Friday, October 21, 2011

Eat for Free!

I'm one of those nut jobs that thinks that profit and food don't mix. Food is a basic human right, and so I don't like that 14.6% of Americans struggle to put food on the table (One in six families in my city lives in food insecurity). Not okay. Then there are those of us who don't struggle to keep just any food on the table, but instead struggle to keep the right kinds on (junk food tends to be cheaper than healthy foods, unless you really know how to shop). Or we have money to eat, but it takes away from our ability to pay for other needs (health insurance, gas for the car, new shoes).

Dandelions are edible from root to flower top.
The fact is that American households spend an average of $6372 on food each year, which is around 13% of their income, and European households spend far more. Cutting the expense by even a modest 10% can help a lot. So I have made a list of ways that you can eat free. Some you may find gross, immoral, too time consuming or weird, but I'm sure you can use at least a couple. Enjoy!

Dandelion roots can be eaten as a
vegetable or roasted for a
coffee-like beverage.
Plantain seeds are great for adding
to baked goods.
Eat wild foods. Wherever you live, there is something edible growing nearby. Mushrooms, berries, nuts, fruit, greens and flowers are all possible. One of my favorite foods is dandelion which is probably growing in your yard; I eat it as a pot herb, a soup, a fritter, a wine, a tea and a coffee substitute. Get a good, local plant guide and make sure that you positively identify anything before eating it.

Eliminate waste. Even though you've paid for it, by rescuing food from the trash, you basically get free food. Americans waste around 14% of the food they buy. Using the numbers from above, that is around $892 a year. Tell me you couldn't use that kind of money. Plan to use leftovers before they go bad: have a buffet night or use for lunches. Take inventory of the refrigerator every other day and plan meals around food that is about to go bad. Don't buy more than you can use.

To cubes of dried bread, add seasoning and just enough
 stock to moisten then bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes
 for out f this world stuffing.
Eat your trash. Some parts of foods that are commonly thrown away can be eaten. Save veggie scraps (onion skins, potato and carrot peels, celery leaves, etc) in a container in the freezer until you have a good quantity. Then save the bones and skins from a chicken. Simmer together and strain for some out-of-this-world stock. Radish and beet leaves can be eaten as a cooked vegetable. Potato skins can be made into snacks. Juice apple peels and cores left over from making applesauce. I keep a container in the freezer for bits of foods such as tomatoes, leftover pasta, beans and onions and use to make Trash Chili. Stale bread can be made into any number of foods such as bread pudding, croutons, or breadcrumbs. Roast pumpkin seeds from your jack-o-lantern. Make cake pops out of dry cake.

Combine sales with coupons to get free stuff. With a bit of planning, I frequently get free food from the grocery. For example, I get a $1 coupon (say for pasta), then wait until it goes on a 10 for $10 sale in a couple weeks. When a new product is being rolled out, it is not uncommon to find coupons for a free product.

Look for neglected food in your neighbors yard. If your neighbors have fruit or nut trees in their yard that they obviously don't plan on using (the mulberries are staining the sidewalk) ask if you can harvest it for them. Offer to split it if you want, but often they'll just be glad to get rid of it. Many older homes have fruit trees left over from a more self sufficient time, and their new owners can't be bothered to harvest it all. I get lots of pears, mulberries and apples this way.

Dumpster drive. I know what you're thinking, it does sound gross. Often, however, food in a dumpster is often just as safe as it was in the store. Once food reaches its sell-by date, it's tossed, but it's not as if that date is magic and the food will instantly spoil at midnight. It's probably fine. I only take food that is in sealed containers and non-perishable (whereas others have eaten meat, produce and dairy with no ill effects). I don't take anything that leaks or bulges. Bakeries that bake everything fresh daily have wonderful dumpsters; you can fill the freezer with any excess you find. Obviously, it is a safer bet to dive a store's dumpster than a residential one.

Get online freebies. Many websites have lists of free samples that you can request from manufacturers and stores. My favorite is You just enter in your info and in 6-8 weeks, you get a mini-sized product. I've received spices, sauces, cereal, candy and granola bars. A plus is that you also receive coupons.

Ask. If you can't afford a food that you really enjoy (or need), it never hurts to ask. Write a letter to the manufacturer and ask for coupons. They'll often send them to you. As a thank-you, write a glowing letter that they can use on their website. Also, writing letters with questions, compliments or complaints will often net you great coupons.

Accept all freebies. If you are hungry, you should always say yes if offered food. Go to free community meals, such as those at churches or community centers. Sometimes chain cafes offer free coffee and samples. Sample all the goodies at the grocery store on Saturday morning.

Take advantage of work freebies. Some industries as a rule provide more in the line of free food than others (restaurants vs. construction), but it's often possible to find something. If you work in the food industry, you know all the ways to find free food: meal vouchers, discounts, discontinued products, leftovers and mistakes. Definitely make sure that you have your boss's permission first. Don't lose your job over a broken bread stick (it happened to a former coworker of mine). If you work in other industries, you may still find free food in the break room or at company parties or meetings. One of my previous employers would supply all employees with tickets to most local events. I often got tickets for pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners.

Regrow your trash. A lot of vegetables can be regrown from scraps to get more food just for a bit of water and effort. Green onions in particular are easy to regrow. Just place the white bulb of the green onion in a small glass with water covering the bottom. Place in a sunny windowsill. Change the water every day or so and it will grow new greens. You can also experiment with regrowing romaine lettuce, celery, bulb onions, lemongrass, potatoes, beet greens and bok choi. If you plant a single clove of garlic from the bulb, it will regrow a whole new bulb. (Thanks, ioianthe, for the tip!)

By using some of these tips, you can easily cut your grocery expenditures by 10%. If you really want to, you could even eliminate your grocery bill all together. If you are living with a very low income, don't be too proud to ask for help (government, community or family), especially if your children are hungry. In this civilization, there is no reason for anyone to go hungry.

From The Farm Blog HopHomestead Barn HopWildcrafting Wednesday


  1. I haven't purchased groceries (except coffee) in 7 months. I was fortunate to find a place that throws out tons of food, but lets a few people who live near by take what they need before it goes into the dumpster. Also, in many places, if fruit is hanging onto public walkways it is considered free to take. I once lived in a town where every Monday there was a free dinner at one of the churches. The meals were prepared and served (like in a nice restaurant) by volunteer groups. AND there was a guy who made bread and as you left you could take homemade bread! I was a graduate student at the time and one of our organizations looked into volunteering to make a meal for this event and the waiting list to volunteer was over a year! I know of three churches within walking distance of my home that distribute bread and veggies every week. I also have a little vegetable garden on my patio. There is no reason to go hungry if you do some research and if you are able to cook and are not too picky. I eat mostly vegetarian so it is much easier to get foods that are not spoiled. I freeze old black bananas which are usually really cheap (or free) they make perfect smoothies or bread.

    1. Wow! Good for you! So encouraging. :) Thanks for your tips!

  2. I know it's crazy but if you take anything, even outdated food, out of a grocer's dumpster it IS considered theft. I was a manager at Walgreens for 9 years and my biggest complaint was that we pulled outdates 3 months in advance and threw them out!! I wrote letter after letter asking for permission to send this stuff to homeless shelters and was never allowed for "legal" reasons. Just thought I should let you know to be careful!

  3. Don't forget sprouting! I've been regrowing the same green onions for a while now. There are tons of foods you can do this with! :)

    1. Great tip! I'll add that to the list! :)


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