When you’re on a budget, it’s often necessary to cut out simple luxuries, like dining out. Unless, of course, you’re a savvy saver who knows how to work the system. In this case, you can have your cake and eat it too.
If you know where to look, there are many ways you can enjoy delicious meals that won’t dirty a dish in your kitchen and won’t cost you a dime. Plus, if you manage to score one free meal per week, you could easily save yourself $50 per month, or $600 per year!
Here are some ideas you can use to get free meals.
12 Ideas to Get a Free Meal
1. Accept Invitations
Whether it’s from your parents or your best friend, happily accept that brunch or dinner invitation. A home-cooked meal that you don’t have to cook tastes better than anything you would have made yourself, and nothing beats eating out at a nice restaurant.
Just be conscious of the tab when someone else is picking it up. There’s no need to be greedy and order the most expensive dish on the menu, and you shouldn’t guzzle down booze like it’s going out of style. Commit either of those crimes and it could be the last invitation you receive.
2. Let the Boss Take You to Lunch
Nobody really wants to go to lunch with the boss, lest you look like a bootlicker to your colleagues. But a meal with the big guy has its perks. First, it’ll give you a chance to talk shop, impress your boss, and discuss your future with the company. Secondly, you won’t have to feel an ounce of guilt that he or she is picking up the tab, because it’s on the company’s dime.
Again, don’t come off like a glutton; try keep your meal under $15 at a casual restaurant. But otherwise, sit back and enjoy the benefits of the corporate credit card.
3. Take Home Leftovers
I once ordered a BLT from a deli that was overflowing with bacon. There was literally a pound of it in the sandwich. There was no way I could eat that in one sitting, at least not without having a massive heart attack in the middle of the restaurant. So I pulled most of it off, and instead of throwing it away, I asked the server to box it up.
When I got home, I used the leftovers as an ingredient in a dish I prepared the following night. Since I had already purchased some of the other ingredients, this wasn’t exactly a free meal but it did save me a bit of money, and the leftover recipe reduced food waste.
Another way to get a second meal out of leftovers, especially when eating out, is to combine two plates into one. Sometimes my husband and I have enough left over between us to make a sufficient meal for one of us later on. Be sure to ask for a second helping of bread before you go, so you can put that in the box as well.
4. Fill Out the Survey on the Receipt
Not all restaurants offer this kind of program, but if you encounter one it’s wise to fill out the survey. The IHOP in my neighborhood offers a free short stack of pancakes for completing a survey online. Pancakes are filling, so that would be a satisfying meal for me, especially if it’s free.
This opportunity is something a lot of people brush off, but if you enjoy eating at that particular restaurant, it’s worth the five minutes to complete the questionnaire.
5. Sign Up for Restaurant Promotions
A good frugalist knows that birthdays are paydays when it comes to free meals. I get coupons from all kinds of restaurants for free burgers, appetizers, and desserts. I could eat my way through the city on my birthday and not pay a dime – and, believe me, I try.
Another good way to score free meals is when you’re on vacation. Before I visited Dallas last year, I identified a couple BBQ joints I wanted to try while in town, and prior to embarking on the trip I visited the restaurants’ websites in search of available restaurant discounts and coupons. One of the most famous places, Sonny Bryan’s, offered a printable BOGO (buy one get one) meal coupon for signing up for its email list. My husband and I would have gone there anyway, but taking a few minutes to scout out deals allowed one of us to eat for free.
6. Visit Local Happy Hours
Another trick I picked up while traveling is to seek out local happy hours that offer small plates, appetizers, or even full buffets. The folks who work there probably won’t let you eat without buying a drink, but it doesn’t have to be alcohol; soda is perfectly acceptable.
I’ve noshed on wings, pizza, nachos, hot dogs, salad, sandwiches, and pasta during free-food happy hours on numerous occasions. Happy hours are also a great way to go on an inexpensive date.
7. Use Social Media
Foursquare is probably the easiest way to use your smartphone to locate free food no matter where you are. Because of the app’s popularity, many restaurant and bar owners offer specials for first-time check-ins to get people through the door. And it works – I’ve walked into random places and scored free appetizers and glasses of wine plenty of times.
On the flip side, I try to do the establishment a favor by leaving a good review and keeping it in mind for future meals that I plan to pay for.
8. Volunteer at a Catered Event or Fundraiser
When you’re feeding a large crowd, there are bound to be leftovers. At least, there should be. The caterer in charge would rather have more than enough than not enough, and that’s good news for you. If you volunteer to help out the caterer in the kitchen or on the floor, chances are the boss will pay you with a meal before or after, and perhaps a plate or two to take home.
9. Visit Warehouse Stores for Free Samples
When I was a kid, I dreamed of getting locked in a Costco (back then it was called Price Club) and running amuck after hours. That never happened, but I sometimes stop by during peak hours to fill up on samples. This is a great way to get more than your money’s worth out of your membership, too.
If your lunch budget is tight, use your break to pop in and try whatever is on the menu that afternoon. And if you go back for seconds and the server gives you a hard time, don’t sweat it. Tell her it was your twin. I’m sure she hasn’t heard that one before.
10. Work at a Restaurant
Restaurants are not required to feed their employees, but the good ones take care of their staff by providing meals to those who work a certain number of hours per shift. You’ve got to keep the help happy, after all.
If you work at a restaurant, take advantage of this offer. There’s nothing like saving money while you’re making money. If a free meal isn’t requisite at a particular establishment, there are other ways to cop no-fee food. For example, make friends with the cook or kindly suggest that you’ll take any orders that are incorrect and will otherwise be thrown out.
11. Book a Hotel With Free Breakfast
Have you noticed that many expensive hotels don’t offer freebies such as free breakfast or Wi-Fi? You’d think that since you’re paying so much they could throw in a bagel or two. But that’s hardly the case.
It’s always the cheaper or mid-priced hotels, like Holiday Inn Express, that save you money all around. When there’s free breakfast included, take advantage of it. That’s one less meal that you’ll have to pay for while you’re on vacation, leaving more money to spend on entertainment and shopping.
12. Grow a Garden
A bountiful home vegetable garden won’t just provide you with a free meal, but many meals that, over the course of its harvest, will save you tons of dough. Plant hearty, filling root veggies like carrots, squash, and potatoes, lettuces for salads, and herbs that otherwise can cost a bundle at the supermarket. By growing your own produce, you’ll not only eat healthier but you’ll feel good that your cornucopia is the result of your own hard work and green thumb.
Saving money is essential to your well-being, but cutting out all of life’s little pleasures, like eating out, is not. After all, you don’t want to take frugal living too far.
When someone offers to take you out to eat, let them, and be sure to return the favor down the road. When you go on vacation, research restaurants and bars that serve free food during certain hours. And when you’re out and about at home, open up daily deals sites like Groupon and social sites like Foursquare to see who’s offering a great deal nearby. There are plenty of ways you can eat for free, which can help you save money without any sacrifice.
Do you have additional ideas on how to score a free meal?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)