Do You Need Food in Your Story?

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Years ago, I was at a conference with Wendy McClure who was then an editor at Albert Whitman. At some point during her presentation she commented that she thought the Boxcar Children books were so popular because food features in every single book.

More recently, I’ve been working on a cozy which means that I’m reading a lot of cozies. So many of them include lengthy passages about food and even recipes. We certainly are a culture that is obsessed with food.

One writer recently commented on Twitter that two different people who critiqued her manuscript said that she needed to include food. I’m trying to remember the specific reasoning behind the recommendations but I think the idea was that it would make the book more interesting. Not surprisingly, when the writer asked about this on Twitter, plenty of people commented. I’d love to say that there was a consensus.

My take on this is that it depends on the story. For example, if your setting is a restaurant, bakery, or cafe, it would seem strange if you didn’t mention food. Likewise if your character’s profession involves farming or food preparation.

In my middle grade science fiction novel, I mention food several times. At least half my story is set on a space ship. Given the length of time that has gone by since the journey began, food options are limited and this is a real issue for one of my characters. When the first group of characters encounters a second group who have fewer resources, I again focus on food. I do this because, in my science fiction world of the future as is the case today, money brings better food options.

I am currently reading Do You Believe in Terra-Two? by Tomi Oh. The characters in this story are about to undertake a journey that will be decades long. Now, they have food options. On the ship, things will be very monotonous until their garden is up and running. One of the characters expresses her anxiety through an obsession about food – what she eats, what others eat, and what they will have in the near future.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching Season 2 of Alex Rider. While I’m sure he eats, after all I know he hates pizza with anchovies, I can’t tell you when was the last time food was mentioned. It just isn’t critical in any way to the story.

Food can be a bridge to bring readers into an unfamiliar situation but if food doesn’t matter to your story, it doesn’t need to have a prominent place. Like anything else that doesn’t move the story forward in some way, it should be left out to make room for something that does.


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