Cheaper (than) Meat?
January 30, 2014 3:33 PM   Subscribe

I took a hard look at my budget and I spend way too much on food and groceries. On a per meal basis, the bulk of my costs are for meat. I am an active individual, and I want to be able to get 20-30 grams of protein per meal. What are my options here to cut my costs and still get my protein? I already eat eggs for breakfast and sometimes dinner, but I can only take so many eggs.
posted by shotgunbooty to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Lentils, tofu, peanut butter, quinoa...
posted by mazola at 3:34 PM on January 30, 2014

Cheese, mushrooms, and nuts are all good protein sources.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:36 PM on January 30, 2014

Beans of any kind are great. If you start adding them to your diet in small amounts and then gradually build up, you can avoid the undesirable musical side effects.
posted by whistle pig at 3:37 PM on January 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

How do you feel about beans?

Bean salad, bean blended into dip or spread, beans in with noodles or rice, beans in soup...peas and peanuts are also totally helpful. Stay away from processed soy patties and nuggets and what have you, they're costly...but look into TSP (total soy protein, also TVP, total vegetable protein) in the bulk section, it's cheap per ounce and very meatlike.

And remember, there's nothing wrong with cooking a vegan recipe and sprinkling bacon on top for flavor. Vegans have protein covered and will totally give you ideas.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:37 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Greek yogurt. Also: buy meat in bulk, and/or get the cheap cuts. Pork shoulder can be under $1 a pound.
posted by supercres at 3:37 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

This might sound obvious, but have you considered cheaper cuts of meat, cooked via a different method? Cheap tough cuts of beef in particular turn magical with 10 hours in the slow cooker on low. If you're mostly buying expensive meat (or especially pre-packaged), this could save you lots. Something I do is cut the meat in a given recipe (like stews) in half, and add in lots of red lentils: the lentils are mild in taste and soak up the general flavor of the dish, and you still get the sense of body and texture in the dish, but for a cheaper cost (and more variety of nutrients).
posted by ClaireBear at 3:40 PM on January 30, 2014 [17 favorites]

Oh! You can usually get chicken backs/carcasses dirt cheap, and they make great stock. If you look & ask around enough, you can get chicken skin for wonderful wonderful schmaltz and gribenes, possibly for free.
posted by supercres at 3:40 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

First, I'd suggest you move to egg whites (or, perhaps, 1 yolk for every two or three whites) to maximize protein but minimize fat/cholesterol (unless that stuff's of no concern to you).

Demand for chicken breasts and wings is so high right now that legs and thighs can be bargains...especially unprocessed ones (with skin/bones intact).

Watch it with the tofu; there may (or may not be) hormonal issues with very frequent ingestion. But if you don't go overboard, it's good cheap protein.

If you eat beans, try to also eat some grain to complete the protein. Rice + Beans doesn't keep a big chunk of the world alive by accident....
posted by Quisp Lover at 3:41 PM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is protein in all of your food. You don't need to eat "complete proteins" in order to get the benefit of the protein in the food you eat. I wouldn't necessarily say "oh just eat doritos and hershey bars you'll be fine", but if you're eating nutritious food at every meal, and some meals sometimes include meat or dairy, you're definitely getting plenty of protein.

You don't need to specifically include A Protein at every meal.

But, yes, of course, beans, tofu and other soy products, quinoa, dairy, nuts.
posted by Sara C. at 3:48 PM on January 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

Another vote for chicken thighs! Hard to overcook, super cheap, super tasty.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:52 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just to add to what I said previously, I would highly recommend lentils of various varieties. In my experience, red lentils tend to blend into things most easily - because of their flavor, and also because they turn to mush after being cooked. Green lentils and black (caviar) lentils are great too. They have lots of protein, lots of fiber, and lots of antioxidants. And they're dirt cheap, especially in bulk. You really can't go wrong with them! If you add a bit of meat for flavor (or eat them plain if you like that), you can have a really hearty meal very inexpensively.

One really easy meal to make in the slow cooker is to de-skin chicken thighs and legs (incredibly cheap if you buy them with bones and skin), put them in the slow cooker on high for 6 hours, adding red lentils after a few hours. You can add ample red chili flakes and black pepper at the end (shredding the chicken and taking the bones out), and it's like a cross between chicken soup and spicy lentil stew. I calculated out the cost and it was something like $0.40 - $1.00 a serving, depending on exactly how much I ate and where I bought the chicken and lentils.
posted by ClaireBear at 3:52 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

There are recipes in every cuisine with a small amount of meat flavoring a larger portion of veggies/starches. Examples: spaghetti and meatballs, Chinese fried rice. Ask your Mom.

Instead of diving headfirst into a vegetarian diet, try 1 non-meat meal a week, then go to 2 after you have a number of recipes.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:55 PM on January 30, 2014

Lots of non-meat options are a good source of protein.

Spinach - 5g per cup
Artichoke - 6g per cup
Cauliflower - 11g per cup
Potato - 9g per medium
Lentils - 18g per cup
Split peas - 16g per cup
Almonds - 8g per 1/4 cup
Pumpkin seeds - 9g per 1/4 cup
Cottage cheese (fat free) - 31g per cup
posted by dotgirl at 3:57 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I order whey isolate in bulk. A while back I figured out it was the cheapest protein source per gram if I ordered 10lbs or more at a time. I think it would probably be cheaper to buy full chickens and store them in a freezer, but I just can't stomach eating that much chicken.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 4:01 PM on January 30, 2014

Hummus -- it can be expensive to buy ready-made, but if you "invest" in a jar of tahini and you have a food processor or blender then you can make a pretty big batch for the cost of a can of chickpeas. I eat it with carrots because they have a lot of fiber (so it's extremely filling).

Mozzarella's also cheap to make (it's pretty much just milk, the same way that hummus is pretty much just chickpeas).

Eat oatmeal for breakfast sometimes, with a spoonful or two of peanut butter stirred in.

Canned fish -- my favorite is sardines.

Of course, dried beans and lentils. If you want to stretch the meat you do buy, you can make a ground beef chilli with half or two thirds of the meat the recipe calls for and make up the rest with beans.

If you look & ask around enough, you can get chicken skin for wonderful wonderful schmaltz and gribenes, possibly for free.

Oh that's what that stuff is called! We fry potato dumplings in the little bit of schmaltz and gribenes we get when we roast a chicken (just called it "potato dumplings" because how else would you eat them?). Delicious!
posted by rue72 at 4:04 PM on January 30, 2014

Fage Greek yogurt has 18g of protein in a 6oz cup. Throw in some fruit and an ounce of almonds (6g protein) and you've got a great breakfast or snack of 24g protein for about a buck.

I also cook a lot with beans, using meat as a flavoring. Pinto bean soup with a half pound of bacon, split pea soup with a ham hock, instead of making meat the center of the meal. Make it the accent!
posted by jabes at 4:07 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honestly, for your specific needs I'd consider whey powder supplements. Those big ass jugs are mad expensive, true. But a $40-$80, 5lb jug works out to about 100 servings, with 16 -24 grams per serving depending on brand, so ~40 cents per 20 grams. That's cheaper than eggs, I'd say --- a large egg has 6 grams of protein, and for 20 grams you'd need 3-4. (At least out my way a dozen eggs is between $1.50-$2, so 50-67 cents for 20 grams of protein.) It's way cheaper than milk, probably cheaper than beans, too. Plus with the powder you can just mix it into a smoothie or a glass of milk and be on your way, there's not a lot of prep involved. You can get them even cheaper at Costco.
posted by Diablevert at 4:14 PM on January 30, 2014

Re yogurt specifically, keep in mind that regular non-Greek yogurt is almost as high in protein as "Greek", and usually a lot cheaper. Greek yogurt is delicious, but it's no better for your budget than prestige cuts of meat.

If you like the texture of Greek yogurt, you can strain regular yogurt yourself to achieve exactly the same result for about half the price.
posted by Sara C. at 4:19 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for chicken thighs! Hard to overcook, super cheap, super tasty.

Chicken leg quarters are the sustainer of the poor. I usually aim for 69¢/lb on sale, and they're often less than that (39¢ or 49¢/lb.). I try to buy them when the price is low and freeze them.

I've seen estimates of 50g protein yield per raw lb., or ~75g protein/$1. I can't pretend they're remotely humane or sustainable, but beans and yogurt aren't even in the same ballpark.

I usually fry or roast them with the bone in and either eat as-is or remove the cooked meat for another purpose, saving the bones and scraps for soup. If you need pieces of meat for grilling, stir fries, kebabs or karaage you can learn how to bone them out yourself without much trouble. They're also fantastic in any braised chicken dish: mole, tagine, adobo, faux-coq au vin, curries, peanut stew, etc. Generally dishes like this were designed to make the most of this exact part of the chicken, and preparing them with white meat is Doing It Wrong.
posted by pullayup at 4:30 PM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

turkey isn't just for thanksgiving. the supermarket 15 miles north of me has wings at 99 cents/pound and drumettes at 1.69/pound. starting with a pre-heated oven, they cook in 40 minutes.
posted by bruce at 4:33 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've saved a few with whole chickens and whole turkeys.
Bake, freeze, repurpose.
posted by ibakecake at 4:36 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with the cheaper cuts of meat sentiment.

So far this past year, I have learned to cook pork butt, and refined my chuck roast skills, and I will often use ground turkey or ground pork for leaner meals, and I am constantly on the hunt for chuckeye steaks, the cheaper cousin of ribeye (and often the butcher at the grocery store will help you find them -- but it's fattier so we only eat it for a treat). If I am making Italian wedding soup, I make baked turkey meatballs but then I freeze half of them and those become meatballs subs another night. A lot of work a couple of days per week can yield big benefits later on.

What I go with is, what's on sale this week? And I make up my recipes around that. Flatiron steak can be seared in about 3-4 minutes a side, then sliced very thinly and goes on top of dark salad greens or next to some microwaved dark veg of choice.

If you see those family packs of chicken breasts or thighs on sale, buy those and poach them in a big vat of water with the flavor of your choice, onion, carrot and celery (or just plain). Then let them cool and freeze them in individual bags or slice for adding to stir fry at the last minute. I guess it depends on how much work you want to do to save money.

Another thing I do is skip lunch and eat a handful of almonds. I eat breakfast late and I don't want to spoil my dinner, so I eat almonds. Or a salad with avocado, canned chicken, tomato and greens. That gives you plenty of protein but not as costly as using fresh chicken. Honestly, tuna is pretty pricey nowadays compared to before so canned chicken and tuna are better, but not the best.

I was doing Greek yogurt and thawed frozen blueberries for breakfast, and found it just didn't last me until lunch time. So I do a carb-protein mix at breakfast, eggs and toast or eggs and bacon and toast (2-3 slices most, couple times a week), oatmeal with an egg stirred in with nuts and cranberries and nutritional yeast, even Ramen with an egg stirred in after it's done, adding a big handful of greens like arugula and a bit of parm cheese.

Then there's always sliced turkey and Swiss cheese on whole grain bread. Or my husband likes Swiss with peanut butter. Or you can do balogna and peanut butter but that's more toward the fat side of things. It depends on how much you work out and what you're looking for, but I've also known people who make a banana dog with peanut butter on bread, then putting a banana in the middle and that seemed to work for them.

I also cook with beans, lentils, eat hummus, etc. So I guess the answer is: how much work do you want to do to get your preferred level of protein? Because you can buy cheaper cuts of meat and cook them longer, buy family packs of meat and cook them all at once, or look to vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans (which will be cheaper) or nuts (which will be more expensive, but higher in fats and protein density).
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:40 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you have an Aldi near where you live? I swear I don't work for them but when we started shopping there the amount we spent on groceries each month was halved.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:03 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

A lot of people are a little wary of pork but it's a cheap protein and it can be as lean as you like - Publix has cuts specifically called out as "lean pork" which I sometimes buy by accident. A couple of fat pork chops are delicious when carefully cooked to 145 F. Pork tenderloin - same thing and you can make a ton of meals out of it. Of course if you're not concerned about lean the whole world opens to you as you can buy pork shouldeur for dirt cheap and slow cook/slow roast/pressure cook/smoke it until you have pulled pork.

Also, roasting a whole chicken is a nice endeavor and gives you several meals. If you cut his spine out and flatten him out ("spatchcocked chicken") he gets especially easy to cook well but either way is fine.

Farm raised shrimp, especially on sale, are a very concentrated protein source, but some people have concerns about foreign sourced farmed shrimp, and the local wild ones are crazy expensive.

Finally - 2% cottage cheese is a standby for me. I have a 16oz tub (360 calories, 48g protein) most mornings. Some folks don't like the taste and/or texture though.
posted by ftm at 5:18 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you live, but in the Chicago area there is usually a nearby "ethnic" grocery (commonly Polish or Italian owned). These places tend to have a variety of inexpensive meat options and are a fine place to buy the kind of beans and whatnot folks are discussing as nonmeat options. Don't be scared off by those smaller groceries with the hand lettered signs! As the immigrant communities in cities are becoming more successful, so are the ethnic groceries getting nicer and nicer. Plus, since they typically cater to various types of Eastern European, Asian, and Latin, people as well as locals, they tend to be accommodating to all comers.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:20 PM on January 30, 2014

According to most nutritional research, you probably don't need as much meat/protein as you think you do. The food pyramid puts meat and beans in the same category and recommends between 5 and 6 ounces per day. I learned from my gastroenterologist that I should be shooting for one serving of meat per day about the size of a deck of playing cards and one serving of other proteins, such as nuts, beans, or tofu. If you're also getting your 3 cups of dairy then you are golden.

If you know you have a problem with protein (low iron, anemic, or if you're female and on your period) you may need to eat more than the recommended. If that is the case, then I would cut costs by buying the many low-cost meat recommendations above. But if this isn't the case, then just eat less meat per day and don't worry about replacing it with other proteins. You will save tons of money. For example, if you eat eggs for breakfast and meat at dinner, try going vegetarian at lunch - have a salad or pasta with marinara or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:23 PM on January 30, 2014

If frying cheaper cuts of meat is within scope, consider falafel and dumplings, cakes, and tarts made out of gram flour/besan/chickpea flour. Fried lentils and pulses, and otherwise adding fat, can make some pretty tasty stuff.

Also in the realm of cheaper meat is deli meat ends. High in sodium and nitrates, of course, but a pan-fried steak of ham end or turkey end, if paired with salt-free sides, can be tasty. Good for lentil soup, too.
posted by XMLicious at 5:32 PM on January 30, 2014

I made a spreadsheet of the costs of various lean proteins a while ago to try to get a handle on this. While beans and lentils and so on do have a lot of protein for non-meats, it is little enough that they don't work out cheaper per gram of protein.

Here is a an attempt to represent my spreadsheet without being able to use a table. Obviously prices might differ a lot for your location. The second column represents grams of protein per 100g of product, the third is protein/calorie ratio, and the fourth is $ cost per 100g of protein.

Canned tuna----------24.6---0.23--$2.56
WPC protein powder-77-----0.2----$3.11
chicken breast--------30-----0.22---$3.33
WPI protein powder--88----0.24----$3.52
kangaroo mince------21-----0.20----$4.76
beef mince------------18-----0.08----$5.55
cottage cheese-------11.4---0.12----$6.57
kidney beans cooked-8.4----0.08----$7.93
egg white-------------12------0.22----$8.33
lentils cooked---------6.2------0.05----$10.75
posted by lollusc at 6:14 PM on January 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Oh, and those protein powders were the cheapest bulk ones I could find online for a 5kg packet. The ones they sell in the supermarket are like three or four times the price.
posted by lollusc at 6:17 PM on January 30, 2014

Check out the frozen fish section in your grocery store. Every second week it seems, my grocery store has insane sales on frozen tilapia. Really good source of protein and very lean and mild tasting. Since it's frozen, I buy a basketful when they're on sale.

Cottage cheese, especially low fat, is also really good.

And seconding the suggestions for whole roast chicken. You get a chicken dinner the first night, and then can use the meat in all sorts of things later on (any recipe calling for chicken meat). Then you can dunk the carcass into a slow boiling pot of water (I just use a slow cooker on high) with an onion cut in half, a couple of bay leaves and whatever other spices you want and make a delicious and super-nutritious stock. I get an average of 10 meals out of a whole chicken.

Things like beans, quinoa, etc do have protein, but if you want protein to form a certain percentage of your diet, it's going to be hard to meet those macros using those sources as they have a lot of carbs as well as protein.
posted by Kurichina at 7:00 PM on January 30, 2014

Seconding canned tuna. Also sardines if you're into that.
posted by this is a thing at 8:35 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Roast a pork shoulder. Meat for the week, at ~$2 per pound or less.
posted by Wavelet at 8:40 PM on January 30, 2014

lentils cooked---------6.2------0.05----$10.75
Something is very wrong with this calculation. $10 per 100g is crazy.

A 1lb bag of Bob's Red Mill red lentils contains 187g of protein and costs maybe $5, i.e. $2.67/lb. This is a premium brand in a small bag, i.e. worst case scenario.

If you buy in bulk from an Asian market or Amazon, you can get 5lb for $10, if not less. This is nearly 1kg of protein for $10. It may not be the solution to the OP's problem, but there simply is no cheaper protein source.
posted by caek at 9:49 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lentils and beans, of course. If you have any Indian groceries near you that would be the best place to find many varieties for cheap (dried lentils and beans I mean, which are cheapest).
posted by Blitz at 10:10 PM on January 30, 2014

Nthing cheaper meat. What's the cheapest meat you can find? Go look up recipes for that. You will make delicious food for pennies.
posted by desuetude at 11:06 PM on January 30, 2014

I find that buy buying larger roasts and using the leftovers well results in huge savings as well as nice tasty meals. So you buy a big ham one weekend and roast it so you've got a nice sunday roast dinner. You can have cold ham with the leftovers from the roast for dinner on Monday. Chop up some ham and put it with some cabbage and potatoes for Tuesday and thursday and make a paste with the rest of the chopped up ham and some tomatoes and other various spices all chucked into a white sauce for wednesday and you've got 5 meals (for 2) from one £5 ham and about £10 in additional groceries. That is with each meal having about 80 grams of ham in it, not sure how much protein that is but I am guessing quite a bit.

You can do the same or similar things with a large chicken, pork shoulder/butt, silverside roast, lamb shoulder etc etc, Buy chicken things (so much more tasty than a chicken breast when cooked correctly) and things like shin beef/flank steak for stews and stir frys and you can eat very well and very cheaply provided you know how to cook.
posted by koolkat at 3:06 AM on January 31, 2014

I take it back about the lentils. I added those into my spreadsheet today as I was posting it here, although it wasn't in the original one, and based it on canned lentils I had in the cupboard. Redoing the calculation for dried red lentils, I get a much cheaper price.

Protein per 100g: 26g
Protein/calorie ratio: 0.07
Price per 100g protein: $2.39

It's a winner!

(In the interest of full disclosure, my beans calculation was canned too. I personally cannot get dried beans properly soft without a pressure cooker, which I don't have, so I buy them canned. Same for lentils except for French and red lentils.)

But yeah, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, your prices could well be wildly different if you don't live in Australia. I imagine kangaroo mince is not your cheapest meat, for example! And I hear Americans have great access to cheap black beans, which you just can't get here except at speciality health stores at ridiculously high prices, so I didn't even include them in my calculation.
posted by lollusc at 4:24 AM on January 31, 2014

nthing aldi for cheap groceries. Get slowcooker and then you can get cheaper cuts of meat which are great cooked over number of hours.
posted by radsqd at 11:46 AM on January 31, 2014

Costco. Buy your meat in bulk and freeze it. I agree that you probably don't need as much meat as you think you do, but you can buy good quality stuff from Costco for probably less than you're paying now. It does take time to separate the big packages and freeze them, but I think it's worth the extra effort.
posted by cnc at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2014

Apart from everything above which is wise, the key to cheap food is budgets and meal planning. A large chicken can last for several days - as a roast, in salad, as the foundation of a good soup, as the broth for cooking risotto. The same with a cheap cut of meat.
What is a cheap cut of meat depends on where you are - suddenly shanks of all meats became expensive here because of fashion! Keep your eyes open for good deals. Innards are nearly always cheap and very good, but require some cooking practice.
That said, you only need meat/fish two or three times a week, and just eating more vegetarian food will take you a long way.
I don't like beans much, but eat them in minestrone, which can be very filling and healthy, too.
Lentils are my favorite food. Sometimes with a small scrap of bacon or other pork, but not necessarily.
Home-made hummus is always good to have in the fridge.
Shakshuka might be a good variation on eggs.
Parmigiana is a very filling vegetarian dish, as is risotto potentially.
East Asian noodle soups are very filling and can be made with little or no meat.
In all sorts of stews (they are made in every part of the world), you can pretty freely adjust the vegetable/meat ratios to fit your economy. Look at dishes from North India/Pakistan for rich vegetarian dishes like this
posted by mumimor at 1:24 PM on February 1, 2014

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