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How to get free (or cheap) food

Save on your grocery bills and at restaurants

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Sarah M | Edited by Steve N

Updated 31 Oct 2017

Think there's no such thing as a free lunch? Well, think again. If you know how and are willing to put in a little legwork, it's actually possible to eat for free morning, noon and night...

From supermarkets and fast-food chains to high-end restaurants, we've 15 tips to grab free grub (or at least get it super-cheap). In this guide we'll show you how to get freebies including KFC, pizza, fruit, drinks and doughnuts - and even how to get PAID to dine out.

This is the first incarnation of this guide. If you've tried any of these tips, please feed back your experiences (good and bad) in the How to get free (or cheap) food discussion - plus let us know what else we should include.

Eat & drink for FREE

Yes, you really can get totally free food at cafés, restaurants and supermarkets. Here's how:

Get paid to eat out at restaurants by going undercover as a mystery diner

There's no need to wear a disguise or fake moustache. Restaurants such as Giraffe, Leon and Wagamama use mystery-shopping companies to keep staff on their toes, and ensure food, service and premises are up to scratch. Not only will you usually get a free meal - in some cases you can actually be PAID too.

It sounds too good to be true, but this can really work:

In one busy month, I managed to scoff more than £100's worth of free grub – eating out at least a couple of times a week at big high-street chains.

MSE Ant H

I recently signed up to three different companies, and many assignments have come up in my area (though living in London, this wasn't a huge surprise). The types of places on offer have varied, including mostly lunchtime takeaway spots, some chain restaurants and pubs, and one high-end restaurant.

MSE Lucia

How do I sign up?

You'll need to apply online to a mystery-dining firm - those below are currently recruiting (though they may be deluged with applications this week given we're featuring this in our weekly email). You don't need any previous experience, just good written English, a camera (to take a picture of receipts) and access to the internet so you can file your reports.

  • Mystery Dining by HGEM currently works with over 200 clients including restaurants, pubs and entertainment venues. Unlike other mystery-dining companies, HGEM is upfront about some of the restaurants it assesses - these include Eat, Giraffe, Itsu, Leon and Wagamama.
  • Service Scan covers restaurants, pubs and bars, plus mystery shopping at retail outlets and other areas. It's recruiting across the UK, but is particularly looking for new mystery diners in certain areas.

    Check which areas it's keen to recruit in

  • Market Force does mystery dining and shopping across the UK and globally. Read about MSE Ant H's experience dining out with Market Force in his mystery-dining blog from a couple of years ago.

Once you've signed up, you'll need to look out for mystery-dining jobs - you can find these by logging in when you check the site, or looking out for email alerts.

Each job comes with specific instructions - eg, order a main meal from the 'grills' menu, complete a questionnaire and file a report on your experience. You need to follow all the instructions to receive the payment for each job.

mystery dining

How much will I get paid?

The way this works is you'll be given a set amount for each job. This will usually - though not always - cover the cost of your meal. And often you'll get a small bonus, so you're actually being PAID to eat out. For example, you might be offered £15 for two main meals plus a £4 bonus.

It's worth doing the maths before you accept a job though to make sure the payment will at least cover the cost of your meal - we've spotted a few jobs where it wouldn't. You're told what each job pays before you sign up, so pick carefully.

Bear in mind that it may take some time to receive your payment as your report will need to be checked and approved - in some cases taking up to a month.

Grab free KFC, GBK fries, a Subway sandwich and more via fast-food apps

Fast-food chains often offer discounts and freebies to new and existing customers via their apps. It's worth downloading them and keeping an eye out for any new offers that pop up.

kfc

Here are some of the top freebies currently out there, as well as other fast-food apps which feature freebies from time to time:

  • KFC. Free side when you sign up to the app (including hot wings, popcorn chicken, fries and ice cream sundae), plus you can get free fries every Friday. You don't need to purchase anything to get the freebies. It doesn't work in motorway service stations. See our KFC deals page for full details.
  • GBK. Refer a friend to the GBK app and you'll both get a totally free side dish - fries, onion rings, corn or slaw (normally £2-£4ish each). You don't need to claim them together.
  • Subway. Sadly this offer's only for existing app users who signed up by Mon 30 Oct and have registered their details for offers. If that's you, you can get a free six-inch sandwich on Thu 2 Nov or Fri 3 Nov for 'World Sandwich Day'. See Subway deals for more info.
  • Burger King. No current freebies available, but worth downloading and keeping an eye on. Available for iPhone and Android.
  • Greggs. No freebies available right now, but in the past it's offered sandwiches, soup and hot drinks. Available for iPhone and Android.

Eat neighbours' food for free – would you dare?

Whether it's burgers, beer or blackberries, a free food and drink-sharing app offers you quality grub for free, if you're game. The idea's instead of binning surplus food, people sign up to Olio and offer it to their local community – think Freecycle for food.

Once you've found something that tickles your fancy, request it and message to arrange a pick-up. People also add items which aren't food and drink, though in most cases these are other groceries such as deodorant.

How to get the free app

olio app

Just download it from Apple's iOS App Store or the Google Play Store.

Connect the app to your Facebook and browse free goodies from neighbours and restaurants near you (some may ask for a donation to charity).

How to use it

Olio says the app works best in cities where it's popular, such as London, Brighton, Bristol and Edinburgh, so there are lots of people offering food and picking it up. But of course, the more people sign up, the more it will pick up in other areas. (It's available in 38 countries, including the whole of the EU.)

Got some sausages going spare? To give an item away, simply snap a photo, add a brief description and provide pick-up details.

Isn't it all manky?

buns

Not at all. When we looked, we found some top-quality goodies. For example, MSE Jenny nabbed four free raisin buns, originally bought from a posh bakery in North London (see pic, right).

People can add any food they like, as long as they'd be willing to eat it themselves. You can add food that's beyond its best-before date, but not use-by date. (See our Food Expiry Dates guide for more on the difference.)

Get free chocolate, coffee, pizza & more via O2's and Three's rewards apps

If you're a pay-monthly or pay-as-you-go customer on the O2 or Three mobile networks, you can get offers and freebies via their loyalty apps. (And even better, we've a trick to get you the O2 freebies even if you're NOT an O2 customer.)

To take advantage of these, you'll need to download the free apps and create an account. You'll then receive regular freebies, discounts and special offers. In most cases you claim your freebies and offers using a code that you show to the person serving you or enter online.

  • O2 Priority. You can search freebies by location - examples include coffee from Caffè Nero, chocolates from Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat and beer at Byron Burger. And although this app is for O2 customers, we've found a loophole that means everyone can get the freebies - see full info in O2 Priority for EVERYONE.
  • Wuntu. This is Three's rewards app ('Wun', 'Tu', Three, geddit?). In the past, it's offered free coffee from Costa, chocolates from Hotel Chocolat, pizzas from Pizza Hut and Domino's and a free meal at Café Rouge. The app also tailors freebies to you as you use it. See full info in MSE Kelvin's Wuntu blog post.

Buy totally free food, milk and more using supermarket coupons

Most supermarket coupons just get you a discount on specific products, eg, 50p off shampoo or a loaf of bread. But some offer products totally free.

Check out our Supermarket Coupons guide for a full list of coupons currently available. There's only one pure freebie available right now - £1.40 Just Milk lactose-free milk - though often there are more. In the past we've seen totally free Covent Garden Soup, Warburtons bread and Dr Oetker pizza.

To really take your supermarket couponing to the max, see our Extreme Couponing guide.

Drink free tea or coffee while you shop

A number of shops offer free hot drinks to customers if they sign up for a loyalty card. Of course, this isn't just out of kindness - they want to get you into their shop more often and for longer so you spend more money. However, you don't need to spend much (or sometimes anything at all) to get the freebie.

coffee
  • Ikea. You can claim a free hot drink at Ikea on weekdays as many times as you like. Simply sign up for a free Ikea Family card to get a free cup of tea or filter coffee at the in-store restaurant (norm £1.35). See Ikea deals for more info.
  • Waitrose. Sign up for a myWaitrose loyalty card and get a ‘free’ regular-sized tea or coffee in store every day from the self-service machine. Sadly it's no longer completely free - you’ll have to make a purchase to grab your freebie - but we've a trick to get it for pennies. See Waitrose deals.
  • Booths. At posh supermarket chain Booths you can get a free regular-sized hot drink in store every day with its loyalty card. This includes tea, hot chocolate and coffee - you don't need to spend anything to get it, though if you want to have your drink in a store café you'll have to buy food. See Booths deals.

Bag a free doughnut, cupcake, cookie & more on your birthday

Celebrate your birthday with completely free food offered by various restaurants and cafés. Usually all you need to do is sign up to their mailing list and you'll be sent an email around the time of your birthday, with a voucher to claim the freebie.

Here's a selection of what you can get right now:

birthday
  • Krispy Kreme. Register on the 'Friends of Krispy Kreme' rewards app, and you can get a free doughnut of your choice, plus a free glazed doughnut for your children and significant other on their birthdays too.
  • Greggs. Download its app and register for its rewards scheme to get a voucher for a free cupcake, cream cake or doughnut, valid for a month after it's issued.
  • Subway. Register with the Subcard loyalty scheme and get a free cookie around your birthday.
  • Patisserie Valerie. Sign up to its 'Cake Club' and you'll get a voucher for a free cupcake emailed to you around your birthday.

For the full list, see our Birthday Freebies deals page.

Forage for blackberries, elderflowers, raspberries & more free food

It might sound extreme, but you can get lots of food for free simply by foraging and picking it yourself. Typical finds can include elderflowers, blackberries, bilberries, samphire and dandelions. However, it's important to stay safe - only forage where you're permitted and ensure what you're doing is legal.

Where am I allowed to forage?

According to the Theft Act 1968, foraging for personal use is generally allowed in the UK - though councils and conservation agencies can pass bylaws to stop you foraging in specific areas. If you're in any doubt over whether it's allowed, find out for sure or don't do it.

You should also avoid foraging along busy roads, where plants and fruit are likely to taste of exhaust fumes, as well as areas where dogs do their business, for obvious reasons.

berries

A couple of conservation charities say they support foraging for personal use on their land:

  • The Woodland Trust allows foraging on many - but not all - of its 1,000+ woodland sites. If you can't forage - eg, where it's a conservation site or there are rare species - this should be indicated by signs, but check.
  • The National Trust, which looks after heritage sites and open spaces across the UK (including coastline, forests, fens, beaches, farmland and moorland), also says it supports foraging for personal use on most of its sites.

How to forage safely and legally

The Woodland Trust publishes responsible foraging guidelines which are worth reading in full before you try this for the first time. Here are some of the key points:

  • Seek permission from the landowner. If in doubt, always check.
  • Know what you're picking and beware poisonous species. Never consume a wild plant unless you're certain what it is. It could be rare and protected, inedible or even deadly poisonous. Fungi can be tricky to identify, so it's usually best to leave them alone.
  • Only collect from plentiful populations. Only collect flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds where they're in abundance.
  • Don't touch rare species. Some species are protected by law, so know what not to collect. Ancient woodlands in particular can contain many rare species so take special care.
  • Leave plenty behind for others and for wildlife. Wild food is vital for the survival of the UK’s wildlife and it is important to forage sustainably to ensure there is enough left for birds and others, and to allow the plant or fungus itself to produce seeds and spores that grow into the next generation. Only take what you plan to eat - and remember you may not be the only person foraging.

Foraging help in the forum

There are two dedicated foraging threads in the MSE Forum - see Foraging Challenge and Foraging - Nature's Food for useful links, tips and recipes for elderflower cordial, dandelion coffee and more.

Top tips for newbies from forumites include stocking up on suitable containers, taking a pair of gloves and exploring public footpaths. They also share good foraging locations in their area and what to look out for there.

I've had a great year so far! Loads of blackberries, more than I could pick for a couple of weeks. Wild raspberries just before that.
- Vitamin_Joe

I am enthusiastic about foraging to supplement my diet and reduce supermarket spends. You can't get better than free, fresh and organic!
- jumblejack

Tricks to get food super-cheap

If you can't find free food, there are still ways to eat well for a fraction of the usual cost.

Find a posh three-course meal for a fiver dining out at training restaurants

Fancy a cheap fine-dining three-course meal cooked by students? Top chefs have to start somewhere - and you can be their (very well-fed) guinea pig, at training restaurants in colleges and universities.

Eating out this way it's possible to grab a three-course meal for much less than you'd typically spend in a high-end eatery. For example, we spotted a three-course lunch at Furness College in Cumbria for just £5 - this includes a starter buffet followed by main course and dessert.

canteen

There are lots of training restaurants across the UK - too many to list here, so your best bet is to search online for one near you. But if you’re in London you can try Taste at South Thames College (Morden) or Pillars at the University of West London (Ealing). In Glasgow, try Scholars’ at the City of Glasgow College, and in Belfast the Academy Restaurant at the University of Ulster.

In 2015, our Deals Hunters went to check out the Taste Restaurant in London and were pleasantly surprised by the service as well as the price:

Our expectation was for it to look like a school canteen, but far from it - it looked professional and modern like any high street restaurant.

The food was delicious, we couldn’t fault the standard and it certainly matched the grub we’ve eaten in posh establishments elsewhere where they can charge double. Our waiter had impeccable customer service and although there was the odd blip, it was sorted with a smile!
- Former MSE Anna

The restaurants usually have set times and days you can dine and are only open during college and university term times (they are staffed by students, remember). Some may require you to book.

Visit a 'pay as you feel' café or supermarket

The Real Junk Food Project is a charity which runs over 40 cafés across the UK, where you can 'pay as you feel' for food that would otherwise go to waste. Locations include Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, Leicester and Edinburgh - use its website to find your nearest. It also runs a food-waste supermarket in Pudsey, near Leeds.

How much do I actually have to pay?

It's up to you. You are expected to offer something, but the Real Junk Food Project says "people can pay with money, they can offer their time, or they can present a skill". It told us some people actually give more than they would pay in a supermarket.

What kind of food is available?

The menu is set by each café and varies depending on what food donations they've received that week. Most offer typical café fare - for example, the Second Helpings café in Stamford, Lincolnshire, says it's recently served roast pumpkin and apple soup, vegetable curry and banana bread and butter pudding. The Dhali Cafe in Leeds offers purely vegetarian and vegan food.

The cafés intercept food which would otherwise go to waste, which means some food may be past its best-before date. This doesn't mean it's not safe to eat, however - while use-by dates are an important health warning, best-befores are just a manufacturer's guidance of quality. Workers at each café use their judgement to ensure the food is OK to eat.

payf

Is this just aimed at people in need?

No - while the Real Junk Food Project's a charity, the project's founder Adam Smith told us this is an environmental concept, rather than a social one, and there are "no criteria" for getting food there.

The Real Junk Food Project website also says: "We don’t just feed ‘homeless people’, ‘the needy’, nor do we just feed asylum seekers, refugees, or whoever. We feed everyone."

Despite that, it's worth bearing in mind this project will be helping people who are struggling for money too. So if you can afford to, give a decent donation so it can continue to operate.

Get discounted food at Starbucks, Itsu & Wasabi

Buying food and drink at chains such as Starbucks is rarely MoneySaving, but some offer decent discounts if you time your visit for just before they close.

  • Starbucks. More than 350 of its 800ish UK stores now offer food at half-price which would otherwise be thrown out – all money raised by selling these items is donated to Action Against Hunger. Reduced items are marked '50% off food, 100% to charity'. See a list of participating stores.
  • Wasabi. Sushi restaurant Wasabi discounts food by 50% at the end of the day. It says it does this 30 minutes before closing in participating stores - see the Wasabi website for details and locations.
  • Itsu. Asian-inspired fast-food chain Itsu says it offers discounts in all its branches 30 minutes before closing.

If you've found any other big chains offering discounts at the end of the day, please let us know in the forum or by emailing news@moneysavingexpert.com.

Use a free app to find even MORE end-of-day discounts at cafés and restaurants

buns

Too Good To Go aims to reduce food waste and save you money at the same time. It hooks you up with local cafés, bakeries and restaurants which have leftover food at the end of the day, and lets you buy it at a discounted rate.

All meals are priced between £2 and £3.80, and Too Good To Go says they've been discounted by a minimum of 50% (though some by as much as 90%).

Once you've selected the meal you want, you pay via the app. Then simply visit the location during the set collection time to pick up your food (you'll need to check this on the app, as the collection time varies from place to place).

When we checked for deals near MSE Towers, we found a 'magic' sushi box from Yo Sushi for £3.50; boxes are normally £5+. It says staff will fill this up with whatever is left over at the end of the day.

How to get the app

Simply download it for free from Apple's iOS App Store or the Google Play Store. You'll need to create a free account or log in via Facebook to browse restaurants near you.

How big is this?

The app was launched in the UK in 2016 and currently lists food in 15 cities across England, Wales and Scotland, including London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Oxford and Swansea. Over 600 businesses have signed up to offer discounted food. See the map on Too Good To Go's homepage for all venues and locations available.

Find yellow sticker discounts in the supermarket

'Yellow sticker' discounts are when a supermarket's reduced items to clear, and they've been slapped with... well, the clue's in the name. If you can find something you're looking for with a yellow sticker on, fantastic – grab it and use it quickly as it's a saving on perfectly good nosh.

To try to build a picture of the best time to find these savings, we've asked MoneySavers who work or shop in supermarkets such as Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Tesco to spill the beans. See our Supermarket Shopping Tips for the full lowdown.

Spend 70p & get as many £2 Big Mac & fries as you can stomach

It's not the healthiest way to eat. Yet you can make decent savings on burgers with these fast-food hacks (just make sure it's part of a balanced diet).

There is a sneaky way to get a Big Mac and regular fries for £1.99 (normally £4ish) EVERY time you go into McDonald’s after you’ve made one purchase - the cheapest item is a 69p ice cream cone. For full details, check out our Deals Hunter blog.

We also have a whopping trick (sorry) to get a £4.40 Bacon Double Cheeseburger for £2 in Burger King.

Buy cheap clearance 'past-best' goods online

While 'use-by' dates are an important health warning, 'best-befores' are just a manufacturer's guidance of quality. It's perfectly legal to sell goods beyond a best-before date - there's no hard and fast rule on when it's still safe to eat products; you need to make that call yourself. Look and smell are often the best indicators.

buns

Clearance site Approved Food* sells groceries which are approaching or have passed their best-before date (and it'll usually display the best-before date online for each product). It offers a hefty discount, though with delivery starting at £5.99 for up to 25kg and a £17.50 minmum spend, it's only MoneySaving if you buy in bulk.

These are some examples of the savings we spotted recently:

  • Kettle Chips salt & pepper 40g - 29p or four for £1 (next cheapest we found: 75p at Morrisons)
  • Hula Hoops cheese & onion 34g - 29p or four for £1 (next cheapest: 59p at Waitrose)
  • Robinsons apple and blackcurrant squash 1l - 59p or two for £1 (next cheapest: 99p at Lidl)

Before you buy, check our Approved Food deals page for exclusive discount codes.

Struggling to afford food? You may be able to get help from a food bank

The tips in the guide above are fun, clever MoneySaving ways to eat for free - but sadly many people struggle to afford food on a daily basis.

If that's you, there are places that can help. Food banks give out free parcels of in-date, non-perishable food that should provide enough food for at least three days.

foodbank

Who can use a food bank?

To get help from most foodbanks, you need to be referred (though this isn't the case with some independent food banks).

You can typically get referred by a doctor, health visitor, school or social worker. If you're not sure who to talk to, try asking your local Citizens Advice.

You'll likely be asked some questions about your income and why you need to use the foodbank. This is to ensure that the food goes to people who most need it. Common reasons for referrals include redundancy, receiving an unexpected bill or a delay in your benefit payments.

One of the biggest food-bank charities in the UK is The Trussel Trust, which runs two-thirds of the food banks across the UK - use its website to check if it operates one near you.

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