Begging and Choosing: Which Market's
Free Samples Give You the Best Meal?

During a dinner shift a few weeks ago, I returned with a guest's drink and asked if he'd like to start with a cup of soup or an appetizer.

He stared at me. Then he said, "Do those cost? Do you have to pay for those?" I stuttered something like, "Well, yes. I mean, I could check, but I think that you have to."

Not counting food pantries, soup kitchens and victory gardens, free meals are rare. To retain some dignity, you have to get crafty and work on your stealth. Then hit the grocery stores and start collecting samples.

Can you make a meal out of grocery store samples? I took my appetite to Whole Foods Market, Sam's Club and Central Market to find out.

I visited Whole Foods Market on a Saturday. In honor of its 28-day challenge that encourages participants to adopt a nutrient-rich diet, kiosks were set up in every department offering samples and recipes. The produce section gave out cups of mandarin oranges and blueberries and servings of rainbow chard with sherry vinegar and walnuts. Near the fish, a kiosk gave tastes of green lentils with salmon and apples. Deeper into the store employees handed out chicken soup and brown rice.

It's easy to make a free meal out of samples at Whole Foods Market, and the staff is so friendly and generous that it's hard to feel ashamed of your stinginess. It's great. You can be struggling to pay rent and still feast on salmon.

Sam's Club never said they were Whole Foods, and so I knew going in I wouldn't find cups of warm rainbow chard. I also knew that Sam's Club smells the way my mouth used to taste after visiting the orthodontist: metallic, rubbery and vaguely salty. No points for atmosphere, but the phrase "beggars can't be choosers" is pretty applicable.

I still love Sam's Club. I could read a million studies on how buying in bulk is wasteful, and I will still get excited about crates of toilet paper and $25 cookie trays. Someone could take me on a date to Sam's and I'd be satisfied.

I remember going to Sam's Club with my parents on Saturdays and tripping over sample stands and kiosks. But I went on a weekday this time, and the only stand handed out miniature plates loaded with chunks of Hot Pockets and Lean pockets. You'd have to snag a lot of samples to equal a light appetizer. And taking that many may look tacky.

I'd be the last person to call Sam's Club lacking, but it shouldn't be in the top five places for a cheap workday lunch. And they'd probably be happy to hear that.

I was confident about the free loot at Central Market. Sample domes and cases were scattered liberally throughout the store, filled with colorful bites of Vermont smoked pepperoni, goat cheese, fig spreads and bread.

A kiosk gave away shards of rice cakey Magic Pop that you could smear with Peanut Butter Co. peanut butter. Buying a bag of Magic Pop ($2.99) got you a free jar of peanut butter ($4.29.) That should have been an awesome deal -- the peanut butter is sweet and hearty, but it means you're left with a whole bag of Magic Pop, which tastes like Styrofoam and looks like it has chicken pox.

While there, the Central Market Police busted me twice. Apparently, you are not supposed to take pictures. I get it, store policy is store policy. But, come on. Central Market isn't the Louvre, and pepperoni samples aren't the Mona Lisa.

Depending on your hunger level, you could make a tasty meal out of Central Market samples. You may feel guiltier for mooching a nicer product, but at least the meal would be healthier and more satisfying than a lump of microwaved Hot Pocket cooling on a paper plate.

The crown for eating well and eating for free goes to Whole Foods Market because it combined raw ingredients similar to what Central Market offered and made a mini-meal. And after you spend your lunch hour sucking down free samples, think about taking your three children out to a restaurant and making them share a single kid's meal.

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Brooke Nottingham