Ways To Eat For Free (Or Cheap)

Strapped for cash? Saving to travel? Or maybe you’re just really stingy.

Fear not.

I have the answers to the Thrift Conundrum – how do I eat for free/nearly for free?

This is also a bit of a planning session for me, as when I’m back from backpacking Asia I want to do a food challenge, and see if I can spend $0 on food for an entire calendar month. I want to become the veritable expert in ways to eat for free. Prepare to read a lot about that in the new year.

In the mean time, here are some tips on how to minimise your food budget. You can be as drastic or relaxed about it as you like – it’s up to you and how much money you want to save.

Have a garden and grow stuff

Obviously this isn’t possible for everyone, but having a garden is an awesome way to:

  1. save money on food;
  2. ensure the food you’re eating is organic/good quality/has no gross chemicals;
  3. relax and rejuvenate in a garden while you’re at it!

We live in an apartment, so we have a plot in a community garden down the road. Admittedly, we waited about a year on a list to get the plot, as we live in an inner suburb where few people have backyards. Everyone wants in to the community garden.

Ways to eat for free

There’s nothing quite so satisfying as growing things. In a few weeks my tomatoes will be glorious.

Even though our plot is pretty small, we get quite a lot from it. Every week there’s more red kale than we can eat, and it grows back very fast. We have two tomato plants, chile plants, and basil at the moment. Recently we’ve had Dutch carrots, spring onions and red onions.

Ways to eat for free

A Sunday haul from our community garden plot, plus a free range egg from the chooks who live there!

Dumpster dive

I love dumpster diving. With a bit of practice, it’s amazing what you can get your hands on for free.

With a bit of practice, it's amazing what you can get your hands on for free.Click To Tweet
Ways to eat for free

All the ingredients in this delicious sandwich (except the cheese) came from a bin.

Of course, skip dipping (as it’s called here in Australia) is a bit controversial and you have to take some precautions to ensure you don’t land in hot water. I’d recommend the following:

  • join some diving Facebook groups in your city, and get tips on the best spots from people there;
  • only dive at night, or just after store closing, when all the employees have left;
  • wear gloves, and if you’re actually going into the skip, make sure your body and feet are adequately covered;
  • if you can, dive in pairs;
  • if taking dairy or meat, only take it if it’s well within use by date, or still cold from having recently come out of the fridge.

Also, fair warning: once you start, it’s pretty addictive and hard to stop. I personally really struggle paying for food at the supermarket now, having discovered the wonders of getting it for free. It just feels better to get it for free, circumvent capitalism, and reduce waste all at the same time. Skip dipping really is one of the best ways to eat for free.

For beginners in Melbourne, check out the Melbourne Dumpster Map. It’s a Google map with places to dive and info about each. You can even add your own spots to help out the dumpster community. 🙂

Know someone who works somewhere with food

When I was in the corporate life, there was always free food. Constant lunches, catered training sessions, and just stuff you can eat in the kitchen. It was pretty sweet.

I never made use of these freebies the way I should have. I mean, I ate them at the time. But there were always so many things left over that nobody wanted. In hindsight, the smart thing to do would have been to grab a plastic bag and take home the leftovers.

Other options for scabbing food off businesses are living with someone or knowing someone who works in the food industry. Your housemate might work at a bakery. Maybe your mum works for a supermarket. Typically, lots of food service people will always have the option at the end of the day of taking home leftovers and stuff that didn’t sell. Get on it.

When you have excess, swap and trade for something you need

Any of you who’ve tried dumpster diving will know you can end up with a massive amount of the one thing.

Ways to eat for free

An entire box of firm tomatoes I saved at the Queen Vic Market, about 70 tomatoes in total. I made as much tomato-y stuff as I could and gave the rest to a friend who made good use of them!

Whilst great and a real buzz, having 100 of whatever miscellaneous vegetable ends up being wasteful because there’s no way in hell you can use it all.

Similarly, if you’ve got free bread from Brumby’s because your housemate works there, you might have too much bread to handle. Yes, you heard right – there IS such a thing as too much bread.

So, when faced with this conundrum, just trade! Or hell, be philanthropic and give some away.

Freegan or dumpster diving Facebook groups are awesome for this. You can post what you’ve got, and someone will surely take you up on it. Otherwise, offer it to friends and neighbours! You’ll immediately become the cool kid on the block. “Guys, Amber has free tomatoes!” 🙂

It’s easy to share and swap in a community garden setting also. One of the people in my garden regularly gives me spring onions as she has too many to eat herself. She also gave me the chiles I planted in my garden. Likewise, I’ve offered her kale. It means you don’t have to grow everything yourself.

Strategic eating out

I can’t speak for the entire country, but around Melbourne there are a heap of places where you can eat seriously, seriously cheap. As I’m aware lots of people reading this aren’t from Melbourne, I’ll confine this section to a short list. You should check out:

  • Lentil As Anything, where you pay what you can afford to pay
  • Om Vegetarian, where a delicious all-you-can-eat thaali meal with unlimited naan bread is $6.50. Yes, you read right – $6.50.
  • Gopals, very slightly more expensive than Om Vegetarian, but the same kind of thing.

Another point on eating out is this – it really does cost a fortune (unless you’re eating at one of my recommended places!). Going out for a $40 dinner once a fortnight is one thing, but doing it all the time is entirely another.

If you have friends who want to catch up, invite them over for a meal at yours! I typically can feed four people at mine for a third of what I’d pay just for myself if we ate out. I can feed them for even less if they’re happy to eat dumpster food.

Forage for urban herbs and edible plants

Unbeknownst to many, suburbia is a veritable cornucopia of edible plants.

I’ll admit, I’m not an expert on foraging and it’s something I’d like to learn more about.

Check out this Good Food Guide page on stuff you can eat from your own backyard.

Unbeknownst to many, suburbia is a veritable cornucopia of edible plants.Click To Tweet

Pre-prepare meals ahead of time and freeze portions

This is particularly important for lunches, and can save you an absolute fortune.

Think of it this way:

If you work full time and eat five takeaway/cafe lunches a week, that’s at least $10 a day. That’s $50 a week, absolute minimum. Let’s be honest, you’d probably buy a coffee or coke with lunch every day, meaning it’s likely to be $75 a week.

If you pre-prepare a bulk meal on a Sunday and freeze portions, it might set you back $20. Maximum. Less if you use any of my above tips like dumpstering.

 

Trust me, these are tried and true methods to eating for very, very little money (and often for free).

So, go forth and opt out of the hampster wheel of modern food consumerism! You won’t regret it.

 

Got any other tips on ways to eat for free? Comment and share!