When societies were largely agrarian and most people lived in a rural setting getting real food was no problem at all, except for drought and flood and infestations of course. The point being that at one point the entire occupation of mankind was largely to do with food production and most of it was produced at home. While that is largely impossible these days there are still some ideas that can be reclaimed to fit real food into a modern setting while on a budget.
For starters, everything can be made from scratch. It's not all that hard for most items once you try it a few times and become good at it. If you try the first time and decide that that was just far too time intensive and difficult and give up, you aren't giving yourself the time to get better. When I was a newlywed we traveled to the Navajo Nations Reserve with a relief organization just before Christmas. We took food and coal and individually gift wrapped stuffed animals for every child at a boarding school there. The Navajo Nation is the largest and poorest reservation in the US. They largely still live in traditional round houses with dirt floor and wood fires. Anyway they fed us lunch one day. It was a simple meal of Navajo fry bread with pinto beans and cheese and lettuce on top. It was amazing, I feel in love with it and I begged for the recipe. They of course all looked at me strangely and said, "You crazy woman we don't have a recipe we learned from our mothers who learned from their grandmother's who learned from their grandmother's. We can't just write it down, but we'll show you how." Maybe they just looked like they were saying that in their head, but they did let me join them in the kitchen and watch.
The dough is pretty simple, but the way they flopped it between the heels of their hands to make these perfect circles that were thinner in the center than at the edge was not so simple. I tried, I tried again, I was terrible. I finally got one to look sort of right. They were flipping out a piece every 30 seconds I think while I struggled to get the feel of it. I tried again when we came home. The first batch was a total flop, the second barely better. Every few months I would pull out the, now lost, grease stained scrap of paper that I had scribbled the proportions on and tried again. One day a few years back I made a batch of fry bread and suddenly realized that I had finished the whole thing in very little time. In my excitement I called my husband at work to tell him, thus confirming for him for life that he did in fact marry a total nerd. Of all of the things I have tried, that was one of the hardest, but now if I have a large group of friends coming over for dinner I can baked up this bean recipe in the crock pot at a total cost of $3 for the beans onion, garlic and tomato. I can make up the fry bread just before people arrive and grate cheese and cut lettuce. Total cost $6 for flour, oil, lettuce, and cheese, and 15-30 of our closest friends are stuffed and happy and excited about the interesting food as well. For dessert I can just make some more and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on them.
We all know that baking from scratch is cheaper, and usually better, We just have a hard time fitting it into our days because we're so busy. I know some people who have a baking day and do all of their baking for the week on that day. Mine is Friday. There are others who not only plan their meals but set aside three hours one day to prep all of the meals for the entire week, thus eliminating chopping and measuring from their daily schedule. My mom has done something like this for years. When I was getting ready for the baby's arrival I put together crock pot recipes and combined all of the ingredients ahead of time and froze them so all I had to do was put the combined ingredients into the crock pot in the morning and dinner would take care of itself.
I said I'd tell you what I do if I want to spend less on food so here it is. We eat soup, stew, lentils, rice, and beans. I make powdered milk biscuits (And channel Garrison Keillor the whole time I'm doing it) to supplement the simple meal of Lentil Barley Soup and salad. We eat porridge for breakfast, instead of commercial cereal. We eat eggs and toast for dinner. Basically we eat peasant food, and it's amazingly good for us.