Several times, I have had players sit down at a table in some inn/tavern asking what is available to eat or drink. Usually I can get away with a generic answer of meat pie and ale. This would be technically accurate for a historical context that we usually pull our fantasy from. It is, however, far more interesting to deviate from that context and make a menu that gives "flavor" to the world or region.
To begin we have to dive into the totally not boring topic of Economics (which I'm not lying about, it really is interesting). In wealthy first world countries of the modern age we often lose perspective on the menu's we eat from. We are able to get ingredients in places that we normally couldn't with modern shipping and technology. We are able to get fruits and vegetables while they are not in season.
When crafting an in-game menu you should consider how that item would have made it to the fantasy table. Are there local fishermen to catch the fantasy salmon? If the town is far from a body of water how does it get fish? The simple act of having to gather the ingredients may be enough to add or remove something from your menu.
Some may not want to get into the fine details of economics to figure out the food on one's plate, which is fine. Sometimes you just have to whip something together. In that case you can say that the item was transported magically or that it was smuggled and the inn keeper knows the only supplier.
Outside of a game, politics can lead to some vocal arguments and feelings getting hurt. In game, politics help drive the story and create conflict. While it may not be obvious a ton of politics has to deal with food. Take oil for example. In the US we consume a HUGE amount of oil and gasoline (I don't know the numbers but it’s a large amount). While it may not be obvious the politics behind oil impact the food we eat. As I mentioned in the last section it has to do with shipping and technology.
Let's say the price of oil goes up (like it has quite a bit in the past decade). This makes the price of shipping goods go up, which in turn makes the price of the food that is shipped go up. This can be translated to our worlds. Replace trucks with caravans, and oil with feed for animals and you can see how a bad harvest may increase the cost of everything (not just because of supply and demand). What if the components for shipping goods magically go up?
You also can consider how some foods would be incomplete or impossible if something like a trade embargo occurred. Even worse, what happens when there is a total blockade? On the flip side, what is made available when new trade routes are established or a new country is conquered? Politics can completely change the way food is made available.
Preparing a Menu
Now that I’m done rambling about boring stuff let’s get to the food! In preparing menus for your various establishments a word of warning: Don't make a menu for every inn, tavern, and or kitchen. You will go insane.
You can be much smarter by making a type of "master menu". What you do is create a list of dishes that may be served in the region you are preparing the menu for. List them by price of the meal. When you create a new establishment, pick items from the master menu based on the wealth of the patrons that arrive. You can continuously add to this list and the menus can be updated when players return to the business.
You can even go as far to create a master menu for your world such as food and drink that may be universally available. This can help you create menus for places that may not call a particular region its home. You can also make a place of food more unique by pulling items from foreign master menus.
Drinks, Alcoholic or Otherwise
This comes up in nearly any game whenever players enter a tavern. The barbarian drinks an entire keg of ale, gets drunk, has a bar fight, and maybe winds up naked in an alley. From my reading of the 5th Edition Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide, they make no reference to alcohol or drunkenness except for how much ale and wine costs. While important to know they don't help answer the age old question: how much can I drink?
For non-alcoholic beverages you don't need to worry about this as it is treated like how characters drink water. You might have them make a save if they are trying to drink far too much of a fluid just to see if they get sick. I have actually gotten sick off drinking too much water.
When it comes to alcoholic drinks I created my own set of rules for how much characters can drink. Each alcohol has its own DC based on how strong I think it might be. For example a Dwarven Ale might be a DC 16 while a normal ale might just be a DC 11. Have the player roll a Constitution saving throw and they have to beat the DC. Depending on how well they do determines what kind of penalty they get for subsequent drinks. If they succeed they only get a -1 penalty. If they fail they get a -3 penalty and if they fail by more than five I give them a -5 penalty. On a natural 1 they become drunk. These penalties stack with more drinks they consume.
Since D&D 5th Edition does not actually have a condition for drunkenness I treat alcohol like a poison. First of all, this is because naturally Dwarves have resistance to poison, to me this indicates that Wizards of the Coast treated alcohol like poisons too, and the dwarves are known for their drinking. Second, we don't have to make up any new rules for it. This can create scenarios for individuals to become immune to being drunk, since it is possible for players to gain immunity to poison.
A twist you can add to any drink is it having a unique effect. In my homebrew setting I created an illegal alcohol Undala, it is an addictive alcohol that creates hallucinogenic properties when overly consumed. Once a character becomes drunk off of Undala, they gain disadvantage on all saving throws against it until they break their addiction. In addition, while poisoned by it they start to see illusory forms. This is just some flavor that I added to this drink. You could add any number of effects, maybe like being under the influence of the confusion spell.
I feel this theme doesn't come up often at the table. There is a perfectly good spell called purify food and drink and I feel like it doesn't come up enough. It’s easy enough to forget that food can go bad. What happens when players eat food that could make them sick to their stomach? Is the food diseased? As a GM these are questions to consider when you have that one character eating anything they can get their hands on!
Prepared Like Magic
One of my favorite thoughts to play with is the interaction of food and magic. 5th Edition has create food and water and heroes' feast in their spell books. This idea was inspired by the wonderful gentlemen over at the Dungeon Master's Block podcast in one of their early Inspiration episodes when they came up with the Food Mage. Why, in a world filled with magic, would it not be used for the one thing we work so hard in our lives for?
For those of you who follow me on twitter you might have seen a while back my homebrew for a Culinary Wizard school for the 5th edition wizard. It even has a place in my homebrew setting where most regions can't safely farm. It is also a skill that one would take out on a ship, where the cost of material components take up far less space than the food.
Let's not stop at conjuring food, what about enchanting food? A wizard skilled enough in his craft could go so far as to give magical properties to the food he prepares! You could treat a meal like a potion, granting special benefits like healing or restoration. The effect could also be ill, like cursing whomever eats the turkey leg. You could make a quest going out to find the chef who can make the "wonder dish".
When working unique food and drink into your world, make sure it comes naturally and makes sense. You don't want to burden or restrict your players from discovering a whole world of food. You can create entire quests off of food and the resources around its production and consumption. Just make sure to have fun with it.
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