The baseline is to be educated about food, make intelligent choices, and accept that convenience has to be created by yourself, instead of bought.
This requires some commitment on your part, but after establishing a routine, you’ll reap the benefits from your efforts.
Here are some of the strategies I use to eat healthily while on a strict budget:
Cook at home. Most likely, the most important of any advice I could give you. There is no other way to save on your food costs. Eating out is very expensive, and by home cooking your meals, you get to control what goes on your plate and how it tastes.
Buy in bulk when possible. Works well with dried staples. Instead of getting the small bag or box of rice, I get those 10kg bags that we can use for a long time. I get couscous also in 10kg bags, or flour and sugar in significant amounts, cheap.
Be a member of a warehouse club. This is if it’s possible. This is the reason why we can afford to eat meat still. We get cheaper cuts, but we eat meat (mostly pork) and sometimes fish.
Go to “ethnic” markets. I often visit a local Chinese food market, where there are deals on fish, bacon, fresh greens, spices. Some items I don’t get there because the quality can be questionable, but it’s worth checking out. Also, if I see something that I don’t know, BUT it is at a fair price, I’ll try it out and see if I like it for future reference.
Check the deals in your local flyers. This can go a long way in lowering your bill. I check out deals on fish canned or frozen, fresh vegetables or fruit. I try to make the menu we eat from what was on sale that week. If I can have a large quantity of something, I try to save some for later, usually by freezing.
Create convenience instead of buying it. Buy cheaper base products and process them according to your needs. Are you used to buy a dry mix for making pie pastry? Find a recipe and mix your own to keep in an airtight container. It takes only a few minutes to shred cheese from a solid block instead of buying it already destroyed at a premium. Invite people to your home to work on a big batch of meat pies, instead of getting questionable frozen ones from the store.
Use the whole of your ingredients. Of course, the more edible parts you’re able to get from something, the cheaper it becomes. If you get broccoli, prepare the florets, but also peel the feet to get rid of the stringy outside, and cut the core to eating. When buying leeks, eat the whole plant instead of throwing away the green parts. The focus of pineapple is edible; if you dislike it raw, try blending it in a smoothie, or use it pureed in a cake. Freeze in a bag “food scraps” like carrots peels, onions trimmings, or evil looking (but still edible) pieces of vegetables. Do the same for bones from your meat, or any small meat scraps, until you have enough for making delicious broth (freeze meat and vegetables in a separate container).
Stick to the outside walls of the supermarket. That’s where the less processed items are hanging out, and are the healthiest for you. Sometimes it’s fine to go in the aisle, but 90% should come from the outskirts. I sometimes buy dry sauces packets, pasta, thickeners, mostly from the middle.
Learn to preserve. That might mean preparing a raw item and freezing it, freezing a large batch of something in several smaller quantities for later, learning how to water bath jam, jellies or pickles, learning to smoke or salt food, or even learning how to use a pressure canner.
Look for products past their prime. Products near the expiration date will still be right, and are often reduced in price to be sold quickly. If you can eat them relatively fast, usually the price is slashed by half or more. Meat near the expiration date is still good and can be frozen for later use. Bruised vegetables still taste fantastic in a pureed soup. You can also bake cakes with bruised or soft fruit, for next to nothing.
Look for store-brands instead of national brands. This is not valid for all products, but often, store-brands are of good quality and good taste. If you’re able to give it a try for specific items, surely this can help to lower the bill.
Eggs are your friends. I use them everywhere. They’re a neat source of proteins, and you should be able to reliably get them for 20 cents an egg, or lower.
Buy dried legumes. Legumes are very nutritious, full of proteins, and cheap as well if you buy them *dried*, in bulk. Soaking them does not cost a dime, just sometimes, and you don’t have to watch this process at all. Once absorbed, a slow cooker can help in making batches of soup or stew quickly, if you have one.
Slow cook your food. Slow cooking allows you to buy cheaper cuts of meat to tenderize slowly while cooking over low heat. The easiest option is to get a slow cooker, but you can also simmer foods on the low setting on the stovetop. Soups and stews are great “one-pot meals” to enjoy from your slow cooker.
Go vegetarian. Learn to cook some meatless meals once or twice during the week. Meat is usually more expensive than other sources of proteins, so you can cut some costs by sometimes not having it. Lots of great books and Internet resources exist on this, including the “Meatless Monday” initiative.
Stretch your proteins. If you must have meat, learn to stretch it. Instead of having 6 oz of meat, have 4 oz. You’ll still be satisfied, and if you cooked two portions, then you’ll already have a third meat portion saved for later. You could also have a small amount of meat (let’s say 2 oz in a sauté) and combine another kind of protein to create a tasty meal with a lasting fullness sensation.
Garden. If you have the availability, try your hand at gardening in a yard, or if you can’t, try planting in a container. Lettuce, spinach, radishes are fast-growing crops that are easy to tend to. They also tend to be premium priced at the grocery store. You can eat the leaves of the radishes too for a tasty salad, or soup. Have some natural crops like raspberries (those will live pretty much anywhere !) or strawberries, which can hang from containers. Cucumbers are easy to grow and produce a lot, so do squash.
Forage. If you have the ability, learn to identify some plants and forage around the places you visit. I have picked wild apples, crab apples, and prunes from trees that I spotted around where I live. I have eaten lamb’s quarters, which is considered a “weed.” I make sure to harvest the pear tree that is in my front yard and process the fruits. I have spotted wild raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries on vacant land. I spotted juniper berries in a bush once. Maybe learn to hunt for mushrooms?
If all else fails, try your local food bank. They’ll help you. There is no shame in having a rough time, and you can always pay it forward later when you’re better off.