Nationwide to scrap cashback on its credit cards
30 October 2020
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.
Yes, you really can get totally free food at cafés, restaurants and supermarkets. Here's how:
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 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.
Former MSE Lucia
You'll need to apply online to a mystery-dining firm – those below are currently recruiting. 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.
Bath, Brighton, Bury St Edmunds, Camberley, Cobham, Farnham, Liverpool, Marlow, Newbury, Norwich, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Winchester, Worcester
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.
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.
Fast-food chains often offer discounts and freebies to new and existing customers via their 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):
These restaurants also offer freebies from time to time, so it's worth downloading and keeping an eye on their apps:
Whether it's burgers, beer or blackberries, a free food and drink-sharing app offers you quality grub 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.
And while the vast majority of items on Olio come from people emptying out their store cupboards, major supermarkets and retailers such as Pret a Manger – as well as many independent cafes, bakeries and shops – have now 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 items listed which aren't food and drink too, though in most cases these are other items commonly sold in supermarkets, such as deodorant.
Sign up with your email address, or connect the app to your Facebook, and browse free goodies from neighbours and restaurants near you.
Olio says over 1.2 million users are now signed up to its app across the UK. 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 Manger, Sainsbury'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.
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to filter the listings to find food from major chains. But if you're using the web app, you can try the 'find' command (press 'Ctrl' and 'F') on your keyboard to hunt for what you're after. If there are a lot of listings in your area, make sure you scroll right to the bottom of the page, as this will load more for you to search through. You may find more available if you check towards the end of the day too.
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.
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.)
If you're a pay-monthly or pay-as-you-go 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.
Most supermarket coupons and cashback apps just get you a discount on specific products, eg, 50p off a loaf of bread. But some offer products totally free.
Check out our Supermarket Coupons guide for a full list of coupons and cashback currently available. In the past we've seen totally free Covent Garden Soup, Warburtons bread and Dr Oetker pizza.
To take your supermarket couponing to the max, see our Extreme Couponing guide.
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.
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.
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). See Get paid to drink for full info.
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.
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 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:
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.
I am enthusiastic about foraging to supplement my diet and reduce supermarket spends. You can't get better than free, fresh and organic!
If you can't find free food, there are still ways to eat well for a fraction of the usual cost.
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 Isle of Wight College for just £5.
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 some may require you to book.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you live or work in the capital (or are simply visiting), there are a number of London-based eateries offering discounts at the end of the day, including the Harrods food hall. See our Cheap things to do in London guide for the full list.
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.
You can buy a 'magic bag' of food via the app, which costs between £2 and £4, 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.
The app was launched in the UK in 2016 and currently lists food in most cities across England, Wales and Scotland, including London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Oxford and Swansea. More than 3,200 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.
'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.
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 £4ish) EVERY time you visit McDonald's after you've made one purchase – the cheapest item is a 59p mini McFlurry. For full details, check out our Deals Hunters blog.
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.
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.
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. If you're not sure who to talk to, try asking Citizens Advice.
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 its website to check if it operates near you.
Clever ways to calculate your finances