J.D. has already covered ways to save money on food. But this time, I wanted to focus on animal protein.
According to a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meat makes up over 22 percent of our at-home food (not out-to-eat or alcohol) budget. Obviously, you can cut your food budget by decreasing your meat consumption. But if you want to eat meat, how can you do it most cheaply? And waste the least amount of food?
Eat the crazy stuff
By the time my husband and I bought our first freezer full of beef, I knew my way around most steaks, roasts and ground beef, of course, but we didn't know what to do with round steaks or even the brisket. Meat is expensive, so I didn't want to waste anything. I hate food waste.
And I wasted even more of the animal than I realized. A couple of times a year, I help a friend sell her meat products at a popular, big-city farmer's market. One of the most popular items is chicken feet (makes great broth that gels, I'm told!). Knuckle bones, chicken livers and gizzards, and organic liver are also popular (and cheaper), along with the normal steaks and ground beef.
My grandfather, raised during the Great Depression, said butchering was a community affair. Very little of the animal was wasted. They even scrambled the brains, which are highly perishable and had to be eaten within hours of the animal being butchered. Tongue sandwiches were also favorites.
Although things weren't wasted during the Great Depression for obvious reasons, I wonder if my grandfather's immigrant parents were just used to eating the entire animal. A former student (her parents weren't born in the US), says a cow's head wrapped in foil and roasted is incredible. She doesn't like the eyeballs, though they are a delicacy to the rest of the family. And her favorite food ever is a soup with tripe in it.
“Nourishing Traditions,” by Sally Fallon gives several suggestions for eating organ meats like sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, heart, brains, and chicken livers. Consume with care: Liver, for instance, can accumulate toxic substances, and some believe that eating brains can transmit bovine diseases to humans.
Grinding up organ meats and mixing it with ground beef can disguise the taste if you're unsure. But I'd rather save money using less adventurous techniques.
Make the meat stretch and use it all up
When I first started cooking for my husband, meat was the focus of our meals. Pork chops, steaks, chicken breasts, you name it. Our grocery bill was high for two people.
“You eat like what?” my sister said when I complained about our expensive grocery bills. “We eat a lot of one-dish dinners and casseroles, so the meat is diluted with vegetables or pasta. I can feed my family for less.”
I switched, then, and it made a big difference in our food budget. If we do have pork tenderloin one night, then I will make a stir fry or something with vegetables to use up the leftovers.
One of the easiest “stretcher” meals starts with a roasted chicken. Dice up the remaining chicken for a casserole or chicken enchiladas. The carcass, along with vegetable scraps or cut-up onions, can be used to make a scrumptious stock. Actually any bones can be used to make stock. The “Joy of Cooking” cookbook has pages of different stock recipes.
At our house, we rarely buy stock of any kind. In fact, I just made some chicken stock today that went into the freezer.
Some cuts of meat are less expensive than others. When our butcher asked how we wanted our steer processed, I didn't have a clue. Understanding the different types of cuts can definitely save you money. My farmer's market friend has drawings of the animals and where various cuts can be found. She gives her customers suggestions on cooking methods and recipe ideas. In general, when prepared well (or medium well – haha!), the expense of the cut doesn't mean the meat is more or less flavorful. Instead, tougher (more inexpensive) meats may benefit from long cooking times while tender cuts require less time.
And sometimes you may actually prefer the cheaper cut. For instance, boneless skinless chicken breasts are $1.49 per pound on the biggest sale at our supermarker while boneless skinless chicken thighs are sometimes $.99 per pound. Because the thighs are juicier, we actually prefer the cheaper of the two options.
Paying less for meat
Buying a quarter or half of beef or any other animal may not save you money from the cheapest source of meat. However, the meat will probably be better quality. Or, at the very least, you can find a farmer/rancher who raises the meat in a way that's important to you.
But sometimes it is cheaper. We don't often raise beef, but we had two steers about four years ago. We sold them for $1.50 a pound. This was live weight, so our customers (aka family) paid for the whole animal and had to pay processing costs, but it was less expensive on average for them.
We've also raised and butchered (just once) our own chickens. In the past, for friends and family who want chicken (but don't have the space or don't want to do the chicken chores), we have split the cost of chicks, feed, and processing costs. Then, my husband and I do the work, and we split the chickens at the end. We end up making $2/hour or something, but we know exactly how the chickens were raised. And so do our friends.
Lastly, when meat goes on sale, you can stock up if you have a freezer. My “buy now” price is $.99 per pound or less.
Any way you slice it, animal protein takes up a signifiant amount of our food budgets, so if we can beef up our tactics, we can save some money at the grocery store.
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).