Meat is among the most expensive items on many grocery lists, especially if it’s healthy meat from animals that were treated with respect. But you can save money on meat without compromising the quality in your protein choices. The easiest strategies are to incorporate delicious, well-rounded meatless meals into your diet, reducing the quantity of meat so you can afford high-quality, healthy options; and to choose and use less-expensive cuts of meat without skimping on flavor or quality.
Cut Quantity, Not Quality. Reducing our consumption allows us to buy cuts from animals raised in ways that actually make their meat better for us. Grass-fed beef and eggs, for example, contain more heart-healthy fats and essential vitamins than their factory-grown counterparts. Sometimes opting for less-expensive, non-meat protein such as legumes, eggs and whole grains helps free our dietary budgets for high-quality meat.
Cut Cost, Not Quality. Learn to turn less-expensive cuts of grass-fed meat (such as short ribs, butt and shoulders) into fabulous dishes. For example, slow-roasted pork butt can become shredded pork suitable for tacos, sandwiches, stir-fries and potstickers. Check out "Tips for Cooking Inexpensive Cuts of Pastured Meat".
Buy Whole. Retailers and manufacturers charge for the time they spend breaking down meat, so you can save money on meat by buying less broken-down portions. Buy whole chickens and cut them up yourself to end up with breasts to grill, thighs to braise, legs and wings to fry, livers to transform into pâté, and plenty of bits to cook down into stock. For a good online tutorial for breaking down a full chicken, visit Serious Eats and search “break down a chicken.”
Share The Wealth. For large animals, you can really save money on meat by purchasing a quarter or half animal, and often the butcher will cut it up for you. Many farmers sell large quantities directly, and at a deeply discounted price, and “meat shares” in community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs are increasingly common. Visit the Eatwild website to find grass-fed meat producers in your area and Local Harvest to find CSAs to join. Check with neighbors or coworkers, your local farmer’s market or on Craigslist to connect with folks who might want to split a large purchase with you.
Strategize Savings. If you invest in a small, energy-efficient chest freezer, you’ll be able to stockpile pricey meats when you spot a sale. Free-range chickens and lambs are usually most affordable in spring, while cuts of beef and pork often see their best price points in fall and winter. You may find other seasonal deals, too, such as post-Thanksgiving turkeys, post-Christmas ducks or post-Easter hams.
Slow Down. Slow cooking with low heat in the oven or crockpot helps concentrate flavors, developing deeply flavorful sauces and tender, juicy meat in dishes filled out with healthy whole grains and veggies.
Stock Up. You can create delicious dishes with hearty meat flavors (but not that much meat) by using nutritious meat stocks and broths in place of water. You’ll save even more cash if you make your own stocks, which freeze beautifully. Read the article "How To Make Homemade Stock" for instructions.
Go With The Grain. Grains are highly absorbent and have a toothsome texture. They’re practically begging to be combined with meats! They’ll soak up yummy juices like a sponge and support the meaty textures you’re aiming for.
Save The Grease. Reserve the fat from cooked meats to be used in sautés and stir-fries. If you eat a healthy, moderate diet, you can afford to cook a few veggies and grains in real fat—which contains heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Or mix animal fat half-and-half with vegetable oil.
“Flexitarian” isn’t just a buzzword—it’s code for smart eating. These days, eating well is more complicated than in the past, when eating better simply entailed getting more vegetables and fewer calories. On top of calories and nutrition, most of us today have concerns about food quality—including the artificial hormones, additives and awful diets given to factory-farmed animals. Flexitarians choose quality over quantity, enjoying a largely vegetable-based diet with smaller-than-usual quantities of meat from healthy, humanely raised animals. Flexitarians are masters of creating delicious meat-free versions of normally meat-centric dishes. If this flexible diet appeals to you, seek inspiration in these top-notch resources.
The Flexitarian Table by Peter Berley
Berley knows flexibility, having spent years cooking for everyone from meat-loving family members to vegans at the New York City restaurant Angelica Kitchen. His inspired recipes—filled with tons of substitution options—will help you create practical, tasty meals.
Almost Meatless by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond
Learning not to rely on meat as the superstar of every meal might require a shift in mindset, but it will throw your culinary doors wide open and free you to experiment with delicious, satisfying meals featuring all kinds of other players. These recipes don’t eschew meat entirely, but help you learn to use it more sparingly.
Good Meat by Deborah Krasner
Good Meat will help you locate and prepare better meat options (lean grass-fed meat requires different techniques than factory-farmed meat). Krasner’s book is technique- and resource-focused, but she also offers tantalizing recipes, organized by animal and cut.
Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian by Rose Elliot
In her newest cookbook, the United Kingdom’s best-selling vegetarian author provides 400 pages of recipes organized by ingredient. This cookbook is light on bells and whistles, but includes in-depth, technique-specific content such as overviews on sauce and soup, tips on sprouting seeds, and guides to vegetable preparation.
The Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Judith Finlayson
Slow cookers save tons of time, and they can help save money, too. This book shows you how to stretch inexpensive vegetarian ingredients into scrumptious meals, relying on the chemistry of slow cooking to produce rich, comingled flavors. An in-depth section on slow-cooker basics will help you make the most of your equipment.
For our next installment on shrinking the grocery budget, we’re looking for input on how to make the most of summer’s fresh-food abundance. Do you can, freeze or dry foods to use during the winter? Got any great tips for stretching the end-of-summer harvest? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Summer Harvest Tips.” We’ll feature your best ideas in an upcoming issue.