Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays
Happy meatless Monday! Today I have some good news for the carnivores: meat can be one of the cheapest protein sources, if you do it right. Protein is an expensive grocery category, it’s an important part of our diet that we’re not willing to cut back on, yet we eat like kings on about $75/week for a family of four. We are hungry, skinny people, and hummus simply doesn’t cut it for dinner in the Pretend to Be Poor household. But before you quit rice & beans, you’d better learn how to do meat frugally.
Of course, people choose meatless for dietary, environmental, or animal-rights reasons. Whatever your protein persuasion, I hope this comparison chart gives you something to chew on. It’s by no means all-inclusive, but I’ve included a variety of popular and relatively thrifty stand-bys. But if you’re trying to rein in the grocery bill and have already started shopping at discount stores, meal planning, shopping with a list, cooking from scratch, and trying my 20 Frugal Food Hacks, your proteins are a great next area to tackle.
My calculations reflect the everyday prices at my local ALDI and highlight some of the most cost-effective and popular options. I’ve chosen the least expensive versions of each for comparison. Below I’ll share how we purchase discounted meat & raise our own, plus easy, inexpensive recipes and tips for working with bone-in chicken. And my recipes for homemade beans, and yogurt.
|20 g Protein Source||Price per 20g Protein Serving in dollars|
|Salmon, 3 oz||$0.80|
|Pork chops, 3 oz||0.75|
|Ground beef (85% lean) or ground turkey (93% lean), 2.5 oz||0.47|
|Chicken, whole, 3.5 oz||0.26|
|Chicken, bone-in pieces, 3.5 oz||0.35|
|Chicken, boneless, skinless breast, 3.5 oz||0.51|
|Beans/lentils, dry, 1.5 cup||0.42|
|Beans, canned, 1.5 c.||0.59|
|Peanuts, 3 oz, or Peanut Butter, 6 TB||0.30|
|Almonds, 3 oz.||1.01|
|Eggs, 3 whole||0.66|
|Pasta or rice, 3 oz||0.38|
|Cheese, 2.5 oz||0.63|
|Greek yogurt, 1 c.||1.00|
|Yogurt, 2 c.||1.00|
|Yogurt, homemade, or milk, 2.5 c||0.39|
Qualifiers and assumptions
I’ve assumed a whole cooked chicken will yield about 75% of weight as meat. I haven’t accounted for the fact that we also put the skin & bones to good use, too, as our grandparents most likely did. I make homemade chicken broth and we consider chicken skin cooked to crispness a delicacy. Neil calls it “chicken bacon.” Good thing fat is in.
Yes, it costs money to cook and season meat. So the price per serving goes up—but not much if you have go-to thrifty, easy recipes. It costs only about 10 to 15 cents to cook a whole chicken in a slow cooker, and around 40 cents to roast in the oven. Considering a 5-lb chicken will yield about fifteen 20-gram servings of protein, cooking itself only adds 1 to 3 cents per serving. Adding inexpensive or homemade seasonings will raise the cost, but not necessarily enough to even compete with canned beans, for example. If you eat only organic meat, many meatless options are indeed cheaper. Buying organic only makes it all the more economical to work with whole birds instead of pricey pieces.
It also takes more work to cook raw meat, especially whole chickens, compared with easier options like cheese, yogurt, nuts, or eggs. That’s part of the reasons we mix it up and why I almost always eat peanut butter for lunch. I strive to balance an economy of effort with cost. We also eat meatless dinners several nights a week, for variety, health benefits, and ease of preparation.
Why the 20-g protein serving? Obviously protein doesn’t have to be consumed in these portions. We don’t eat peanut butter in 6-TB servings or beans by the whole can. Different items can be paired to form larger servings of protein, such as rice & beans with cheese. Too often we look at the price per item or unit without considering the price per nutrient, such as grams of protein. But isn’t the nutritional value the main reason we need food? Shopping with the lens of price per nutrient can really optimize your grocery budget.
How I regularly pay around 50 cents/lb for chicken
I should add that, though I’ve assumed $1/per pound for bone-in chicken, I rarely pay that much for our chicken or even pork chops. While grocery shopping I’ve always got my eyes peeled for meat marked down for quick sale. This happens surprisingly often at our local ALDI, and when it does, I buy it ALL. Over the summer I purchased over 80 pounds of chicken thighs at just 33 cents per pound, making a 20g protein serving less than 10 cents! You simply cannot beat that price per nutrient.
Pretending to Love Chicken
So bone-in chicken is actually competitive with ultra-frugal options like pasta and peanut butter, and more efficient (and healthy) as it takes only one small serving versus a triple portion that can run up your fat or carbs too much. We are hungry, naturally on the slim side, and don’t have the time to cook all the wonderful protein-rich dishes that comprise many international vegetarian diets (Indian!). We eat chicken because it’s efficient. Oh yeah, and we raise some of our own which is super thrifty, all-natural, and humane.
We don’t eat chicken because it’s our favorite. Frugality accepts that life is not about our preferences, and everything doesn’t have to be our favorite. We have learned to prefer dark meat, even though when we first got married I’d hardly ever eaten bone-in meat and didn’t like it. Frugality also updates its approaches with seasonal costs or market fluctuations. Before beef prices went up, we purchased a quarter cow that our friend raised. We also eat marked-down pork chops when I get them for $1 or less per pound.
Pretending to know how to cook whole chickens
Now for my tips & tricks on working with whole or bone-in chicken. You can learn & get good at it! Within a few tries, I could cut up a whole chicken in less than 10 minutes. Give yourself about 2 days for it to thaw in the fridge or 1 day in cold water in the sink and use a good, sharp knife. Our digital meat thermometer also comes in handy when working with bone-in chicken.
How to cut up a whole chicken: http://allrecipes.com/video/2/how-to-cut-up-a-whole-chicken/
A good whole chicken soup recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/220416/chef-johns-homemade-chicken-noodle-soup/ (I add 1-2 TB cumin near the end)
How to make chicken broth from the bones: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/13075/chicken-stock/
Good chicken pieces recipes: Thai Grilled Chicken Drumsticks, Fall-of-the-bone Roast Chicken Thighs (use whatever fresh or dried herbs you have on hand), or your favorite honey-mustard, BBQ, teriyaki or other sauce.
Homemade dry beans:
- I cook 2 lbs with 10-12 cups of water for 6-8 hours on high.
- Cheaper and healthier than canned beans.
- Make your own hummus, refried beans, or baked beans. Add to soup, chili, salads, etc.
- Heat a gallon of milk (anything but skim) to scald it (not quite boiling).
- Transfer to a large bowl (I use my crockpot stoneware) & cool to 110 degrees, or when you can stand to put both pinkie fingers in for 10 seconds.
- Stir in 1 Tablespoon of plain yogurt (the starter), from the store or your last batch.
- Cover & place in the oven with the light on, or in a cooler with hot water bottles for 8-16 hours, until set. Strain if you want it thicker (I don’t). Then refrigerate.
I have lots of good, low-cost meatless main dish recipes but I’ll have to save those for another day. Enjoy your Double Meat Monday!
How do you save on proteins? What is your favorite thrifty recipe?