I want to address the issue of affording meat on a tight budget before I get into anything else here, because meat plays such a large role in the diets of so many Americans. In the interest of full disclosure, I will…well, disclose that I was a vegetarian for the majority of my years eating well on a teensy budget. And I will admit that yes, it is quite a bit simpler to eat well on a tight budget if you eschew meat completely. However, this doesn’t mean that becoming veg is the only way to manage to eat well cheaply, or that I will never post meat recipes here.
I recently fell off the vegetarian wagon (one word: BACON), and, after a brief period in which I ravenously devoured every meat item in sight, tried my hand at some really fancy meat dishes that I could never eat before, and routinely ran up $60-70 weekly grocery bills (ouch), I began to settle into a more moderate state of omnivory. This has involved seeking out ways to include meat in my dishes (and my budget) without making it the focus of every meal. I am still very much in the experimental/learning phase, but I am finding that it isn’t actually too tricky when I apply the same principles to cooking with meat that I’ve applied to my non-meat cooking endeavors all along – basically, figure out what’s cheap and look for recipes that call for that (or adapt recipes that call for something more expensive), and use only small amounts of things that are expensive.
If you are a big meat eater, the main constraint that budget eating will place upon your meat consumption is that it probably won’t allow you to eat meals that feature meat as the main component very often. So people like my grandfather, who stubbornly refuse to eat anything but a big slab of beef or a chicken breast at every single meal, will probably do poorly at reining in food costs. However, if you are open to replacing some of your meat with legumes or eggs, and to trying some recipes that include but don’t feature meat, you’re absolutely on the right track. Read on!
Meat is expensive compared to other protein sources, such as beans and lentils, for two reasons. First, meat just straight up costs more per pound (because it is more expensive to produce). And second, meat loses mass, often a substantial amount, when cooked because it releases some of its fats and water – so the weight of the meat you buy is greater than the amount of mass it will actually add to your food. Dried beans and lentils, on the other hand, actually gain mass and volume when cooked, because they absorb water and expand, so they end up being even cheaper per rehydrated pound than what you pay for them (magical, I know). For these reasons, eating beans and lentils is always going to be cheaper than eating meat.
However, meat really does add something to a dish that is hard to achieve without it. I was actually kind of dismayed, when I started eating meat again, to discover just how bloody tasty it is. The experimentation I’ve done so far has indicated that you don’t actually need that much of it to make a huge taste difference – browning some ground beef or sausage (removed from its casing) at the beginning of a soup or stew, or boiling a big pot of beans with some slab bacon or a ham hock does really make a HUGE difference (take it from someone who has been eating these things sans meat for the past seven years). So you can reap the taste benefits of meat without actually purchasing much of it.
But sometimes you might actually want to eat meat in larger quantities. And this is also do-able, but there are cheap ways and expensive ways to go about this.
Here are three general strategies for working meat into your meals cheaply, from the least meat-intensive to the most.
1. Use meat as an accent.
As discussed above, sometimes including even a tiny bit of meat, like a ham hock or ¼lb. of bacon, can make a huge flavor difference, and can significantly impact how satisfied and full a dish makes you feel. Mark Bittman’s cookbooks include quite a few recipes that fit this bill, as do cookbooks on various ethnic cuisines (meat has traditionally been far less abundant than today, so culinary traditions from around the world have developed recipes that call for it in small amounts). Or, you can adapt vegetarian recipes by adding a small amount of meat. I will be posting recipes like this in the future.
2. Use meat as a replacement for something else in a dish.
Recently, I cooked chickpea and chicken dish that suggested, as a possible variation, replacing the chicken with eggplant. My first thought was that it would obviously be cheaper to cook the dish with eggplant, but upon inspection at my food co-op, I realized that free-range chicken thighs and organic eggplant are approximately the same price per pound, so in this case, it’s actually no more expensive to cook with meat! You can swap one or more vegetables for meat in virtually any recipe.
3. Focus on cheaper meats.
At this point in my evolution as an omnivore, I have only the most rudimentary grasp on all the different kinds of meats out there and how much they each cost. However, I have noticed that there seems to be a lot of variation in price (I’m incredibly astute, I know). Free-range organic boneless skinless chicken breasts, for example, cost a whopping $7.29/lb at my food co-op (I almost died when I saw that), where as chicken thighs, from the exact same chickens, are $2.29/lb. Upon making this discovery, I set out to find recipes that either called for chicken thighs specifically, or could be adapted to work with chicken thighs, and this has suited me just fine. I’m sure there are all kinds of properties that boneless skinless chicken breasts have that boneful, skinful chicken thighs do not, but I have yet to feel deprived over it. In my mind, this is no different from rejecting recipes that call for expensive cheeses, bizarro varieties of olives, etc.
Bonus strategy: Splurge occasionally.
As with all things in life, keeping up good food and money habits is a lot easier if you occasionally give yourself a break. Craving a huge, juicy steak? Treat yourself to one, if you can afford it. It will make it easier in the long run to maintain a lower level of meat consumption.
Alright, I’ll leave you with this final thought: There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years over the health benefits of eating less meat and more plants – including not just veggies but also things like beans, lentils, and whole grains. Which means that cutting back on your meat consumption to save money can actually provide you with a healthier, more nutritious (and more environmentally-sound) diet in the process. It’s not very often that life works out so conveniently, eh?
Next up: another great recipe for yummy, cheapo cooking.