Proteins – what prices to “buy at” and how to use in budget planning

I’m really talking about the animal proteins here:  Meat, Poultry, Fish, etc, but don’t forget you have protein in dairy, beans, peas, legumes, nuts and grains, even some vegetables.

You’ll recognize some of the 12 strategies her in my discussions about buying using and buying meat, especially when you scroll down to see my pricing and notes on storage on the individual types of proteins.  I’m talking Animal, here.

Over the years, I’ve paid more attention to portion size and cost of the various meats and proteins, both for budget and health reasons.  I’ve started analyzing recipes (especially multi-ingredient recipes) for the amount of protein, and cut meats back to more appropriate amounts.

I often use meat as more of a flavoring component than the main portion of a dish.  Both the American Heart Association and the USDA (responsible for my plate, and the old food pyramids) recommend 5 to 7 ounces of lean meat, poultry or fish per DAY for adults!  Sometimes, I blow it all at once, other times I spread it out, and I always, always, always serve some meatless dishes throughout the week.

In the States, we’ve heard so much about how important protein is and how so many people don’t get enough, or if we exercise we need more:  Much of it is a myth – Americans often get two to three times their daily amount of protein.  We are trained to think: Meat = Protein, and disregard the large amounts in other sources.

Regardless, I buy meat, chicken or fish at the lowest prices I can find, package and freeze until I need it, adopt portion control methods and use every bit to its best potential, scraps and all whenever I can.

In order to keep to my budget, I’ve been drawn to cheaper, often more flavorful cuts, and learned to cook them in ways that enhance their good qualities and minimized their less desirable ones.  I look at how we’ve cooked in the past and at other cultures for inspiration:  call it soul food, call it comfort food, call it anything you like, there is not a single culture out there that does not have recipes that are frugal and cost conscious, and sometimes even more delicious because of the planning, care and thought put into the flavors and ingredients.

Because some of these dishes are based on larger cuts, take longer to cook, cost less, and taste wonderful, they’re usually made in larger amounts.  Serve a portion only at the table and whisk the rest away to the fridge for another meal, or divide up into appropriate sizes for the freezer.

Think of meat, fish or chicken more often as a flavoring ingredient and what it brings to a meal, and less often the star of the show, and you’ll find yourself on the right track.

I base my menus mainly on what’s inexpensive in produce, which is just the opposite of what I was always taught.  I pick up fresh vegetables when they’re on sale and in season and plan my menu around them. Then I take advantage of the huge price differences between regular & sales priced proteins and freeze so I always have a variety of sales priced meats on hand.

My home freezer has saved me thousands upon thousands of dollars over the years.  (I’ve also done a lot with my refrigerator freezer, even when I only had an apartment sized version of the top freezer model.)  Buy large and break down packages to fit your family.  Cut, trim, debone and repackage carefully in Ziplocs or freezer paper and you can save a ton of room, have your portions available easily and save money.  Learn how to deal with and cut the different proteins – having a sharp knife makes a HUGE difference.

Last year (2010) I made a pact I wouldn’t buy meat for over $1.00 a pound, and pretty much kept to it all year, with only a few exceptions – and those were mostly exceptions where I was able to stretch the meat through more than one meal.  We had pork chops, chicken breasts, pot roasts, sausages, turkey, ham, fish.  The only thing that made that possible was my home freezer.  This year, our prices are doubled on almost all our meats, and I’m not going to be able to buy at those prices – but I’m going to be able to be twice as smart about how I use it.

Cooks, by the way, tend to be by nature, generous creatures – it almost seems at odds to discuss in nitpicky detail how to save on this and how to save on that.  I do have to say, I’ve never had anyone walk from my table hungry, and I don’t believe anyone has ever been aware of the things I do to make my proteins more frugal.

Beef:

General:  We are not huge consumers of beef in our household; if we were, it might make sense to buy a side or a quarter, or go in with another family to do so.  I watch for some of the ‘family pack’ or ‘freezer pack’ specials at butchers (or even the grocery stores in smaller towns around our city.)

  • Brisket:  This is a roast that is rarely available in our grocery stores.  I’ll watch for it on sale at the big box stores like Sam’s, especially around the Jewish holidays – in our area, that seems to be when they’re on sale.  Because they can be large, I break them down into more reasonable sizes for my family, and freeze.  We have brisket most often in summer, when I love to experiment with different recipes and smoke on my grill.
  • Chuck Roast:  I always try to pick up several chuck roasts when they are on sale.  This is one product I’ll pick up at some place like Sam’s club, simply because they are always nice, thick roasts.  I shoot for $2.99 a pound in my area…as I’m writing this in October 2011, I haven’t seen these prices yet this fall.  Quite often, a few weeks before the holidays, you’ll see great prices on the chuck roasts as the demand for the most expensive roasts increases and production goes up.
  • If I have a choice, I’ll always try to get one with a bone.  I generally remove and freeze for when I make Beef Barley soup, one of our family favorites.  (Remember when bones were free? I used to use shanks for this, but at $6.99 a pound?  yikes.)
  • Rather than bringing the whole thing to the table, I dish up plates in the kitchen, and that way we’re more likely to get a couple of meals out of the roast.  Everyone can fill up on the vegetables and sides that are so wonderful and so cheap.
  • Corned Beef:  Always on sale at St. Patrick’s Day, I like to buy several for use throughout the year.  We’ll have it as a meal, then make hash and Reuben’s from the left overs.
  • Deli Meat:  It’s extremely rare I ever buy deli meat or prepackaged meat, whether it’s beef, ham or turkey.  See roasts, below.  I will sometimes pick up Buddig with a coupon and use it for S.O.S., or my more refined version of Chipped Beef, Chipped Beef & Artichokes.
  • Ground Beef:  At prices often higher than on sale roasts or steak, we don’t use a lot of ground beef.  I do feel better about it now that our grocery grinds their own and it’s not made from 1,00o cows.  I’ll generally buy the 80/20; it cost so much less.  I do drain carefully when I brown for things like casseroles, sloppy joes or tacos.  Every chef I’ve ever seen that isn’t making their own mixes for hamburgers uses these more juicy option.  In our area, it’s often half of what you find the leaner versions at.  Generally, I’ll find larger quantities on sale:  I’ll bring it home and divide up up and freeze.  Sometimes I’ll cook it up and then divide it in Ziplocs so it’s ready for a casserole.  My daughter cuts hers with texturized soy, and says no one knows, something she does for cost and health reasons.
  • Roasts:  Every now and then I’ll find a bottom roast or a sirloin (Cook’s Country recommends Top Sirloin as their favorite for Old Fashioned Roast Beef) on sale and cook them up – here, again, I try to be very careful NOT to over cook – cook at a low temperature, 275 degrees until the meat tests 125 degrees in the center, then rest under foil for about 20 minutes.  I will substitute cheap roasts for brisket in recipes like my crock pot version of a smoked brisket for pulled sandwiches. I’ll also use in a slow roasted Mexican style beef for burritos – watch out Chipotle!  I’ll break down a roast and use for things like Chicken Fried Steak, Stir Fry, Swiss Steak, and cut my own steaks from them.
  • I have a small meat slicer I’ve used for years – they run around $49.00, and wobble a bit and don’t cut perfectly, but my family thinks it’s a real treat when I slice these leftovers very thinly for roast beef sandwiches.  It’s paid for itself many times over, within the first six months- and I also use it for chicken, turkey and even sausages and cheese slices.
  • Steak:  Not something we have very often in our house and the saddest part is I was raised in Iowa and know what a really great steak tastes like.  This is one of those foods that you definitely know the difference!  I will watch for specials, and if/when I buy a cheaper cut, jazz it up with marinades and rubs and make certain to not overcook.
  • Round:  I’ll pick these up on special and slice for all kinds of things.  Here is another roast/steak that is good if it’s not overcooked and dry.  I’ll use it in place of tenderloin for Beef Stroganoff (again be very careful NOT to overcook, and it will be tender.)  I’ll use it in stir frys or pound it for Swiss steak or the very rare chicken fried steak.  (It’s a weakness!)  I rarely use it for actual steaks, although have marinated thicker cuts and grilled them quickly, cutting very thinly across the grain to serve.  This is a cut that goes from good to inedible if cooked badly.  Lately I’ve become enamored with the Asian Grandmother’s Beef, Pepper & Tomato Stir Fry.
  • Tenderloin:  Years ago, I took a cue from Cook’s Illustrated (and I more recently saw Alton Brown do the same – watch here) and I’ll sometimes splurge around Christmas for a whole beef tenderloin and break it down myself.  Our grocery here in Minnesota, Rainbow, often has them, but I find that they are never whole tenderloins, just the tail end, so I’ll try to pick these up at Sams.  This really is an expensive roast, but by being careful and maximizing every bit of it, I can get several meals from it.

Fish:  Face it, fresh fish can be a very pricey item and my budget limits me to the occasional great sale, canned or frozen varieties.  Frozen fish can vary wildly in taste and quality – try more than one brand before completely discounting it.  It may be different for someone who isn’t in a landlocked state like Minnesota, but often I find what’s fresh in the store sometimes really doesn’t look worth eating.  We’re not fishermen in our family, but I would imagine that would change everything.

In general, Lent is a great time to buy or stock up on any fish or seafood products.  I do highly recommend fish oil as a dietary supplement.

I have a lot of concern over what’s going on in the oceans and am highly alarmed at huge areas being fished out – gmo fish and the extinction of species.  So many cultures rely almost entirely on fish as the protein in their diet.  (Why do you think people on Haiti and in so many areas are starving?)  Check out Monterrey Bay Aquariam’s Seafood Watch for recommendations and what you can do to promote sustainability.

  • Salmon:  I watch for sales during Advent and Lent; it’s generally a splurge item for us, but it’s so good for you!  Atlantic Salmon is just ending it’s season in December so that’s a great tiem to pick some up.  When I buy, I’ll usually make sure I have a low budget meal in the same week to balance the extra cost.
  • Shrimp:  I used to be too much of a snob to eat frozen shrimp, but in my quest to eat more fish and seafood I’ve caved – and found out what I was missing.  Thaw overnight in the fridge – I like to put a few paper napkins at the bottom of the container to catch the liquid so they don’t start out soggy.  I buy mine at Aldi’s (same company as Trader Joes) for $4.99 or so a pound.
  • Tuna Fish:  The canned variety often be found dirt cheap with coupons during the Lenten Season, especially.  I’ll stock up during this time period.  The store I most often shop at has lowered their 6 ounce cans to $.78 cents a can, so I’ve taken advantage of that and picked up several.

Pork:

  • Bacon:  This used to be an inexpensive ingredient, but has risen so much in the past few years I always think twice before I buy it!  I’ll look for coupons, specials when you buy other items (buy eggs and biscuits, get your bacon for $$) and rock bottom sales.  I last bought bacon for $2.50 per pound. I’ve certainly learned not to be so particular in the brand.  I’ve also learned to stretch it, and will most often use bacon as a flavor ingredient, rather than, say, as a side with eggs.
  • It always feels a bit sinful in this day and age when so many of us are battling weight and/or have cholesterol issues, but I will save my bacon drippings in a small jar in the fridge – and when I make a dish like a stew or navy bean soup and don’t have bacon on hand, I’ll just use those drippings to brown the meats or saute the vegetables.  Quite often, I don’t care in particular whether or not I have small bits of actual bacon in a soup or a stew, but I still have the wonderful, smoky taste.  The bonus here is not only cost savings, but the extra calories from the bacon itself are omitted.
  • When I use bacon for a recipe, I’ll take it out of the package, and slice across the whole package from top to bottom, making small cubes.  I then divide them into Ziplocs, label and freeze.  Most of the recipes I use that call for bacon call for about four slices, so I estimate how much that is and put that amount into each Ziploc.  I’m ready to go, then, the next time I need some for a recipe.
  • If I make something like a BLT, I’ll sometimes plan for a recipe that includes the use of bacon and save out a few slices; I’m then a step ahead in my recipe.  Crumble it up and it will be less likely to become someone’s snack.
  • Butt:  This, usually dirt cheap cut, is often on sale in the fall.  I’ll pick up a lot, break some of it down for recipes.  I’ll make pulled pork in the summer or an inside version in the winter, cook it with peppers and onions for a burritos, and any number of things.  This is one of those cuts of meat I still see for 89 to 99 cents a pound now and then.  One of our favorite meals is Succulent Braised Pork Shoulder, but I also use it for Pulled Pork, either smoked or done in the oven, and sometimes for Pork Green Chili or a Carnitas or Mexican type of pork.  If your roast is large and you want to break it down, see Large Pork Roast – How to deal with in a frugal manner.
  • Loin:  I use this cut quite often:  I’ll buy it in the fall or during the holidays when it drops dirt cheap, and cut it into chops and suitable sized roasts – we do like our chops thick cut.  It’s very lean, so you’ll need to be careful not to over cook.
  • Pork Tenderloin:  This is another item that is often on sale during the fall season; in our area I look for specials that are 2 for 1, often I find these on the cryovac Hormel tenderloins (we prefer to buy them NOT marinated and marinate our own, but that’s personal preference.  I don’t really care for the strong tastes of some of the marinades they use.)   Because Hormel often has coupons for their products for $1.00 off one or $1.00 off two, I use those at the same time as the specials to maximize my savings.  Be sure to buy two roughly the same size if you’re taking advantage of a BOGO offer.
  • Sausage:  Quite often on sale in the fall and right before the Superbowl, I’ll use coupons combined with sales and stock up on as much as I can get ahold of.
  • Smoked Sausages:  I have several recipes I rely on a smoked sausage:  two of our favorites here are Jambalaya and Red Beans and Rice.  I’m happy if I can get it for about $2.50 a pound, but in the fall, I can often find with coupons and sales I can buy various sausage for around $1.00 a pound, and snatch up what I can at that price.  The problem is that happy moment when sales combine with coupons for that stellar price is limited by amount of coupons you have.  I’ll happily substitute smoked with kielbasa, etc.
  • I last bought Italian Sausage October 11 for $2.88 for 20 ounces, $2.30 cents a pound – but I will divide the package in half and make two meals from it by combining it with high protein pasta and perhaps cheese in some manner.  In cases like this, I’m using the meat for a flavoring agent, not the main protein.  Italian Sausage is another item that goes on sale with coupons.  Generally the coupons are 55 cents off, sometimes more, but try to buy at a place where your store doubles them.  In November 16.75 ounce packages were $1.74 with coupons – $1.08 a pound.
  • For breakfast sausage, again, I try to stock up in the fall, using the same strategies as above.  In our area, $2.50 a pound is a reasonable price.  This is another ingredient we rarely use for breakfast – instead I’ll use half a pound and make sausage and biscuits.  My kids are crazy about this dish.  Last bought October 11 for $2.69 a pound, but I paid $1.75 a pound in September.
  • Brats I usually buy in the summer, and are often at their best prices before Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.  I’ll generally buy at $2.88 a pound, on sale with a coupon.  My family loves Beer Brats, which we have now and then.  I do try to look for recipes that use them as an ingredient.
  • Ham:  I almost always pick up several during the holidays when they are dirt cheap, and put several in my freezer to bring out throughout the year.  There are times I’ve looked at a ham steak in the summer and that one little 1/2″ thick cut of meat has cost around the same as a half ham during Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years or Easter seasons.  I look for a price of 68 to 88 cents a pound.
  • Hot Dogs:  I do try to limit their consumption around my house, but when I do buy, I try to buy between 50 and 75 cents a package and freeze until we want them.  (Those expensive all natural, skin on smoked varieties are usually out of my budget.)  My son likes to grill with his friends at our nearby lake, so I don’t mind so much if he takes hot dogs, as opposed to something more expensive.  I’ll often do what I can to stretch these, too, and make them more attractive to eat:  Chili cheese dogs come to mind.  November 2011 – bought at $.28 cents a package.

Poultry:  Chicken

Both boneless skinless and split breasts with skin on the bone have been on sale in my area for 99 cents a pound for the past several years.  Most recently, I’ve been finding those prices going up, twice as much in 2011 as 2010.  Luckily, my freezer is stocked.  Our chicken legs are often 49 cents a pound.  November, 2011, boneless chicken breasts are $1.99 a pound, and we have a sale price on bone in breasts of $1.29 a pound, the lowest I’ve seen all year.

Breasts, Bone on:  I will always choose chicken on the bone over boneless skinless.  I’ll roast it to use in soups, casseroles, chicken salads, etc., then take the drippings, the bones and any meat left and make stock with my leftover bits and pieces of vegetables I save.

  • (If I don’t plan on roasting, I’ll bring the chicken breasts home and break it down myself so that I have a number of packages of frozen boneless, skinless breasts in Ziplocs appropriate for a meal for the size of my family.  I’ll then, again, make Chicken Stock with the bones and my vegetable parings.)  Here’s a little more discussion of how I can take a few chicken breasts and make multiple meals from them, how to weigh, cut and portion Bone-In Breasts as well as some discussion on prices.
  • Breasts, Boneless:  If you’re buying the boneless breasts in our area, they’ve been running about $1.99 a pound, twice that of earlier this year.  Here’s how I try to maximize these breasts and still make my budget.  If this sounds like a skinflinting cheap idea, it is!  First of all, I look at the package to determine how much it weighs.  My last pack was five breasts, weighing 2.21 pounds.  It ran $4.40, 12.5 cents an ounce.  I could just serve 4 breasts and keep the last for another use, but that still puts my protein for the meal at $3.51, higher than I want to spend.
  • Since there are five in the package, I’m estimating (actually, I use a scale – for years I had a small one that I picked up in the ’70’s; I saw a near match recently for $6.99.  Now I have a small digital for about $23.00.)  each breast to be 7.1 ounces.  Because the recommended daily serving according to the American Heart Association is 5 to 6 ounces for children over nine and adults, I trim them.  First, I’ll remove the tenders, then weigh each breast and trim a little more, making each about 5 ounces.
  • Those five breasts, which, in the past I may have just cooked for one meal, are now two meals for four; the four breasts come to $2.50 and the rest, 15 ounces, nearly a pound of chicken has a cost of $1.92.  I’ll use them in a soup, chili, pasta or a casserole or even bread for our own, healthy, nuggets. I’ve also reduced the extra calories and fat from each serving, never a bad thing.  And the best part?  No one knows notices or knows how cheap I was…well, you do, I guess!
  • Whole Chicken:  I can usually find these fairly cheaply several times a year, so I’ll buy several.  The per pound price in our area is anywhere from 69 cents a pound to 85 cents or so, so it really makes sense to use this bird, especially since I can make soup from the leftovers.  I see, all the time, suggestions to pick up a couple of rotisserie chickens and use them for other meals, but they’re so often at least twice the cost of cooking your own that I’ve never done this.  (I suppose it might make sense if you were comparing the cost to eating out.)

Poultry:  Duck

We do have duck now and then, but not very often, mostly because of the price.  I’m afraid it’s become somewhat unfamiliar to my kids because of this – something of a shame I think.  I will sometimes find them on sale before Christmas, especially, and some of the smaller mom and pop stores in our area drastically reduce the price after Christmas.

Turkey:

Always on sale for great prices at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I buy several and put in my freezer.  I can’t justify passing up a protein for 59 to 69 cents a pound.  I can also make a great number of meals from one turkey.  This is another item I’ll use my meat slicer on for sandwiches.

Turkey Breast:  I’ll stay away from this cut unless it’s at a really good sales price – per pound, it can’t touch a whole turkey, and they are not nearly as versatile.  If I want to serve just a turkey breast, I’ll pull a turkey from my freezer and break it down.

What are your favorite ways to save money on buying proteins?

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Saving on Basic Ingredients

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2 thoughts on “Proteins – what prices to “buy at” and how to use in budget planning”

  1. I like your website and the information you work on making available to all of us readers. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about frozen bags of chicken breasts. They do come out to about $1.99 a lb.

    1. I’m glad you asked because these are sold all over and I didn’t really address them, and thanks for the compliment!

      I don’t have any issues with frozen chicken in the bags, except sometimes I’ve found the bags have small holes that you can’t see and the chicken can get freezer burned – and the bags can leak when you thaw them. (But so can any bags, so thaw food INSIDE another container.)

      The other thing is that sometimes the chicken breasts in these bags vary in size a lot. For some recipes that could be a problem because not everything is done at the same time. For other recipes, it wouldn’t matter at all. In some families, having a variety of sizes is a plus – adults might like a big one, kids might like smaller portions…fresh chicken is often a more uniform size.

      Sometimes the chicken is all stuck together in a frozen state, which is a bit of a hassle. Sometimes the frozen chicken needs trimming, but fresh chicken does, sometimes, too.

      None of those things are really “deal breakers” for me. I think you’re smart to work out the price and not just assume because they are on “sale” or in a bulk package that it’s your cheapest option. It’s easy then to compare to chicken sold by the pound “fresh.”

      While I tend to think that “fresh” breasts are the best quality, it’s not always the case…Although it’s not common knowledge, many stores that sell “fresh” chicken breasts, and I mean chicken breasts that are actually labeled “fresh” when what they are really selling is frozen chicken that has been thawed.

      So, a long rambling, answer – the bottom line: Unless I care for some reason about having a more “perfect” uniform breast (like for instance if company is coming and I’m cooking them whole) I, personally, would choose whichever option was cheapest – pricing is very important to me.

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