The food security discourse has shifted from a narrow focus on food supply to a greater consideration of access, entitlements and sustainability. An emphasis on vulnerability has coincided with increased recognition that the causes of food insecurity are the result of a complex interaction between ecological, social, political and economic events and processes. Understanding the strategies that people employ to respond to these risks is critical to identifying pathways for change towards greater food security. We explore people’s explanations of and responses in the context of changes to their livelihoods and the wider social–ecological system (SES) in which they are embedded. An integrated vulnerability framework, drawing on a SES approach, was applied to structure data collection, analysis and discussion in a food insecure region in Nepal. Using in-depth interviews, focus groups and historical data, we have examined negotiation processes, decision-making, actions and interactions within social–ecological practices. Four distinct narratives and responses emerge—those of withdrawal, resistance, maintaining and/or adapting to food insecure situations. These stories reveal the complexity of managing the lived experience of food insecurity. They highlight the need for adaptive policy responses and point towards pathways that are likely to contribute to greater food security.