Most people think of proteins like chicken or steak when they start formulating a plan for dinner. Meat is a great source of satisfying protein no matter what kind of animal you decide to go with, so it’s a natural choice. But the sad reality is meat is pretty pricey. Giving up the tasty stuff for good doesn’t sound like a great option, but a diminishing bank account isn’t much better. It all comes down to being a little more savvy at the store and restaurants. These five tips will help you keep the proteins you love without spending your entire paycheck.
1. Learn some basic butchery
If you’re like most people, you probably pick up the same packaged meats every time you visit the grocery store. It’s certainly convenient to have everything already cut down to size, but it doesn’t do your wallet any favors. The cost of labor gets factored into the price of everything from portioned steaks to poultry pieces. Take chicken, for example. Most people typically buy a package of boneless breasts, but a whole bird will always give you a nicer price per pound. You can also use the backbone and wings to make homemade stock, or start a stockpile of the wings in the freezer. After you go through a few dozen chickens, you can cook a wing feast. This video from America’s Test Kitchen will have you breaking down birds like a pro in no time.
The same is true of red meat, and you don’t have to buy a whole animal to save. If you typically buy portioned, boneless pork loin chops, get a whole loin instead. You don’t even need to know anything about butchery for this one. All you have to do is slice the roast to your desired thickness. And if beef is your thing, consider purchasing an entire tenderloin. It might take a little while the first time, but the price per portion will be drastically less than buying pre-cut filet mignon. Check out The 350 Degree Oven for step-by-step instructions on how to give it a shot.
2. Buy the good stuff, but only a little
Most Americans are used to making meat the star of every meal. That’s a good way to spend a lot of money way too fast. And it’s not a good idea to let your fruit and veggie consumption suffer just so you can indulge in more protein. Research continues to show that plant-based diets are linked to slimmer waistlines and a reduced risk of heart disease. We’re not suggesting everyone adopt a vegan lifestyle, but it’s still an important reminder that produce needs to get more of the focus on our plates.
If you’re used to downing eight ounces of animal protein, or more, in one sitting, you’ll be astounded at how much you can reduce that amount and still feel satisfied. Midwest Living’s steakhouse salad definitely doesn’t feel like diet food, but it feeds six people with just 24 ounces of beef. Instead of using tons of something mediocre, you’ll get way more flavor by going for a high-quality rib eye. Don’t feel like salad is the only option, either. The New York Times’ Mark Bittman shared three of his favorite dishes that cut back on the meat without seeming stingy.
No matter what kind or cut of meat you’re buying, always make sure you’re getting it from a reputable source. Many packages make it difficult to determine how the animal was raised, so you don’t know what types of hormones or antibiotics might be lurking. And just say no to the drastically discounted meat at bargain stores.
3. Research some different cuts
If you’re looking to indulge with a little extra protein or have tons of mouths to feed, go beyond your standard choices. Do a little bit of research before you go shopping so you know what you’re looking at once you arrive. It’s also a good idea to be flexible with cooking methods. Some cuts just don’t do well seared and served whole, but they might be completely delicious when braised or sliced super thin. Esquire listed seven cuts they like along with tips on the best cooking methods. The piece mentioned brisket, which is a favorite for braising in the oven. It’s also a perfect candidate for smoking, since the slow method allows ample time to break down the connective tissue.
It’s also good to remember that appearance isn’t always the most important factor. When buying lamb, most folks go for loin or rib chops. They’re definitely the prettiest, and they have the price to match. Lamb blade chops are kind of on the ugly side, but the flavor is just as good. Epicurious’ preparation with a zesty tomato sauce might have you eating a lot more of this protein.
When in doubt, always ask your butcher. They work with these products every day and can give you the best advice based on your budget and plans for cooking. You might even walk away with a recipe or two.
4. Cook more of it at home, and eat less of it at restaurants
This one might be difficult for some, but staying away from animal-heavy entrées at restaurants will significantly reduce the amount of money you spend on food. It’s not uncommon for main courses to fall ibetween $30 and $40, and coveted steak cuts can sail all the way past $50. Just think about how much you could buy at your meat counter for that much. It’s not exactly like your palate will suffer when you decide to eat out, either. Chefs are embracing vegetables in a big way, and many of their preparations are tasty concoctions you would never attempt at home. There’s also plenty of pasta, pizza, tacos, and ramen to be had.
5. Embrace ground meat
Ground meat has always been a go-to for people looking to save a couple of bucks on their grocery bill. Hamburger is the standard, but there are a lot more options out there. It’s pretty typical for stores to carry ground versions of turkey, veal, chicken, pork, and lamb. Some are even starting to carry ground duck on their shelves. All of these products can be used to keep your meal costs low without making you feel like you’re giving up anything. Recipes like chicken burgers with guacamole and meatball bourguignon certainly don’t sound like budget meals.
Don’t forget about sausage, either. Since it’s so flavorful, you really only need a little bit to get tons of flavor. You also have tons of choices ranging from sweet Italian to spicy chorizo. Look out for gourmet pre-cooked ones, though. They tend to be a lot more expensive. Take the time to cook it yourself, and you’ll have a few extra bucks in your pocket for happy hour.