Here's How to Maximize Your Free Veterans Day Food

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A sailor competes in a wing eating contest.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Goodpaster, from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, eats chicken wings during a Wing Eating Contest. (U.S. Navy/ris R. Lindstrom)

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Thanksgiving comes early for American military veterans every year. We just have to be proactive enough to go out and get it.

The outpouring of free food and beverages from restaurant chains around the United States has swelled over time to include gas stations, fast food franchises and even grocery stores. Even if a vet spent the entirety of Veterans Day trying to take advantage of every Tactical Thanksgiving deal, it would be nearly impossible.

Nearly.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt the feat or at least take advantage of as much as we can. (Corporate) America is calling us. Will we let her down?

Admittedly, this year is different. In years past, veterans who wanted to maximize their free food potential had to eat in the restaurant, even if they were around for only a few minutes.

This is WWII veteran Morris Ducat. He's 100 years old in this photo and I assume it took him two minutes to finish all that food.

This new, COVID-ridden world means we can (in some cases) pre-order, carry out or pull up to the curb and let the deliciousness come to us in a few minutes. You should call ahead and make sure the giveaways are still being given away; if so, place your order.

To truly maximize your free food day, you need to gather the intel, plan accordingly and move with purpose.

In forming my personal plan, I've taken a few important factors into account. First, I target only the freebies. Then, I consider timing: what can be redeemed on any other day, when these places open and what can be picked up reasonably fast. I also want to know which offerings are the most filling so I can avoid getting stuffed too soon.

When considering takeout, I pack a cooler because taking the food home first requires time -- which you don't have. And I recommend eating some items as soon as possible: There's a diminishing rate of return on pancakes, and grilled cheese is the only food that will eventually become its own spoonerism.

Finally, there are a few alternate plays for those who are unwilling to drive all over town but still want to get some good stuff.

Be careful with cheat days during your training program.

For a complete list of participating restaurants, click here.

Breakfast(s) of Champions

There are a few national breakfast-oriented restaurants with great offerings. My first stop will be IHOP, which is usually open 24 hours a day, for the Red White and Blue Pancakes. While this would be very filling, I could get it very early and have time to recover. The next few places can be evenly spaced as they open one hour after the other. Denny's begins offering a Build Your Own Grand Slam at 5 a.m. Friendly's usually opens its doors at 6 a.m. Bob Evans opens at 7. In between, you can grab doughnuts from Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme, and free coffee at Starbucks and Kwik-Fill.

If your breakfasts were a little too filling, you can take a break by picking up some of the other freebies that aren't food but are really useful. At Great Clips, you can stop in for a free haircut or you can just stop by and pick up a card for a free haircut, valid for any day in November. Just Tires is offering free car care checks, and Delta Sonic is offering a $25 discount on oil change services.

Before you head out to lunch, stop by places where you can grab a good deal to go and save it for later. Hy-Vee is offering a free curbside pickup breakfast. Little Caesars' Hot-n-Ready Pizza is free for veterans, as is a Chili 3-Way and beverage at Gold Star Chili (which can be picked up in the drive-thru), the six-inch turkey sub and drink at Sheetz, a free single Classic Smash at Smashburger and a free chili dog and small fries at Wienerschnitzel.

Lunchtime

Lunch is when the plan starts to get more complex. Veterans who didn't want to wake up early will now be clogging the lines and making a quick egress more difficult. Famous Dave's BBQ offers its Georgia Chopped Pork Sandwich and a side (available to go). Texas Roadhouse is offering up vouchers for meals to be consumed later between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., so be sure to head that way too. Then stop into Chili's to pick up something from its limited menu.

On that note, be sure to pick up meals from O'Charley's, Applebee's and Macaroni Grill. Watch out for the fries and potatoes on the side, though. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Pick up chicken, fish and salads at places like Max & Erma's and Gordon Biersch. All of these places have bar seating so you won't be subject to the hostess' whims, but Applebee's and Max and Erma's also have a call-ahead takeaway service that might be available in your area.

There are a lot of good offerings from places like Buffalo Wild Wings, Red Robin, California Pizza Kitchen and Hooters. But be warned, these places offer burgers, fries, breaded wings and other carb-filled delights that are likely to fill you up fast and keep your motivation for completing this mission low.

Thank You for Your (Dinner) Service

Now that you've gotten most of the hectic chain restaurants out of the way, you have a few options for dinner. If you aren't looking to drive all over your local area but still want to eat for free, don't worry: The buffets are open. All of them. Shoney'sGolden Corral, and Cici's Pizza are all giving away free meals. Sadly, Veterans Day favorites Hometown Buffet, Old Country Buffet, and Ryan's did not survive the pandemic.

For a more relaxed atmosphere, Champps Kitchen + BarCalifornia Pizza Kitchen and Brick House Tavern + Tap are giving away free entrees and either a $5 bonus card or BOGO meal voucher that can be used at a later date. 

For the veterans out there who are on the road this Veterans Day, Travel Centers of America has you covered. Its Iron Skillet and Country Pride restaurants offer free meals for vets on the go, as does Pilot Flying J.

The day isn't necessarily over just because you're finally full (and if you're not, you didn't do this right). Grocery stores such as Publix and TOPS are all offering discounts for veterans on Nov. 11. Since you definitely won't be hungry, it's the ideal time to go shopping.

After a day like Tactical Thanksgiving, it's important for you to know that Crunch Fitness is offering free workouts for vets and families from Nov. 8-14 with a free one-month membership afterward. You might need to take it up on that.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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