Pound for pound, meat is one of the priciest food groups we purchase. To keep your grocery budget trim, you need to know your way around the meat aisle, and of course your own kitchen. Here are some great ways to save money on meat:
Use less meat in your meals.
I don’t plan on ever becoming a through-and-through vegetarian, and you don’t need to either (if you want to, I won’t stop you.) You can still stretch your grocery dollars by simply reducing the amount of meat in your family’s diet. You’ll notice that in most of the recipes on this blog, I use a smaller amount of meat than would traditionally be called for. I compensate by adding more of another ingredient, usually and inexpensive vegetable, grain, or legume in the recipe. This strategy is easiest when you serve soups, casseroles, salads or stir-fries, or any dish with multiple ingredients. The idea is to utilize meat as an accent to the meal rather than making it the star performer. If you do want to serve meat as an independent item, be sure to feature it next to delicious, frugal and healthy sides so you can serve smaller portions.
Start by playing with your favorite recipes. Replace each pound of meat in the dish with either ¾ or ½ pound of meat. Replace the remaining ¼ or ½ pound of meat in the recipe with another ingredient like veggies, beans, pasta, or rice to make the recipe produce the same amount of food.
Flavored or cured meats like bacon, sausage, and ham can be used in smaller amounts while still lending their flavor to the dish you are cooking, so don’t be afraid to use them sparingly.
Eat meatless on occasion.
Try making meals that don’t require any meat at all. If you’re used to eating meat with all your meals, you’ll probably need to start slowly and build up a repertoire of meatless recipes. I’m working on this one. I try to feed our family at least one meatless meal each week, occasionally two. It’s important to concoct meals that have plenty of protein and fiber so that you will feel satiated. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll just fill in the “meat-shelf” with ice cream an hour later.
Beans, milk, yogurt and eggs are good inexpensive sources of protein. Protein powder, besides tasting nothing like real food, is expensive and therefore not a good option if you’re focus is on stretching the budget. Cheese can be a good protein source, but may or may not be less expensive than meat, so use caution. The same tends to be true of tofu. Some vegetables also contain decent amounts of protein, such as edamame, peas, mushrooms, spinach, and broccoli.
Fiber and healthy fats are also important elements in making a filling meal. Whole grains are less caloric but keep you full longer than refined grains, so try using whole grain pasta and replacing some of the flour in your baking with whole wheat or your favorite whole grain flour. Oats are a great, inexpensive source of whole grain and fiber, as is corn and cornmeal, and rice.
There seems to be a great divergence on the web (and even among health professionals) about what constitutes healthy fat, so I dare not make any authoritative statements…for our family, I try to use more unsaturated fats and less saturated or animal fats. Avocados are probably our family’s food of choice when it comes to a fatty, filling vegetable. Unfortunately it isn’t always budget-friendly, and the same is true for nuts, which I dearly love. In any case, consult your doctor/health specialist about which sources of fat are most appropriate in your diet and make sure they have a presence when you are omitting meat from your meals.
Use the whole animal.
I don’t mean you need to buy an entire animal, although if you have the freezer space and either hunt or can buy a fresh butchered animal locally, those are great options.
What I do mean is that you don’t want to waste any part of what you purchased at the store. First of all, when you are selecting cuts of meat, look for cuts that have less visible fat, because chances are you will want to discard that. You generally pay by the pound for meat, so you don’t want to pay for fat just to throw it away if you can help it.
Second, if you buy bone-in meat, don’t throw out the bones! You can make your own broth or stock from leftover meat bones, be they from chicken, pork, or beef. Collect bones in a bag in the freezer until you have what you need. Homemade broth is tastier and far more nutritious than bouillon or canned broth, in addition to costing pennies. You can have broth simmering in the slow cooker while you go about your day, then strain out the vegetable pieces and bones, skim the fat, and either freeze or can your broth for later. To pinch even more pennies with homemade broth, I flavor it using (washed) ends, pieces, and peelings from my onions, celery, and carrots that I collect in a freezer bag just like the meat bones.
Substitute less expensive meat.
A recipe may call for a specific cut of meat, but you can almost always get away with using something else. Some of the cheapest cuts of meat are chicken breasts, lean pork chops and country ribs, pork roasts, and whole chickens (particularly if you plan to use the bones). If you are making a slow-simmering pot roast, stew, or soup, don’t waste an expensive cut of steak or high end roast! Tougher, cheaper meats are often sublime after a few hours in a slow cooker or oven. Don’t ever let recipes bind you when you are trying to eat frugally! They are more like guidelines than rules 😉
Be cautious of lunchmeats. Processed deli meats are often comparable to steak (in price, not taste!) if you actually calculate the price per pound. I usually see packages of cheap lunchmeats priced in the region of $2 for a 9 ounce container. That is close to $4/pound, and you’re not paying for pure meat but alsofor the water, additives and preservatives. Not to mention…have you ever sampled inexpensive lunchmeat that actually tastes like, well, meat?
I almost never buy deli meats. Instead, when we eat sandwiches, we use either peanut butter, tuna fish, or chicken salad to fill them. We think it’s hard to beat a sandwich made simply with garden tomatoes, avocado, cilantro and a little salt and pepper. All-veggie sandwiches can be ridiculously flavorful. And yes, my husband agrees.
Buy discount meat.
Many stores will have a place where you can find meat near its “sell-by” date, and the prices may be significantly discounted for quick sale. Of course, I don’t advocate buying that ribeye because just because it is now $12 instead of $14. But if you see discounted meats that fit within the price range and diet you want, grab them up, then use them right away or package them away into your freezer immediately. Some stores will put out there discounted meats either at the end of the business day or first thing in the morning, so try some early morning or late night shopping to see if you can snatch a deal.
Handle your meat correctly.
Don’t pay for meat just to let it spoil in the fridge. I’ve learned this painful and stinky lesson too many times, folks. Even if the “sell-by” date on the wrapping is still a few days out, my rule is to use it or freeze it the same day I buy it. I’ve seen, er, smelled too many cuts of meat that went bad in my fridge just a day or two after purchase. Be smart, not only after you get home, but while you’re shopping. Place fresh meat in your cart last, and plan your shopping so you aren’t letting the meat sit in the car for a great length of time while you cruise other stores. The FDA guideline is that meat should not sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours, 1 hour in temperatures above 90*F. Incidentally, I learned this lesson as a child by consuming a (cooked) Jimmy Dean sandwich that had been in our passenger van in South Florida all day. I need not recount the unpleasant details. In short: don’t eat meat that has been in a van all day.
What strategies do you use to make meat affordable?