Stretching Our Protein Dollars – Use Less Meat

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The news is filled with heartbreaking stories about workers in the meatpacking plants and their families falling ill with COVID19. While we can have many discussions and opinions about the many issues of our whole food system, the obvious immediate challenge to many folks is that meat may be more scarce for several weeks because beef and pork production declined about 27% over last year according to the USDA. Costco and many national chain grocery stores are rationing meat and the topic brings back many current stories when searched on Google.

The change in consumer shopping and eating habits from the pandemic is changing our food system rapidly.

  • Restaurants have suffered great losses from being forced to close.
  • Farmers and manufacturers dedicated to serving restaurants are suffering from a glut of supply and lack of sales while grocery stores and online delivery systems are getting overwhelmed.
  • There are long lines outside of some stores and guards are working to ensure facemasks and a low density of shoppers.
  • Foodbanks are overwhelmed in many areas with millions of jobless citizens who need help to feed their families.

Even with all of this chaos, the USDA says the food supply is in fine shape.

So, with the idea that we always want to lower our food budget, as well as use what we can buy, plus improve our health, it is time to stretch our protein dollars with better menu planning.

Now is a great time for educators to help consumers learn ways to use less meat so they do not feel stressed with current supplies or dwindling budgets. The news about food supplies can also bring an opportunity to propose a more heart-healthy diet. The answer may seem black and white to health educators to choose heart-healthy or plant-based, but there are also many opinions on this topic and we hear regularly from readers asking for more vegan and more meat! Every perspective is important.

I have made a big list using a local store in California with to list common protein foods in their order of cost. The purpose of this list is to help each of our professional health educator readers guide their own audience to make the best choices based on culture, customs, and location:

  • Beans (dried) $1.39 per pound, yields 6-7 cups cooked or about 2.2 pounds
  • Tofu, $2.50 per pound
  • Eggs, large, store brand, $3.79 per dozen, about 1.25 pounds ($3 per pound)
  • Peanut butter, national brand, $3.89 per pound
  • Ground turkey, $4.50 per pound
  • Whole chicken, $4.59 per pound
  • Ground beef, $6 per pound or $8 per pound for extra lean
  • Canned tuna $6 per pound
  • Veggie burger, $10 per pound (averaged)
  • Hot dogs $10 per pound
  • Pork chops, $10.50 per pound
  • Tilapia $11.49 per pound
  • Steak $12 per pound
  • Salami and processed meats: $16 per pound

People eat what they love and don't like to change but they are always looking for new ideas and are more receptive to change to save money. Here are 10 strategies to plan and prepare meals with an emphasis on the price per protein from our chart above:

  1. Combine cooked dried beans with chicken, pork, or meat to make burritos, tacos, chili, and pasta dishes. Stretching meat with beans is a very old tip but now we can see in today's prices why it is a very wise decision. It helps to cook a whole bag of beans at a time and freeze them in meal-sized portions. They will be ready to go and save you money! Meals can be meatless and based on beans to save more money and increase fiber and nutrients.
  2. Meat can pair with pasta, potatoes, or rice in the right ratio and help everyone use less meat. Potatoes are only $1.39 per pound, pasta and rice are about $2 per pound and they are accepted by almost everyone. One portion of meat is a 3-ounce serving. Most people buy and serve too much meat by "eye" so it is a great idea to start ordering meat based on the number of people eating it at the dinner table and the right serving per person. Want good combo meal ideas? The Korean dish bibimbap is a great example. It is a bowl of rice with a little veggies and some meat or a fried egg on top. Spaghetti bolognese and lasagna can be made low in fat and are inexpensive. Potato and meat stew is also delicious.
  3. Tofu easily changes out for meat in many stir fry dishes especially for kung pao dishes which use veggies, spices, and peanuts. Indian or Thai curry dishes use tofu with delicious sauces. It is especially helpful if you increase the seasonings of your recipe a little and crisp up the tofu with a little oil in the pan.
  4. Eggs can be great for dinner. You can make omelets, torta, or hard-boiled eggs and serve them with salads, toast, or over avocado toast.
  5. Whole chicken makes less work for the cook. It roasts in 1-2 hours unattended and can make many meals. By using it as a garnish in soups, burritos, or pasta dishes you can really stretch one chicken across many meals. The carcass can be gently boiled to make a broth, which makes the base for any soup.
  6. Veggie burgers are certainly not the cheapest item but they are so easy to store and prepare that they deserve some recognition. Label reading is necessary because some have a lot more sodium than others.
  7. Pork chops are a favorite of many tables and they can be made in smaller portions especially if you prepare a whole grain such as brown rice to go with them.
  8. Fish may be cheaper if you buy frozen items in bulk and watch store specials. Always freeze fish when you get home if you are not going to cook it right away. It defrosts so easily in the microwave or baking in the oven and it is best to keep it fresh and not risk wasting it.
  9. Steak is more expensive than other meats but if you really love it consider using smaller portions and going with really cheap items on other days. When using less meat fill up more on great side dishes.
  10. The important thing about this list is that the processed meats are more expensive per pound so even though some people think they are cheap they are not if you compare the unit per pound price. You can always flavor your ground meat to remind you of the processed items. Just google a recipe and use those seasonings.

A little diversity and menu planning using the price per pound on protein items above is the way to go for today's cook who wants to keep their family members happy and lower the budget.

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