1. Cook at home. Never eat out. Dining out is so much more expensive than eating at home that the two are incomparable. Stay at home and make your own food rather than eating at a restaurant. It’s often more work, but it’s also money in your pocket.
2. Stews and soups are miraculous. A big pot with boiling water and whatever you can scavenge dumped in together is the staple of the poor man’s diet. You can dump in whatever you’ve got, along with those free salt and pepper packets, and turn up with something edible and at least remotely nutritious.
3. Keep a hen or two. This seems somewhat silly, but female chickens are very good at producing food. You can unabashedly feed them whatever scraps you have and they produce eggs very regularly. If you’re careful, you can keep them in a small cage in your own apartment; a friend of mine kept one in a pet porter for several months. Just be aware of the smell; you should line their living area with paper and expect to clean it a lot. You can do this by using scavenged newspapers and rotating them daily, but leave the papers that the chicken scratches together for a nest alone.
4. Dress as well as you can and keep yourself clean. If you don’t do this, you’ll feel worse and you’ll also be profiled, both consciously and unconsciously, by those around you. It’s much easier to scrape together some food if you bother to keep yourself reasonably clean and presentable.
5. If you live in an area with a recycling policy, take advantage of it. Finding four aluminum cans can quickly turn itself into a meal. Finding twenty or thirty cans can be a bonanza. States in the United States that offer cash for each returned can include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont; nations with such programs include Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.
6. Get some exercise. Don’t sit at home and bemoan your situation. Get out and walk around a lot. See what there is to see within walking distance. Not only might you find some opportunities for food, but you’re training your body to process what you do eat more efficiently, and most of all, don’t worry about the caloric loss, because the efficiency you’ll gain will over the long run counterbalance the excess calories you’ll burn.
7. Grow some of your own vegetables. Even when I lived in the city, I would fill up large pots with dirt and use them to grow my own vegetables. Since you’re on a rather restrained diet, foods with plenty of starch are good; try growing potatoes, as they’re heavy in starch and are very easy to grow. Just cut up a single potato into smaller pieces (six will work) and bury them deep in the soil, water them occasionally, and wait. You can find usable dirt and pots in all sorts of places if you keep your eyes open.
8. Time your visits to the grocery store for the times when they re-stock the perishable items. If you time things well and know some people, you can usually get stuff at or near expiration date for free or for a pittance. They often restock milk at two in the morning on Tuesdays near where I lived, for example, and there was a friendly guy who would look away while I grabbed a gallon or two of near-expired milk. I wasn’t alone in doing this.
9. Join a church. Quite often, congregations will have a free meal right after church and then another meal on a weeknight, usually Wednesdays. Even if you’re not a believer, you can get away with two free meals a week. If you attend two churches, you can sometimes score as many as four a week (Sunday breakfast and lunch and two weeknight dinners). I usually felt bad about this, so I would volunteer to do some minor work around the church (cleaning, etc.), but that’s up to you to decide. I might also argue the point that spiritual guidance may also help you in other ways, but I’m advising you on how to eat, not what to believe.
10. Don’t fear the leftovers. Leftovers are your savior. Don’t be afraid to make a large quantity of something and then eat it for three or four days. Also, don’t throw away even small amounts of anything if it’s still edible; you can quite often add it to a stew the next day.
11. Have friends over for a potluck dinner. Make something inexpensive for your dish for the spread. Most of the time, people will leave their leftovers behind, not wanting to deal with them, and you’ll have a wide variety of food that will last for days for the cost of only preparing one dish.
12. Don’t be afraid to swap some odd jobs for a meal. This works well in local restaurants, particularly of the truck stop or greasy thumb variety; it does not work nearly as well at chain restaurants or upscale ones. Just walk in and ask to speak to the manager, and offer to wash some dishes in exchange for a meal. This usually works best if you’re presentable; just explain that you’re really hungry and down on your luck this week. Usually in local restaurants, the manager is related to the owner (or is the owner) and, if you look decent, will usually agree to this trade. I’ve found that truck stops will regularly do this.
13. Ask for leftover bones at a butcher shop. A good excuse is to claim that they’re for your dog. Expect to hear a lot of “no,” but boiling these bones for a long time can provide a good deal of protein, particularly from the marrow.