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How to eat for free when times are hard.

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

We have all come across hard times in the past and we will in the future. Things happen that we can't control and sometimes we end up with no money at all. When we are in those situations it's always good to know that we can at least eat or drink something nice to cheer us up a bit.

So this is my guide on how to eat (and drink) in the uk for free when times get tough. This post is not VAN LIFE specific as I know there are lots of people out there who struggle to feed themselves or their families through no fault of their own, so I have written this post with the whole of the UK in mind.

If you know anybody who you think this post could help please share it with them or at least the knowledge and we can try and help a few people.

I split them into two separate sections the first preemptive this means you should start this when you're not broke so it benefits you when you are. The second is same day that you can just go and do without any real planning when you need to.

I'm going to start with the best same day solution for anybody that has clicked on this link out of desperation.

OLIO (same day)

So OLIO is basically freecycle for food. People post their unwanted or left over food for people to come and collect for FREE. This includes everyday people, hotels, restaurants, schools and other commercial kitchens. It's nice people going out of their way to help people with food they would have otherwise had to chuck in the bin. (screen shots from OLIO website)

This is obviously better for people who live in big cities and towns with more options and offerings but there are people all over the country signed up to it, the more people know about the site the more people will sign up to it so it will only get bigger and better as time goes on. In other words the more we spread the word about it the more people it will help.

Unlike a food bank you do not need a referral you can just sign up. If you have food to offer people its just as easy. If you would like to check it out please follow this link. I hope it helps.

COMPLAIN (preemptive)

Ok so I am not talking about making things up to complain about or complaining about very trivial things just for a free meal ticket as that isn't nice and everybody you come across will hate you. But if you have a legitimate reason to complain don't be shy or British about it and actually say something. If you are shy and think that would be something that you would struggle to do don't worry technology has your back, just wait until you get home and send an email. I actually find that if you email to complain you usually get a response from a person who's job it is to deal with complaints instead of some poor person on minimum wage who's probably a really nice person and agrees with you 100% but has no power to help you.

For example if you complain to a waitress at a nice restaurant that you and your party of 4 had to wait over an hour and a half for your food and you're not happy, she might be able to swing something like 20% off of your bill. However if you go home and email the email address it's likely to be seen by a manager, owner or with bigger companies a customer services department. They are more likely to invite your whole party back for a FREE meal to apologise for your bad experience as it is in their power to do so. They may even send you vouchers for FREE food with no purchase necessary.

More examples of places its good to complain via email for full (deserved) refunds after the fact are...

Supermarkets & Convenience stores

Usually all of their own brand products have a section where they say something like "If you are not completely satisfied with this product please..." If you have something that you are not completely satisfied with like a packet of soft biscuits or over ripe veg then get in touch with them. They quite often send you out vouchers for food and worst case scenario you will get a full refund. Just be sure to always keep any receipts.

Fast food chains

Same as above the big chains have no problem at all sending you out vouchers if you send them an email. A few weeks ago I complained to Greggs about a stale sandwich that cost me £2.75 and they sent me a voucher for £6.00. Thats free food the way I see it as I ate the stale sandwich and still have a £6.00 voucher to spend next time.

The second example is a voucher that McDonalds have sent me. My problem was that every time I go through the drive thru at a specific restaurant near my house the fries are already cold when they give them to me. To be fair it does really annoy me so instead of complaining to the girl at the drive thru window and just getting an apology I ate the cold chips and complained to the customer services email address at the main office. They sent me a £5 voucher towards my next meal just because emailed. Please don't abuse this if you do not have a legitimate reason to complain.

Just eat

Not that it's easy to get a take away delivered to your van via just eat but if anybody ever has a poor quality meal delivered, a very late delivery or any other major problem with your food DO NOT complain to the restaurant complain directly to just eat via the app. They will refund you straight away (it doesn't go back into your account for a few days) or send you a voucher for you to use next time order. My advice is you keep it until you need it as you probably ate the food anyway

Specific brands

So this isn't a food related example but it's a good example that covers food. Years ago my friend brought a packet of 20 Lambert & Butler cigarettes where the orange bit's of paper that join the filters to the rest of the cigarettes were not stuck on properly. He complained and sent the packet to them as they requested. They sent him 2 x packets of 200 cigarettes in the post within a few days.

Now this theory works with pretty much any big brand, if you take the time to complain and send the item back to them for them to see then they can fix the problem and hopefully see what went wrong and fix it for the future. This makes them happy! So for example you buy a multipack packet of walkers crisps and something is wrong with one of the packets inside and you send it back, they are unlikely just to send you one packet of crisps back in the post. it would be a voucher or a multipack etc

FORAGING (same day)

Unlike OLIO this option is much better for those who live or are staying in the country. There is so much free food growing everywhere if you know what to look for and when. You can even collect it when it's in abundance, preserve it and save it to use year round. I am not going to go into too many details about this there is lots of info on google and youtube you will be an expert in not time at all. By the way I am not an expert in it and the mushrooms in the photo below are just stock photography... Please don't eat these mushrooms unless you know what they are!

But here is a post from the woodlands trust that goes into all the basics, it has a post for each month of the year letting you know what you can find in that specific month and how you can prepare it etc. It has photos of them so you know what you are picking is the right thing.

Please follow this link

Useful foraging facebook groups

LOYALTY CARDS (preemptive and same day)

Most supermarkets now have loyalty cards, Its their way of making you come back and spend money in their shop instead of others. For this reason they try and give you as much as they can to keep you coming back. I suggest getting as many loyalty cards as possible from the shops the you do actually shop in on a regular basis because at some point if you are using them you will be getting freebies. Take the Sainsbury's Nectar card for example, if you had one of these and always shopped at Sainsbury's, filled up with fuel at either a Sainsbury's or Esso petrol station and used it every time that you shop on ebay your points will build up quickly and you can turn them into vouchers to be spent on food in Sainsbury's.

Here are some loyalty cards I think you should get and reasons why.

1. Sainsbury's/Nectar card (preemptive)

As mentioned above I think this is a good one for any van lifer simply because you can collect points on your fuel and vans use a lot of fuel. Shopping in Sainsbury's can be quite expensive so I am not suggesting that you swap your weekly shop just to get the points, there are 450 other merchants that you can collect Nectar points some that you probably use all the time like Esso, Ebay or Argos. There is a huge list of things that you can swap your points for too but I recommend saving them for food when you are desperate. You can apply for your free Nectar card here

A picture of my very old nectar card

2. Tesco Clubcard (preemptive)

This one is much simpler and easier as long as you have somewhere where your post is being sent.

Basically for every £150 you spend in store they will send you a £1.50 voucher back. Thats 1p for every pound you spend. These can then be turned into free food. You can spend them right away or wait as long as you use them before they go out of date. You can also collect points when filling up your van/car at Tesco petrol stations. To apply for a Clubcard please follow this link

3. IKEA Family card (same day)

This one is perfect for rainy days where you are bored of sitting in your van because its wet and you are broke. Why not take a walk around Ikea? Every weekday family card members are allowed a free tea or filtered coffee. Also I know this bit is not free but if you have found some coins in your back pocket food is dirt cheap in Ikea and with a family card its even cheaper. You can even grab yourself a Hotdog or Sundae on your way out for under a pound.

If you would like to apply for a Ikea Family card please follow this link

4. Waitrose & Booths (same day)

So everybody has probably heard of Waitrose as they are all over the place but you might not heard of Booths as they are all concentrated around The Yorkshire Moors and Dales, The Lake District and other areas in this locality. But saying that they are all around areas that we are likely to visit in our vans because of the natural beauty. Both these supermarkets offer a free hot drink everyday. However with Booths you have to bring your own reusable cup. To Sign up for a myWaitrose card please follow this link

To apply for a Booths loyalty card please follow this link

Nando's Card (preemptive)

This card will give you a decent amount of FREE food in the hard times if you eat there often in the good times. Basically for every time you spend £7 on your card you get a "Chilli" you need to collect

3 Chillies – Green Reward: 1/4 chicken or Fire-Starter 6 Chillies – Orange Reward: 1/2 chicken or any single wrap, burger or pita 10 Chillies – Red Reward: Whole chicken or single combo meal with regular sides

You can only earn 1x Chilli per transaction so if your bill comes to over £13.99 split the bill somehow and earn two. If you would like to sign up for a Nando's card please follow this link

These are just a few examples of loyalty cards out there but if you shop at different shops or eat at different restaurants just google them they are likely to have some kind of loyalty scheme that will benefit you in someway at no extra cost. Every little helps!

FAST FOOD APPS (same day and preemptive)

Nationwide fast food restaurants like McDonalds and KFC now have their own apps. With the McDonalds app you will sometimes just get given something for FREE. I signed up the other day whilst researching this blog post and I already have a FREE Cheeseburger waiting for me just for signing up. I'm not sure if that just a sign up incentive but even if it is its a FREE cheeseburger. If everybody in your family signs up for it and gets the app thats a cheeseburger each. You can also collect points on the app every time you buy a coffee and after you have collected six points you get a free drink.

With KFC its more of a loyalty scheme in general but you do get three stamps just for signing up to the app. At KFC three stamps will get you a FREE side. So just for signing up for the app you will get yourself a FREE side like chips or corn on the cob, for seven points you will get a free snack.

To collect stamps you get one stamp if you spend between £3 and £15 and if you spend more than you get two stamps if you spend more than £15 so if its possible to split the bill in anyway and collect points for both its worth doing if its less than £15

As an amazing bonus to this McDonalds and KFC are quite regularly right next to each other... So if you (or you and your family) get the offers ready at the same time and head down you can enjoy a FREE burger and chips. That will put a smile on anybody's face.

Then you have the Burger King app! The Burger King app is not a loyalty scheme, it is more of a menu and delivery ordering app but it does randomly send you freebies. I am not sure how it works really only that every now and then I get a notification on my saying something like "FREE whopper until 11am". There doesn't seem to be any pattern to it at all it just happens sometimes, make sure you allow push notifications or you will miss the deals.

Other fast food restaurants also have similar apps with loyalty schemes including Greggs and subway. Remember with loyalty schemes you only really get anything free if you are a regular customer, if you are not already a regular customer there is no point in shopping there just for the points as you will loose money. Only use loyalty schemes for places you already use often.

BIRTHDAY TREATS (same day & preemptive)

So these are also loyalty schemes but these specific ones also like to give you a FREE treat for your birthday, and who doesn't like getting FREE stuff on their birthday especially if you are broke.

Krispy Kreme

As well as their doughnuts being amazing this reward card/app is amazing too. Straight away when you sign up you are entitled a FREE. You then get a FREE doughnut every year on your birthday and if thats not enough they will give you a FREE doughnut to your "Significant Other" and kids every year on their birthdays. I think the limit is three kids so with that maths thats five FREE doughnuts just for two mins work signing up and as I said before their doughnuts are amazing. (screen shots from Krispy Kreme website)

If you would like to sign up please follow this link


Krispy Kreme is not the only place that likes to give you FREE Stuff on your birthday. If you have a sweet tooth Greggs also have a reward scheme that gives you a free cupcake, cream cake or doughnut on your birthday. If you are interested please follow this link.

Bar Burrito

If you are lucky enough to be in a city with a Bar Burrito (Aberdeen, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham) Then once you have signed up for their reward card they give you a FREE Burrito on or around your birthday, and they are amazing. If you would like to sign up to the Bar Burrito reward card please follow this link (you will need to go into a restaurant to pick up a loyalty card before you can register)


If your main reason for not being able to afford to feed yourself is that you just can't find any work then I have some ideas on how you can actually make some money in a different blog post. It is aimed at van lifers but will work for anybody. Please follow this link

So thats about it for now, I hope you all enjoyed it and found it useful

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Nathan Adrian
Nathan Adrian
Jul 27, 2022

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