On first appearance, this might seem like too narrow a topic for a blog post. After all, does it really matter? Can’t you write a whole book without ever bothering to mention what your characters ate or drank? Yes, you can. And it might even be a good book. Will your book be any better for mentioning food and/or drink? Maybe. Maybe not.
Consider this. Eating has deep emotive roots for humans. Who we eat with, what we eat, when we eat it; it all matters. A dinner for two by candlelight, a giant cake shared by friends, chips and pretzels at a sports party, cold pizza eaten alone at breakfast. They all bring up different emotional responses. Why not spend an extra few minutes considering what your characters do or don’t eat?
Who does one typically eat with?
Are most meals communal? Do families separate? Do men eat one place, women another, children a third? Is eating an intensely private thing? What happens when characters from communities that have different practices collide?
What is eaten when?
Are certain foods reserved for or forbidden at special times? Fruitcake is generally a Christmas treat. Most Jews avoid yeast at Passover. You don’t eat oysters in a month that doesn’t have an ‘R’ in it. Is the reason for this practical (the oysters), traditional (fruitcake), or religious (yeast)? Or a combination of the above?
What is taboo?
I don’t recommend necessarily using your own diet as a guide here. We are fortunate enough to live in a time and place where we as a society can afford to be picky. Not everyone does. Americans, by and large, balk at the idea of eating insects while much of the rest of the world doesn’t blink an eye at that. Like the above, is your reason for the taboo practical, tradition, or religious? Is a sacred animal not eaten? Eaten only at certain times and in certain ways?
Salt has an interesting enough history to write a novel solely about it. There were times salt was worth more than it’s weight in gold. In some cultures, sharing salt with someone was the same as a binding peace treaty. Wars have been fought over salt and the access to it. In Russia, when a young couple marry, upon their return from their honeymoon, they are supposed to be presented with bread and salt.
If you have non-humans, things can get even more interesting. There is no reason in the world that your non-humans should have the same exact diet range as a human. In the Moonlight Memories series, Liska’s food allergies have been used as minor plot points. In the Hyde Chronicles, Violet makes a point not to pay too much attention to what others eat, because some of it is really disturbing from a human point of use. Can these differences be plot relevant? No reason why not. Maybe something healthy to one is poisonous to another. Tell me you can’t make a plot point out of that.
Even if you are using humans, if they are in a different world, they will eat different things. One of my works in progress is a fantasy world where they don’t have horses (though unicorns do exist, but they are aggressive and you don’t want to get near them), but there are giant lizards that are used as pack animals. It occurred to me that such a society would probably use as much of the lizard as possible. Lizard leather, lizard meat, etc. Much like the ancient Mongols used horses for everything, and some still do. Horse meat, mare’s milk, horse hair, etc. Can’t use lizard milk because lizards aren’t mammals, but close enough.
Consider the society you are using. Nomads should have a different diet than farmers who have a different diet than fishermen. Those who spend most of the hours of the day working aren’t likely to spend much time and effort into making the food look better, unless that is their work. What’s the level of technology? If there isn’t much in the way of refrigeration, foods have to be preserved or eaten quickly. Try some research into other time periods and see some of the things they did with food. Even in the middle ages, for banquets, the food was supposed to be decorative as well as tasty. Can’t say I would necessarily want to eat a lot of it, but they took pride in their work just as we do today.
No, I haven’t forgotten drink. It’s easy to overlook the possibilities for beverages. Water is a given, no matter how dry a climate may be. If there is no water, there is no life. Fermented beverages usually came next. Mostly from grapes and similar, but mead comes from honey, and a popular drink in Russia called kvass, is made from bread mold. That comes in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. In places where the water quality is bad, it might actually be safer to drink alcohol. Milk is common though not always from cows. Milk can come from any lactating mammal. Goat’s milk is relatively common even in this society, and I’ve heard of people drinking mare’s milk. Other possible sources are sheep, camel, reindeer, buffalo, donkey, yak, and moose. Why not consider some of the options in your world? Don’t forget teas of various sorts whether they include actual tea leaves or not. These can be used for refreshment, for medicine, for magic or religious ceremonies. Most fruits and some vegetables can be made into juice. Perhaps they all can but some are less appealing than others.
Some books talk a lot about food, some do not. Neither is inherently wrong. It’s just another layer you can use. Definitely something worth considering. You can always add recipes as an added bonus for your readers. Bon Appetit!