, so we DINE OUT at least four times a week. 

With the economy in such poor shape, fewer and fewer families are DINING OUT these days.



Literally, to COOK UP means to do a lot of cooking (as we saw in to “cook up a storm” above).  But more idiomatically, to COOK UP means to make up an excuse for something bad that you’ve done, or to make up a story that isn’t quite true.  Here are two examples.

Dennis is always COOKING UP some far-fetched funny excuse for being late for class every morning.  Even the teacher laughs at him.

Our sociology professor COOKED UP some story about being too busy with family problems over the weekend to correct our papers. 



To PICK AT your food means to eat it without much enthusiasm or appetite.

Chelsea:         You’re just PICKING AT the dinner I made for you, Leonard.  What’s up?

Leonard:        Sorry, Mom, but I was starving after football practice and stopped off at Burger King.

Robert’s just been PICKING AT his food recently.  I wonder if he’s having some problems at school.



When you first try a new food, you may not like it.  But if you try it a few more times, you will often come to enjoy it.  This is literally what to ACQUIRE A TASTE FOR SOMETHING means.  (“Acquire,” by the way, just means to get or develop.)  Come to like is the best equivalent.

At first, I didn’t like natto, but now that I’ve ACQUIRED A TASTE FOR it, I eat it quite often.

But ACQUIRE A TASTE FOR can also be used more figuratively to mean to come to appreciate something like a certain kind of music, art, book, or movie.  By the way, the phrase is often used as a noun—“an acquired taste.”

I’ve never been much of a fantasy fan, but thanks to “Game of Thrones,” I’m ACQUIRING A TASTE FOR it.

William’s ironic sense of humor is an ACQUIRED TASTE.  It takes a while to get used to and to actually see the humor in it.



Literally speaking, an apple tree, say, that BEARS FRUIT has “tons” of apples on it almost every year.  The idiomatic phrase BEAR FRUIT means to have a good result or come to a satisfactory conclusion.

It was all your practice and hard work and dedication that made this gold medal possible.  I told you it would BEAR FRUIT if you stuck with it.

The new reading program the school district instituted this year is starting to BEAR FRUIT.  All the district’s schools are scoring higher on standardized tests.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the current negotiations between Russia and the United States will BEAR FRUIT and that this tense situation will be defused.



To literally have to EAT DIRT, just as it sounds, would be something pretty unpleasant.  What the idiomatic phrase to EAT DIRT means is to be forced to accept an unpleasant and humiliating loss or defeat.  We also use “eat crow” or “eat humble pie” to mean the same thing.

Susan boasted and boasted about being elected class president, but she ended up losing to Lara by a wide margin and is now having to EAT DIRT.






Now that you have a good understanding of all the key phrases we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise (we’ve provided answer sheets).

PDF DOWNLOAD KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 9 PRETEST

 We’ll be back again next week with lots more useful phrasal verbs for you to study and get to know.

KA Wordcast Lesson 9 PRETEST ANSWERS



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