Cheap food starts at your hotel. Is breakfast included in the rate? If so, eat as much as you can comfortably consume. You might not see a breakfast as sumptuous as the one pictured above at La Luna Azul Bed and Breakfast in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. But if you were taught that breakfast is the day's most important meal, this should not be difficult! If you're not usually a big breakfast eater, push yourself to eat now and save on lunch costs.
Find a Bakery
If breakfast at the hotel is extra, visit a bakery instead. This gives you the chance to sample local specialties and keep meal costs in check. In Paris, where the picture above was taken, this is the breakfast of choice for millions of commuters. They do not sit down to a huge breakfast -- they grab some pastry and a beverage on the way to work. You save money when you adopt the local eating habits.
When in Rome...
Breakfast can break the budget if you insist on sausage and other trimmings in places where light pastry is the norm. Adjust eating habits to destination habits. On the other hand, when you're served a meal such as the one pictured here, eat up!
Lunch Like a Native
If you've had a big breakfast at the hotel, lunch can be a snack that will cost a few dollars. Sample a local specialty. It's as much a part of your visit as the highly rated museum or scenic outlook. These stuffed plantains might not be the lunch of which you dream, but the cost was about $1 USD for each. At that price, you can sample one and decide if you want more. Even if you don't necessarily love it, you've sampled some local culture.
If breakfast was pastry, consider assembling a picnic lunch purchased at a deli or market. Bread, cheese and fresh fruit make a filling lunch for a fraction of the restaurant costs.
No Table Policy
In many countries, restaurant meals can be more expensive if eaten at a table. Opt for a counter or "take away" service in those situations. Many parts of the world offer better picnic backdrops than restaurants. You'll always remember eating lunch in front of London's Buckingham Palace. You won't remember the deli or grocery where you bought the food. In the process, you're also likely to save money.
Choose one Meal to Emphasize
If you follow the above steps, you should have the bulk of your daily budget remaining for dinner. Exceed that figure some nights, and stay below on others. That way, you can eat several "splurge" meals and still stay within budget. Another technique that works for many budget travelers is to spend most of the daily budget at lunch, when menu prices are often lower.
Find restaurants that provide both good local specialties and value. Guidebooks direct you to established leaders in this category. But it's also good to make your own discoveries. As you walk through a city, take note of the restaurants that are filled with local patrons. Those are places that are likely to be worth a visit at mealtime.
In Costa Rica, for example, sodas are small restaurants where locals come for a lunch special that typically includes meat, cheese, rice and beans, egg and a small salad. The cost for this fine lunch is a few dollars. In other places, you might have to look a bit harder to find such an offer.
Ask a Local
It pays to ask locals for recommendations, too. Guidebook information is not always current. Even if it is up to date, plenty of other people are reading the same entry.
Pizza to the Rescue
When you need a quick but satisfying budget meal, order pizza. It is widely available and usually budget-priced. Just don't eat pizza or fast food every day. Be certain you sample the local favorites, even if doing so stretches your budget for a day.