Updated: Dec 5, 2022
We all eat food and so one thing that really connects us as human beings is what we eat. Culturally, socially, and even just generally it's something we need to survive and something we sometimes take pleasure in. When you're playing in an already established world such as Forgotten Realms, there's not a ton of supplemental material out there to describe the different foods you can find and experience as you're traveling and that's because most people ignore food in their games, even though it can add a surprising amount of depth and connection - especially when you create a homebrew world and you're free to place any details you wish. Stop thinking of "rations" as one of those items you never keep track of on your character sheets like most of you do with arrows or crossbow bolts and start thinking of them as tools to experience humanity through your characters (as players AND as GMs). I'll start with some ways in which you can incorporate food into your sessions.
WHAT ARE RATIONS, ANYWAY? Rations actually might be a good place to start. Every character, at least in D&D but also in other games, is just automatically assumed to have eaten enough food to survive and a way to facilitate this in-game without having to have annoying mechanics for it is to allow players to purchase "Rations" from the equipment list. I don't think rations in and of themselves are super important, as in your players won't have fun if you don't acknowledge them in some way, but to me it builds a strong stylistic and roleplaying base for my players to expand upon. Sometimes during sessions, I use roleplaying moments where it's just the characters sitting around the fire, and I let the players roleplay for a little while and do things like polish their armor or weapons, or even eat. But it came to my attention that so little focus is given to the concept of rations that my players often didn't understand what rations actually were comprised of. And I discovered that, much like my players, I didn't understand exactly what they were either, so I looked it up and was surprised.
Rations can be a bit varied, depending on which race or culture is carrying them. Humans carry probably the most common version (bread, dried fruit, dried meat, and cheeses) but most other versions of rations used by other races don't necessarily stray far from that template. Easy to carry, less likely to spoil items work best. But even if you mention what rations are, how do your players visualize them? Luckily, there is a redditor who goes by the name of Wats6831 who has created visual representations of what a day of rations might look like.
Common rations can vary from culture to culture, but this artisan herb bread, dried apples and prunes, uncured beef sausage, and sliced muenster cheese all bundled in cheese cloth is what your character might be carrying.
For a dwarf, common rations might look slightly different. Garlic chicken livers, smoked and peppered cheese, spiced pork sausages, hard tack, dried vegetables, and dried wild mushrooms.
Elves are fancy and so are their rations. Honeycomb, travel bread, spring cheese, smoked fish, spiced lichen, and pine nuts.
Don't forget your villains! They have to eat as well. A character finding the rations of a drow character may find these items while they're looting a drow corpse. Black truffle cheese, moss snails, blind cave fish caviar stuffed in mushroom caps, duck egg from the surface world, black velvet ear fungus.
These are just a few examples of the types of rations which could be carried by any given NPC or player character in the game. Thanks to belloflostsouls who succinctly compiled the original shots from Wats6831.
In any case, I hope this clears up what rations actually are in your game world. Once you know what they are, inform the rest of the players at your table. Maybe if you're all meeting in person, you can actually hand them a cheese cloth filled with rations for the session. It would certainly be a healthy alternative to Doritos and Mountain Dew, and it could add to the immersion. And think about how rations fit into the larger world. Vendors certainly sell them, but hardly any NPCs ever mention selling rations. Maybe there's an NPC in your town who sells "the best rations this side of Waterdeep". I do know that fleshing out something as simple and taken for granted as common rations will only improve the depth of your roleplaying, and thus your game nights.
Do you have any success stories with incorporating food into your campaigns? Let us know in the comments! - Joe