Slash Your Grocery Budget: How to Get Great Food — for Free

© Adrian Danciu / Kinocut Pictures, LLC
Maybe you were surprised to learn that you can find the same kind of mushrooms you'd pay top dollar for in a specialty food store for free in your local park or field. You just need to know what to look for and where to find it. Truth is, there are plenty of ways to get great food for free — no insider knowledge needed. We'll tell you how.

Did you miss the episode? Watch it now: Forage for delicious herbs, mushrooms and spices in your city

Forage for Supper
Take it from the Yerichs: There's great food to be found all around you. That weed you just cleared out of the crack in your sidewalk might be the same bunch of purslane you'd find at your farmers' market. And dandelion greens? They make a great salad. But don't start pulling plants willy-nilly. Some mushrooms and plants are poisonous, so know exactly what you're looking for first. Contact your local agricultural extension or an area mycological club or wildflower society to see if they have classes, resources, or tours. Many cities have local foragers who will take groups out, too.

Grow your own
Think victory garden and plant your own edibles. Many vegetables, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini, are annuals, which means you'll need to lay out some cash out at the beginning of the planting season, but your initial cost will be returned time and again as you reap your plants' bounty. To be even more cost effective, plant perennials: Asparagus, rhubarb, grapes, and some beans will yield year after year. Even urban dwellers with no outdoor space can grow herbs on a windowsill or tomatoes and lettuce in a big pot set in a sunny spot. Take this concept a step further and start hunting and fishing, too.

Work the barter system
However you prefer to say it, you can barter, trade, or swap your way to a free food bill. From formal food swap groups to simply making a deal with family, neighbors, or friends, the idea remains the same: You offer a service — cutting your neighbor's grass, say, in exchange for a delicious dinner. Want a more organized channel? Search craigslist for a local barter board; join a social swap network like Backyard Barter; find a city food swap; or search online for an area Work for Food project to find a system that works for you.

Settle for scraps
This is something backyard chicken farmers have known for years. Some supermarkets will give away or cheaply sell their produce "scraps"— you know, those bruised, squashed, and less-than-pretty produce you see workers taking from the shelves and putting aside in a box. While some of that produce won't be good for anything but compost or chicken feed, much of it is excellent for soups, sauces, or jams, which you can cook up and freeze for later. It's best to start with small, local grocers for this. And yes, it might help to tell the manager it's for your "chickens."

Be a freegan
Perhaps seen as the most extreme or "outsider" way to score free food, Freegans know there's plenty of good stuff to be found in the trash — including quality food. Alternately called curb crawlers, dumpster divers, gleaners, or urban foragers, Freegans capitalize on abundant waste and make perfectly good meals from food thrown out by restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores. For instance, fast-food joints and bakeries often bag up their slightly stale bread and pastries separate from other trash they put out each night, making it easy for opportunists to grab them without actually having to dig through garbage. Freeganism is not for everyone, but if you want to make a statement about wasteful practices while feeding yourself for free, you might consider it.