Here's how to keep meat costs from butchering your grocery budget.

By Betty Gold
May 14, 2020
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Between the financial stresses caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the looming meat shortage, and the fact that we’re all cooking at home far more than usual, finding ways to curtail costs at the supermarket is top of mind. Vegetarianism—or eating a more plant-based diet—are both smart options, but meat serves center stage on plates (and as a protein source) for most of America.

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It’s a tricky game to play. Meat is (rightfully) expensive to produce compared to many other grocery items, because animals require a significant amount of care, food, water, handling, and so on. Buying factory-farmed, mass-produced, or super cheap cuts can be bad for you, and bad for the environment—the consolidation of the meat processing industry is largely what’s responsible for the shortage, after all. But going ham in the premium poultry or beef aisles can be a bummer for your food budget. Here are a few fuss-free methods to help you spend less money on meat.

Do the butchering (or breaking down) yourself.

According to the USDA, a package of pre-cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts costs on average $2.69 per pound, while a whole bird is only $1.24. This means that pound-for-pound, they’re more than twice as expensive. Once you factor in the weight of the bones, a whole chicken will typically still cost slightly less, plus it includes thighs, wings, drumsticks, and a back in addition to the breasts. (If you're new to cooking whole chickens, here’s how to break down a whole chicken with step-by-step illustrations). Same goes for steaks: instead of buying a pre-cut filet mignon for upwards of $25 a pound, get a whole tenderloin, cut it yourself, and you’ll pay about half that cost. As a rule of thumb, remember that the more a cut of meat has been handled, the more you're going to have to shell out for the additional trimming, packaging, and processing costs.

Stretch small amounts of meat further.

Meatballs exist for a reason. They’re incredibly delicious, yes, but they’re also an excellent way to use a relatively small amount of meat and stretch it into an entire meal. How? By mixing your meat with low-cost ingredients like bread crumbs, onions, herbs, and eggs. You can work the same magic when making everything from dumplings to homemade hamburgers (mixing in mushrooms is A+). Think of meat like a flavoring agent—when cooking dishes like omelets, stir fries, noodle soups, pizza, pasta, and so on, a little bit goes a long way.

Buy in bulk, especially when items are on sale.

Stock up on beef, chicken, and more when it's on sale, then freeze it until you’re ready to cook (find how long all of your groceries will last in the fridge and freezer here). Same goes for bulk-buying, because family-sized packages of meat tend to be cheaper than smaller portions and won’t compromise on quality. Freeze whatever you can’t use before the best-by date for the future. Bonus: this method will save you the extra trip to the grocery store. Just please, don’t hoard.

Go for more affordable cuts.

Steaks are great, but in the curtailing-costs department, pretty much any other cut of beef will be better. When it comes to buying more affordable options—like short ribs, chicken legs, skirt steak, pork shoulder, and brisket—the slow cooker is your best friend, because these cuts tend to require longer cook times at a lower temperature. Braising is another effective method here. You won't miss the boneless-skinless breasts, either, because when cooked properly, these more affordable options are some of the most tender and flavorful you’ll find.

Consider plant-based protein sources—or eat more meatless meals.

If your family is highly accustomed to eating meat daily (or even with every meal), start by implementing at least one meat-free day per week and increase from there as your family gets used to it. We promise you and your little ones will still feel satisfied: there are endless excellent plant-based protein sources on the market, and we have even more delicious vegetarian dinner recipes for you to try. Eating a more plant-based diet—filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds—is an effective way to improve the health of you, your family, and our entire planet.