'There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch' Origin

Posted on 27 Nov 2016 22:12

What Does 'There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch' Mean?

When we say 'there's no such thing as a free lunch,' we mean to express that there are few things in life that are truly given to us at no cost or free. There are usually strings or at least expectations attached. The cost of goods or services has to come from somewhere. In other words, you can't get something for nothing, and if something appears to be free, it isn't really. A similar saying is "there is no such thing as a free ride."

Like many such aphorisms, it has its opposite: The best things in life are free.

Free Tavern Lunch

This aphorism has surprisingly concrete historical roots. During the mid-1800's taverns would often advertise a "free lunch" to lure in customers during the mid-day hours. They would tell prospective customers that if they bought a drink they'd get a free lunch. Of course, the lunch was not truly 'free' if they were expected to buy something in order to get it, and the cost of the drink was often raised to make up for the cost of the food.

In her book 1967 book The New Orleans Restaurant, Deirdre Stanforth claims that the practice began in the French Quarter of New Orleans at the St. Louis Hotel.1 The hotel would offer a free lunch to businessmen who were not able to get home for lunch. The hotel's free lunches proved a bit too successful, so the hotel tried to stop them, but by then the practice had caught on and many other drinking establishments were practicing it in order to entice guests to order more drinks. According to Stanforth, these lunches were, at first, fairly elaborate spreads of beef, ham, caviar, oysters, potatoes, and more but were reduced to sliced meats, cheese, and bread as time went on. The mid-twentieth century, a 'free lunch' was nothing more than complimentary pretzels, potato chips, etc., the kind of snacks we expect at a bar today.


Although it is not unheard of for a modern bar to offer something like free chicken wings or some other typical bar food, so that customers will stay longer and order more drinks, most bars serve food that is meant to generate a profit on its own, but also to sell more drinks, the source of the most revenue for not only bars but restaurants too. It is well-established that customers will stay longer and drink more when good food is offered. It does not hurt that eating makes them more thirsty.

Meaning and origin of expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch.
Meaning and origin of expression 'there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Origin of Aphorism "No Such Thing as a Free Lunch"

This aphorism has often been associated with the famous American economist, Milton Freidman, who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976.

Freidman himself has stated that he did not invent the phrase:

I have sometimes been associated with the aphorism "There's no such thing as a free lunch," which I did not invent. I wish more attention were paid to one that I did.."Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own."

Although it is unknown who first coined the aphorism, one of the most famous appearance of the phrase in print was in Robert Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The phrase appeared in print as early as 1938, according to Wikipedia, in the form of "There ain't no such thing as free lunch," in El Paso Herald-Post and other publications owned by the same company, as well as in 1945 in the Columbia Law Review.

1. Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Follow or Subscribe

More Food History Posts

See More Origins of Food Words

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

© 2018 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.