Even if you’re just an occasional carnivore, you’ve probably noticed that you’re paying about 20% more for meat than last year. A price increase that significant can make a big dent in anyone’s grocery and eating-out budgets, so we talked to food professionals about best bets for protein choices that won’t break the bank.
Cheap protein #1: Beans
There’s a good reason for just about everybody to love protein-packed beans, from the budget-conscious to the health-conscious. “Not only are they the most economical source of protein, they’re also one of the most nutrient-dense foods for the price,” registered dietician nutritionist Sharon Palmer told HuffPost.
“They’re extremely versatile, high in protein and low in negative environmental impact,” said chef Katherine Pardue of Hark! Café, a 100% plant-based and gluten-free restaurant in Minneapolis. “Eating on the cheap can be great for your health and the planet.”
If you still crave at least some of the taste and texture of meat in your bean-rich meal, use a small amount as flavoring.
“My mom made split pea soup with a ham bone or boiled white beans with a side of cornbread once a week or so, and as kids, we had no idea that she was saving a few pennies,” chef and cookbook author Robin Asbell said. “You can copy her method and use a bone or small hunk of smoked meat to flavor a whole pot of soup.”
These bean-loving food experts often have a favorite variety, of course. RDN Jill Nussinow said lentils are one of her top choices. “You can even sprout them in water and add them to soups and salads,” she said.
RDN Amanda Frankeny is also decidedly pro-lentil. “Unlike with other dried beans, you don’t have to soak them beforehand. Just rinse them in a colander and simmer for about half an hour.”
Federico Tischler, chef and owner of Well Fed in Coral Gables, Florida, loves chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans. “They can make a creamy soup, falafel, hummus, deep fried snacks and more,” he said.
Chef Marshall O’Brien is another chickpea aficionado. “They’re ridiculously inexpensive and highly versatile,” he said. “Because of their protein and fiber, they keep blood sugar stable, which positively affects energy level and mood. If you want to get through the day with energy to spare, have some beans and your body will thank you.”
Pro prep tips: “Don’t add acids like citrus or tomatoes until the end of cooking, or it will increase your cooking time,” Palmer said.
“If you’re making chickpeas, you can prepare them in advance and freeze for later,” Adam Polisei, corporate chef of Next Level Brands, said.
“For the bean connoisseur, brands like Rancho Gordo and Anson Mills have heirloom varieties with stand-out quality,” Pardue said. “They’re still well below the price point of comparably boutique meat.”
Cheap protein #2: Tofu
“You can buy 14 ounces of tofu for less than $3,” RDN Amy Gorin said. “It’s full of plant-based protein, and it picks up the flavor of whatever ingredients you pair it with.”
Pro prep tip: “I love crispy baked tofu that’s soaked in a delicious marinade,” Gorin said. “You just need a few simple ingredients like sesame oil, soy sauce, and miso.”
Another pro tip to make it taste good: Make sure you press it.
Cheap protein #3: Eggs
“Eggs are a beautiful source of protein,” Sandy Davis, chef for New York-based Roxo Events, said. “Both The Odeon Restaurant and Cafe Luxembourg here in New York offer an omelet on their dinner menus, garnished with fine herbs and gruyere and served with a side salad. There’s nothing better.”
Pro prep tip: Hard boil a dozen eggs in advance to have on hand for quick snacks and meals. If you want to avoid the stovetop, it’s easy to microwave eggs, too.
Cheap protein #4: Canned fish
“I’m from the Low Country of Charleston, South Carolina, and it was normal for my family to have seafood on the menu at least three or four days per week,” Low Country Quisine’s chef Jolie Oree-Bailey said. “My grandmother used to make salmon fried rice with cooked rice, canned salmon, smoked sausage, onions, garlic, rice and seasonings. It’s a dish that can feed a family of five for under $2 each.”
Pro prep tip: “Focus on getting the rice cooked just right, and aim for a nice crust on the salmon as it’s being sautéed,” Oree-Bailey suggested.
Cheap protein #5: Less-popular cuts
If you’re trying to save money on protein, you’ll need to step away from the rib eyes and tenderloins and train your eyes on cheaper cuts that will take to a slow braise. Chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern said he visits local Latin and Asian markets to find pork shanks, oxtails and lamb necks. “They’re a readily available option and they’re frequently on sale at those markets,” he said.
Polisei is also a pork shank fan: “Not only do I love to cook them, but when I see them on a menu, I’m almost always going to order them,” he said. “Perfectly cooked pork shank is the most comforting food there is.”
Curtis Stone, chef and owner of Maude and Gwen Butcher Shop and Restaurant in Los Angeles, said beef chuck or pork shoulder are good options. “They’re basically the same cuts from different animals,” he said. “Tougher cuts like these need more time to cook, so they make great weekend cooking projects that will fill your home with gorgeous aromas. Just remember that ‘low and slow’ are the keys to tenderness.”
“In Hawaiian-style applications, we use some aggressive seasonings like Hawaiian sea salt, vinegar, shoyu and patis, which is Filipino fish sauce,” Seta said. “To enhance tenderness in my pork teriyaki recipe, I semi-freeze the meat and slice it as thin as I can, then add pureed kiwi fruit to my teriyaki marinade. The kiwi’s enzymes act as a natural meat tenderizer.”
Chef Bishara Sahoury, director of culinary at Saint Paul Brewing and Can Can Wonderland, both in St. Paul, Minnesota, suggested looking for what he called “butcher’s cuts” like chuck eye, also known as Delmonico. Most stores that cut their own steaks will have it, and you can usually find it near the rib eyes.
Pro prep tips: “For these cuts, go with big seasonings and safe braises,” Zimmern said.
“A great trick to tenderize inexpensive beef is to salt it two hours before cooking, or to use a mallet or sturdy pan to physically tenderize it,” Sahoury suggested.
Cheap protein #6: Grounds, scraps and trims
“I always look for ground pork, beef or chicken,” Yia Vang, chef and owner of Union Hmong Kitchen in Minneapolis, said. “Most of the time, that’s a product made from the scraps and trims in butcher shops, so the per-pound cost is lower.”
“I love the versatility of ground turkey,” said executive chef and managing partner Robin Selden, of Marcia Selden Catering. “It’s a mild protein, so it takes on flavors like garlic and fresh herbs really well.”
Brian Nasajon, chef and owner of Beaker & Gray in Miami, asks for scraps when he’s at the butcher. “People charge heavy for main cuts, but you can always get great deals on trimmings,” he said. “They’re often overlooked, but they make for great stews and braises.”
Pro prep tip: “Make a rice bowl with your grounds and add chiles, fish sauce, oyster sauce and veggies,” Vang said.
“With your ground turkey, you can make an awesome chili that can be stretched even further with different beans and diced canned tomatoes,” Selden suggested. “It’s a super-hearty meal that can double as a filling for burritos or tacos, or as a topping for nachos.”