Characters are people too, and obviously, people need to eat. Depending on what their culture is like, though, their eating habits and customs definitely vary, and it adds some more interesting detail to your story if you brainstorm what one of your particular society/culture’s food customs are like. They obviously aren’t the main focus, but these are the kind of details that can make a storyworld seem just a bit richer.
First of all, you’ll want to determine the average diet of the people who live in the particular place you’re brainstorming about. Here are some things to think about when you do this:
- What is the land like in that area? Different types of land grow different crops. For instance, flat areas that used to be prairies, such as the American Midwest, are particularly good for growing corn and soybeans. Swampy and wetter areas are better for growing rice. A quick google search of “foods grown in [insert climate of your choice here]” should help with that.
- How do they meet their dietary needs? Even if your species isn’t human, it still needs to feed on something to create energy to run its body. As for humans, however - humans need carbohydrates, proteins, fat, and various vitamins/minerals. We get these from different sources, so in order to meet these needs, we must eat a varied diet. If your people are surviving on food that is either mostly carbs (something like rice or other grains) or mostly protein (something like meat or legumes), your people aren’t going to survive.
- As for nutrients, here is a basic summary of where people get which chemicals they need to survive: Carbs - Grains, fruits, vegetables, anything with sugar or starch in it. Protein - legumes, meat, dairy products, nuts. Fat - mostly animal products, generally, especially meat (although avacados and oily foods like olives also contain fat/lipids). Vitamins and minerals - the vast majority of these come from vegetables and fruits, although some also can appear in animal products (like vitamin D milk).
- How easy it to find enough food to survive, for the average person? This depends both on the technology of the society, as well as the economic structure. More advanced technology can mean that more food is being produced (such as giant commercial farms that produce massive amounts of corn), but if the economics aren’t quite right (the market is out of whack, making food prices too high, or there is rampant poverty despite the technology), it still can be hard for the average person to obtain food. On the other end is subsistence farming, where the person grows/raises their own food to survive, and only sells a little to outside sources (if any). If there isn’t any agriculture, people are probably hunters and gatherers instead, or they import their food from elsewhere.
- How processed is the food? This, again, will depend on technology. Generally, it’s healthier to eat non-processed foods, but these foods also spoil much quicker, and aren’t practical if you want to keep your food in storage for a long time. Today, foods are given preservatives and/or pasteurized to keep out germs, as well as keep the food from spoiling. In the past, people used to use either salt or spices to keep their food from spoiling, as well as keeping the food cold (which we obviously still do today). If the foods are over-processed in your society, the amount of unnatural chemicals in the foods might also cause problems for your people and cause them to get sick. Another good thing to consider is how clean the places where your food is processed are.
- How much of an environmental impact does the food have, and is it sustainable to gather/grow/hunt it this way? Humans often try to capitalize on a resource for large immediate gains, but if this is done too much, they may not be able to have that resource in the future. With populations of wild animals/plants, if they are hunted/harvested too much, not enough of them will live to reproduce to replenish the population. This can also have negative ecological impacts and reduce/increase numbers of other species (which may or may not have deleterious effects), because if one species is affected, the whole ecosystem gets affected. As for land, if land is farmed too much, the soil can often become infertile and void of nutrients, and the water supply can also deplete because of improper irrigation (for an example of what can happen if land is farmed far too much without proper care, just look at the 1930s Dust Bowl).
- Which foods are cheaper, and which are more expensive? How healthy are these foods? Is unhealthy food cheaper, and does that create a problem? In urban America, there are places in cities called food deserts, which are usually located in poorer areas, where the only reasonable access to a food source is something like a convenience store, which does not provide adequate food to survive healthily on.
Those are some things to think about regarding the production of food and what your people eat, but here are some things to think about in regard to what your people do with their food, once they have it (basically, different food customs):
- What are the delicacies in your society? Usually, these are foods that are very rare and expensive (although they may or may not be delicious…I don’t think caviar is especially appetizing myself). Generally, they are mostly enjoyed by wealthier people (or people of lesser income on special occasions), so these are likely to appear either at gourmet restaurants, or at celebrations of some kind or another.
- What are some forbidden foods in your society, and why are they forbidden? A food may be banned because it causes extreme health problems, or that it’s morally objectionable to grow/hunt/raise it. For instance, many people find veal objectionable as a meat source. Food can also be forbidden for religious reasons, and if there are forbidden foods in a religion, it’s usually outlined in their scripture somewhere. Food can be forbidden for other reasons specific to your story, but these are some of the most common reasons.
- What foods are traditional on which holidays? Most societies have holidays of some sort, whether secular or religious, and people usually eat quite a bit on these holidays. Alternatively, fasting could also be a tradition on a holiday, although this would usually be associated with a religious holiday.
- What are considered some of the most delicious foods in your society? Cultures definitely differ in that regard, and many cultures consider certain foods delicious that another culture might find repulsive.
- How much has the local food been influenced by food from other places/cultures? Has the local food tradition spread to other places? For instance, in America, we have a lot of restaurants that serve food traditional to other countries, but some do it better than others. I don’t think anyone really considers Taco Bell to be actual Mexican food, but there are other restaurants in America that serve legitimate and less Americanized Mexican food.
- Do the people take pride in their food and the way it’s developed? Has your culture/country produced any notable specialties, especially ones that are easily recognizable?
- What are some of the traditional dishes of your culture/country, whether they are breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, or snacks? Usually, these will be based on which foods are most easily obtainable in your particular area (for instance, a lot of Italian food uses tomatoes, because tomatoes are easily grown in the Mediterranean region).
- What are the traditional mealtimes? Usually, people have about three meals a day, but this can vary. Maybe your people have one giant meal and the occasional snack, or they engage in more of a “grazing” behavior by having three or more small meals throughout the day. Are there any ceremonies involved with these mealtimes, or traditional drinks/foods eaten at specific times?
- What are some seasonal foods? What’s popular in winter, as opposed to summer (or whatever other seasons your region may have)? And why? Does this have to do with holidays that are in this particular season, or just the weather?
- What kind of drinks are there, and when are they consumed? These can range among water, juice, milk, tea, coffee, carbonated drinks, alcohol, etc. Nearly every society has some sort of intoxicating drink, so what kind of alcohol is favored by your society, and what it is made of (alcohol is made from fermented things, but these can range from grains to grapes to apples. It depends on the drink).
There are many more things you could consider when it comes to food, but hopefully this is a start. I think the only problem is that this post made me hungry. Oops. Anyway, good luck!