Why Native English Speakers Say "Have" When They Mean "Eat"

Has a waiter ever asked you “What will you have to drink?” Or have you ever heard a native English speaker say something like “I had a sandwich for lunch”?

Why didn’t they just say “I ate a sandwich” or “What will you drink”? Why did they use “have” instead? Today, we’ll explain why “have” is used this way in English!

“Eat” and “drink” focus on the act of putting food in your mouth

You only need to say “eat” and “drink” when you want to focus on the action of putting food in your mouth.

For example, people might see the child below and ask themselves, “What is she eating?” or “Is she eating grass?” They wouldn’t say “What is she having?” because the child is clearly putting something into their mouth!

Or if you saw a lion eating an elephant, you might say, “The lion is eating an elephant.” You would not say “The lion is having an elephant,” since it’s clear that the lion is eating the elephant.

“Have” focuses on the overall experience

What do you think are some differences between the following two sentences?

  1. We ate a nice lunch with some friends on Saturday.
  2. We had a nice lunch with some friends on Saturday.

The first sentence focuses on the food. “We ate a nice lunch” implies that the food was good. Maybe the food was tastier than the food you usually eat.

On the other hand, the second sentence is not as focused on the food. “We had a nice lunch” could mean that the food was nice. But the food was only one part of the experience. The restaurant was probably nice as well, and you probably had an enjoyable time with your friends too.

So when you use “have,” you shift the focus away from specific things like the exact food you’re eating or specific actions like eating or drinking. Instead, you focus on more general things like the overall experience.

In sum:

"Have""Eat" or "Drink"
Refers to …Both eating and drinkingEither eating or drinking
The focus is on …The overall experienceThe act of putting food or drinks in your mouth

“Have” is used in polite requests and offers

Native English speakers also use “have” when offering and requesting food or drinks. This is because “have” is less specific, so it can be more polite than directly saying “eat” or “drink.”

For example, if you’re at someone’s house and you get thirsty, you could ask:

Could I have something to drink, please?

And if you’re at a restaurant ordering coffee, you’d say:

I’ll have a coffee without milk, please. Thanks!

For more examples of people using “have” to order food and drinks, check out these Engoo lessons:

How to use “have” instead of “eat” or “drink”

There are two main ways to use “have” in this way.

1. “Have” + a meal

You can use “have” with the word “meal” or a type of meal, such as “dinner,” “lunch,” or “breakfast.”

I’m having dinner with some high school friends later.
What time are you going to have lunch today?
She had a quick meal and went back to work.

2. “Have” + a food or drink

You can use “have” with a type of food.

I’ve had pizza for dinner every day this week.
We always have some ice cream for dessert.

You can also use “have” with drinks.

James has three cups of coffee every day.

I always have a glass of wine after dinner.

Could I have something to drink, please?

Note

Keep in mind that “eat” can be used by itself, but “have” must be used with a meal or some type of food or drink.

For example, you can say “I love eating” but you can’t say “I love having.” You have to specify what the person is having: “I love having a beer after work.”

Your turn!

Now, let’s get some practice! Reword the following sentences using the word “have”:

  1. Did you eat dinner already?
  2. I drank some drinks with friends today.

Only one of the following sentences can use “have”. Can you tell which one it is?

  1. I eat really slowly.
  2. Finish drinking the milk before it expires!
  3. I ate breakfast at 7am this morning.
  4. Vegetarians are against eating meat.

Need help figuring out the answers? Or want to practice using “have” like this in a real conversation? Join Engoo and talk to a professional English tutor 24/7 from the comfort of your home.