How to get free (or cheap) food

Save on grocery and restaurant bills

Think there's no such thing as a free lunch? From supermarkets and fast-food chains to high-end restaurants, we've 16 tips to grab free grub (or at least get it super-cheap) including how to get PAID to dine out.

Eat & drink for FREE

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

  1. Grab free burgers, doughnuts and more via apps & clubs

    Fast-food chains often offer discounts and freebies to new and existing customers through apps and membership 'clubs'. It's worth joining and keeping an eye out for any new offers which pop up.

    Here are some of the top freebies currently out there (each freebie can only be redeemed once):

    • Greggs – free pizza slice and hot drink if you sign up to the app before Monday 16 October. In the past we've also seen it offer sausage rolls, doughnuts and more for those with the app. The app's available for iPhone and Android

    • Krispy Kreme – free doughnut for new sign-ups. Sign up to Krispy Kreme Rewards and enter your details to get a free original glazed doughnut. You'll also get another one on your birthday.

    • Taco Bell – free crunchy taco when you sign up to the app. The app's available for iPhone and Android.

    These restaurants also offer freebies from time to time, so it's worth downloading and keeping an eye on their apps:

    • McDonald's. If you download the app right now, you'll get 1,000 bonus points on your first order (you need 1,500 to redeem a freebie). In the past we've seen it offer completely free burgers, fries, veggie wraps and iced lattes. Available for iPhone and Android.

    • Burger King. If you download the app and sign up to BK Rewards, you'll get 100 points (you need 150 to redeem a freebie). We've seen it offer free Whoppers in the past. The app's available for iPhone and Android.

    • Subway. In the past it's offered free six-inch subs, for example, on 'World Sandwich Day' in November. Available for iPhone and Android.

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  2. 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.

    Ex-MSE Ant

    I 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.

    Ex-MSE Lucia

    How do I sign up?

    You'll need to apply online to a mystery-dining firm such as one of those below. 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 Brewdog, Itsu, Pret a Manger and Wagamama.
    • Market Force does mystery dining and shopping across the UK and globally. Read about Former MSE Ant's experience dining out with Market Force in his mystery-dining blog from 2015.

    • Service Scan covers restaurants, pubs and bars, plus mystery shopping at retail outlets, football stadiums, concert venues and more.

    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 – for example, 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.

    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.

  3. Nab free food from Pret, Costa, local bakeries & more (plus eat neighbours' leftovers for free... if you dare)

    Whether it's burgers, beer or blackberries, a free app offers you quality grub (and other items) for free. The idea is that instead of binning surplus food, people sign up to Olio and offer it to their local community – think Freecycle for food.

    What will I find on Olio?

    Olio originally started out as a free food and drink-sharing app, but you can now use it to give away (and get) other household items too, such as books, clothes and toys.

    And while many items on Olio come from people emptying out their store cupboards, major supermarkets and retailers such as Pret a Manger – as well as independent cafes, bakeries and shops – have jumped on board to offer up leftovers at the end of the day.

    Volunteers collect any spare food from these stores and list it on the app (you collect food from the volunteers rather than the stores themselves). For example, we've seen posh loaves of bread and pastries, plus Pret yogurt pots and sandwiches, all going completely free.

    Once you've found something that tickles your fancy, request it and message to arrange a pick-up. You can sometimes find non-food and drink items listed too, though in most cases these are other products commonly sold in supermarkets, such as deodorant.

    How to get the free app

    Olio. Beautiful juicy tomatoes.

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

    Sign up with your email address, or connect the app to your Facebook, and browse free goodies from neighbours and restaurants near you.

    How to use it

    Olio says seven million users are now signed up to its app, so there are lots of people offering food and picking it up – though as you'd expect, you'll find more listed in big cities.

    National chains include Costa, Pret a MangerSainsbury's, Selfridges and Tesco. In London, there's also Eurostar, First Group and Planet Organic and we've seen lots offered by smaller, independent cafés, bakeries and restaurants across the country.

    It's a sharing community, so don't forget you can offer free food as well as claim it. Got some sausages going spare? To give an item away, simply snap a photo, add a brief description and provide pick-up details.

    Food from your neighbours... isn't it all manky?

    Not at all. When we looked, we found some top-quality goodies listed by individuals as well as chains. For example, MSE Jenny nabbed four free raisin buns, which had originally been 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.)

    MoneySaver Jean was impressed by her first experience using the app:

    I downloaded the Olio app last week after reading the MSE email. Yesterday evening the Tesco food was added. There was loads on offer – veg, salads, chilled meals, bread and cakes. And when I collected the items I was asked by the volunteer if I wanted any extras as there were still items left! What a fab idea. 

  4. Get free chocolate, coffee & more via O2's and Vodafone's rewards apps

    If you're a Virgin Media broadband customer, or customer on the O2 or Vodafone 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 PriorityPast examples include sausage rolls at Greggs, chocolates from Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat and beer at Byron Burger. Although this app is for O2 and Virgin Media broadband customers, we've found a loophole that means anyone can get the freebies simply by getting a free O2 Sim card (though you now have to top it up by £10 to access the app). See full info in O2 Priority for EVERYONE.

    • VeryMeThis is Vodafone's rewards app. It's offered free hot drinks at Greggs or Costa, free wine at Majestic and free Tesco gift cards. See our Vodafone deals page for more info.
  5. Buy totally free food using supermarket coupons

    Most supermarket coupons and cashback apps just get you a discount on specific products, for example, 50p off a loaf of bread. But some offer products totally free.

    Right now you can get a free £2 Lindt chocolate bar via a cashback app. Check out our Supermarket coupons guide for a full list of coupons and cashback currently available. 

    In the past we've also seen totally free Covent Garden Soup, Warburtons bread and Dr Oetker pizza. 

  6. Drink free tea or coffee while you shop

    Some 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.

  7. Bag a free doughnut, cupcake & 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:

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

  8. Aged 18 or 19? Get paid to drink (yes, really)

    It may sound too good to be true, but if you're 18 or 19, you can actually get paid to go to the pub. But please be Drinkaware

    Serve Legal employs mystery shoppers across the UK and Ireland to check whether staff in pubs, bars and supermarkets ask for ID when selling alcohol (it also checks other age-restricted products such as lottery tickets). 

    Visits typically take three to 12 minutes and you'll be paid for your time (typically between £6 and £8, but sometimes up to £20 a visit), plus expenses, and get to keep – or drink – anything you buy. 

  9. 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 when it's in season. Typical finds can include elderflowers, blackberries, sloe berries, 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. 

    You'll find different wild food at different times of year. For example, in September you can find sloe berries, wild raspberries, wild strawberries, beech nuts, hawthorn berries and rosehips. It's even possible to forage in the winter months – see below for tips on what you might find.

    The Woodland Trust has a handy guide to what you can find in each month of the year (and how to use it, for example, jams, salads, homemade pesto and more):
    • January. Acorns, beech nuts, blackberries, chestnuts, crab apples, hawthorn berries, hazelnuts, pine nuts, rosehips, sloe berries, whitebeam berries.
    • February. Alexanders (horse parsley), chickweed, dandelion, nettles, sweet violet, velvet shank mushrooms, wild garlic.
    • March. Chickweed, dandelion, goosegrass, gorse, hawthorn, Japanese knotweed, nettles, wild garlic.
    • April. Alexanders, bramble leaves, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hairy bittercress, mallow, wild garlic.
    • May. Chickweed, hawthorn, lime, mallow, oxeye daisy, red clover, sorrel.
    • June. Ash, elderflowers, elderberries, ground elder, honeysuckle, lime, rose, pineapple weed.
    • July. Bilberries, chickweed, chanterelle, fat hen, mallow, meadowsweet, wild strawberries, yarrow.
    • August. Blackberries, crab apples, elderberries, greater plantain, hazelnuts, rowan berries.
    • September. Beech nuts, hawthorn berries, rosehips, sloe berries, wild raspberries, wild strawberries.
    • October. Bullace, beech nuts, hazelnuts, rosehips, sloe berries, sweet chestnuts, walnuts.
    • November and December. Bullace, hairy bittercress, hops, pine needles, pine seeds, sweet chestnuts.

    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.

    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 – for example, 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

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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.

  1. 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. Though it's worth noting these are generally only open in term time during the academic year (roughly late-September to May).

    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 The Stables Restaurant (part of Oaklands College in St Albans) for just £10.

    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! 

    Ex-MSE Anna

    The restaurants usually have set times and days you can dine and some may require you to book.

  2. Visit a 'pay as you feel' café or supermarket

    The Real Junk Food Project is a charity which runs 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. 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, has previously served leek and potato soup, chicken pie, veggie pasta bake, and bread and butter pudding.

    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.

    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. So if you can afford to, give a decent donation so it can continue to operate.

  3. Use a free app to find end-of-day discounts at cafés & supermarkets, such as £3.30 for £10's worth of Aldi food

    Jimmy's World Buffet. The O2 (lunch).

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

    You can buy a 'magic bag' of food via the app, which usually costs between £2 and £5, and Too Good To Go says the food will be worth at least three times as much as if you'd bought it at full price.

    Once you've selected the store you want to rescue food from, you pay via the app. Then simply visit the location during the set collection time to pick up your bag (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 bag' from Yo Sushi for £3.50 (its sushi 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 App Store or Google Play. You'll need to create a free account or log in via Facebook to browse locations near you.

    Aldi is now on Too Good To Go

    MoneySavers were buzzing about supermarket Aldi joining the app earlier this year. Aldi says it's offering grocery 'magic bags' for £3.30 at all of its 990 stores, which will contain at least £10 worth of food that's approaching its sell-by or use-by dates.

    To get one, search for your nearest Aldi store in the Too Good To Go app and reserve a bag to collect from the store at an allotted time. MoneySaver Penny picked up a bag and shared her haul via Twitter:

    How big is Too Good To Go?

    The app was launched in the UK in 2016 and lists food in most big towns and cities including London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Oxford and Swansea. More than 20,000 businesses have signed up to offer discounted food.

    My friend told me about the local bakery which had an offer on the app on a Saturday to get rid of stock (as it was closed on a Sunday). I paid around £3.30 for a 'surprise bag' and got six doughnuts, two pain au chocolat, two large pieces of bread and butter pudding and four sandwich subs.

    MSE Helen S
  4. 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.

  5. Spend 50p & 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's a sneaky way to get a Big Mac and regular fries for £1.99 (normally about £4) EVERY time you visit McDonald's, after you've made one purchase – the cheapest item is a 50p sauce. For full details, check out our McDonald's MoneySaving hacks.

  6. Buy cheap clearance 'past-best' goods online

    Best before.

    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.

    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 decent discount, but delivery starts at £3 for up to 25kg and there's a £22.50 minimum spend – meaning it's often only MoneySaving if you buy in bulk.

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

  7. Get free (or £1) kids' meals at Bella Italia, Morrisons Cafés & more

    Lots of restaurants and cafés offer deals which let kids eat free (or sometimes for just £1) when you buy an adult meal. Right now this includes Bella Italia, Brewers Fayre, Morrisons Cafés, Sizzling Pubs and lots more.

    This can be a great way to keep the kids entertained, as well as save a bit of cash on going out as a family. See our Restaurant deals & vouchers page for a full round-up.

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

The tips in this guide 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. Foodbanks give out free parcels that should provide at least three days' worth of in-date, non-perishable food.

Who can use a foodbank?

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

You can typically get referred by a doctor, health visitor, school or social worker. But if you're not already getting support from one of these services, try asking Citizens Advice, which can also refer you.

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

The Trussell Trust is one of the biggest foodbank charities in the UK, where it runs two-thirds of foodbanks – use the Trussell Trust website to check if it operates near you. If so, there'll usually be details on your local foodbank's page of how to access its services.

Struggling but not in crisis? Check if you live near a social supermarket

Social supermarkets, also known as community supermarkets or community shops, are stores that sell surplus food from major supermarkets and other parts of the food industry at heavily discounted prices, in some cases on a 'pay what you can' or 'pay as you feel' basis, like the cafés run by The Real Junk Food Project.

These stores are usually run by charities or not-for-profit social enterprises and are generally, but not always, aimed specifically at those on low incomes. Many offer other forms of support to those struggling, such as community kitchens offering low-cost meals, cooking classes, healthy eating courses, money management courses and debt advice.

Who can use a social supermarket?

Whether you qualify to use a social supermarket very much depends on which one you go to. For example, the social supermarket at Foleshill Community Centre in Coventry is open to everyone, as is the S-Mart store in Forfar and The People's Fridge in Brixton.

But to shop at a Company Shop or Community Shop, which have various stores, you need to receive a means-tested benefit, such as jobseeker's allowance or council tax support, or work for (or receive a pension from) the NHS, care and emergency services or similar. Pepys Social Supermarket is aimed at those on low incomes, and asks those wanting to use it to provide details of their current housing, employment and financial situation.

How do social supermarkets differ from foodbanks?

While foodbanks are a life-saving concept that continue to help those in crisis, they aren't supposed to be a long-term solution. And, because they're meant to be for those most in need, they can often only be used by those referred by a third party.

Social supermarkets aim to offer a sustainable, longer-term way for those on low incomes to have access to good, affordable food, as well as offering greater choice and providing social support through building a community.

What's available from social supermarkets?

Again this varies, but most offer groceries that are surplus from mainstream supermarkets. This means some products may be mislabelled, have damaged packaging or be past their best-before date. This doesn't mean it's not safe to eat, though – while use-by dates are a health warning, best-befores are just a guidance of quality. They also generally offer toiletries, period products and household items too.

How much do you pay at social supermarkets?

What you pay also depends on the social supermarket, but most of them operate on a membership scheme. So, for example, you pay a weekly subscription of £3.50 which goes towards keeping the store running, and in return you can buy groceries worth £25 or more. Some ask shoppers to volunteer in the store for a few hours a month as part of their membership.

Others offer free membership and then sell items like a regular supermarket, but at heavily discounted prices, and some operate a 'pay as you feel' policy, allowing you to decide how much to pay based on what you feel able to contribute.

How do I find out if I live near a social supermarket?

It can be be tricky to track these stores down as they're not always well publicised or particularly visible. A good place to start is by checking the websites of enterprises that have stores in a number of locations across the country, such as:

It's also worth checking with your council or, if you have one, housing provider, as they often support these schemes, plus any websites and social media accounts and groups dedicated to your local area.

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