Chicken thighs 69 cents a pound!
My mouth dropped as I checked the sign.
By contrast, the certified organic, free-range, pasture- and humanely raised chicken thighs in my basket cost $3.99 a pound.
I guiltily admit that I had a moment of weakness. When you're on a limited food budget, taking home 6 pounds of meat for the price of one could be a huge coup.
But it was just a momentary lapse. I left the store with the organic chicken thighs because of my personal taste, and ethics and health concerns. I believe in organic animals raised in humane conditions, which includes living in a free-range habitat and eating a more normal diet.
Organic meat is one of the most expensive food items in my limited budget. Not eating meat would, of course, help save money, but I like meat. So, instead, I've learned these seven foolproof ways to save money on organic meat.
Portion control is one of the easiest ways to save on meat. The American Heart Association says one serving of meat is 2 to 3 cooked ounces. I calculate 4 ounces of raw meat per serving because it loses about 25% of its weight in the cooking process. This measurement varies based on how fatty the meat is and if there’s a bone.
With this rule in mind, you can divvy that 1-pound boneless sirloin steak into four 4-ounce servings. That 8-ounce boneless chicken breast will make two servings. That 8-ounce slab of pork ribs, on the other hand, is only one serving due to its fat and bones.
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Red meats, like beef and lamb, are generally much more expensive than white meats, like chicken, turkey and pork. And most meats are interchangeable in recipes, allowing you to save up to half the cost per pound by purchasing white meat over red.
A pound of ground lamb costs an average of $9.00, while a pound of ground beef runs $7.00. Compare that to $4.00 a pound for chicken, turkey or pork, and you can see the savings. And that’s just the ground meat. Other red meat cuts can cost up to 125% more than white meats.
When substituting white meat for red, I use all the ground and stewed meats interchangeably across most recipes. For roasted meat recipes, I replace beef or lamb roast with pork roast, or a whole chicken or turkey. I also like to use chicken thighs in place of lamb because the dark chicken meat has a gaminess similar to lamb. And in steak recipes, I generally substitute pork chops.
Generally, the cheap organic cuts and parts require the most cooking time, such as dark-meat chicken, chuck roast or pork shoulder. Cheaper cuts come from less meaty regions or areas with more heavy muscle, tendons and ligaments. Dark turkey and chicken meat is cheaper due to higher demand for white meat.
While a cheaper price is a huge benefit, these less expensive cuts are also loaded with lots of flavor. Slow-braised lamb shanks are typically more flavorful than lamb chops, and I prefer the deep taste of chicken thighs over chicken breasts. Another advantage to the cheap cuts is they are harder to dry out when cooking.
The following price ranges show just how much you can save by opting for the cheaper cuts:
The 2017 summer will be a nice year for eating beef since global demand is driving beef prices down. Dr. David Anderson, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert, says, “The demand for live fed cattle has increased from feedlots and meat packers that are seeing good profits as supermarkets feature beef products and consumers respond to those lower prices at stores.”
Food trends also drive meat prices. While chicken breasts are still expensive compared to dark meat, they are much cheaper today than they were 10 years ago. Farmers are producing more breasts, and organic prices have fallen from $10 to $12 a pound to around $6 to $8.
Holidays also affect meat prices. The price of organic turkey drops up to 40% at Thanksgiving and climbs back to regular prices for the rest of the year -- there is an occasional small drop around Christmas. The best time of year to stock up on ham is at Easter and Christmas, when prices can drop by as much as 60%. Good beef steaks and ground meats, such turkey, chicken and hamburger, are all cheaper around the Fourth of July.
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I often make meat go further in a recipe by adding complementary meaty vegetables, whole grains or dried beans to a recipe. The dish is healthier while still being plenty meaty. A double bonus.
Vegetables that blend well with meats include eggplant, zucchini, squash, carrots and, of course, onions. Farro, barley, quinoa and most ancient grains work well with almost any type of meat.
As for beans, I tend to use darker varieties, like kidney, pinto and red beans, with red meats and lighter-colored ones, like cannellini and navy beans, with white meats. But it is all about preference. Don’t be afraid to try different flavors and be creative.
One of my favorite meals is tacos with beans and whole grains to help stretch the meat. I saute 1 pound of ground beef, turkey or chicken with 2 cups of drained, cooked black beans and 1 cup of cooked barley, farro or tofu with taco spices. I top the tacos with chopped lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, cheese and sour cream. Finally, I finish the meal with a serving of tortilla chips and salsa on the side.
Cottage pie is another easy recipe my family enjoys. I combine 1 pound of stew lamb or beef, with 1 pound of mushrooms and 1 pound of vegetables, such as carrots, onions and green peas, all chopped the same size in a rich gravy flavored with red wine and fresh herbs. I place the mixture in a casserole dish and top it with leftover mashed potatoes. I then bake it until bubbly and serve it with a side salad for a complete meal.
I love buying a portion of an animal directly from the farmer. Not only do I see how the animals are raised, but buying directly from the farmer saves me 25 to 50% off store-bought organic meat.
I find my local farmers through the farmers market. This affords me the opportunity to get to know the farmer, make arrangements to visit the farm and taste the meat without committing to buying a full portion.
Most farmers will sell portions of an animal ranging from a quarter to full. Rarely will they go smaller than a quarter, but it never hurts to ask. You can also bring a friend with you to split the costs and the meat.
If you don’t have a local farmer’s market, ask your friends, look online or even talk to the local butcher. While the butcher seems an unlikely place, many are willing to give a discount for buying in bulk.
One thing to remember when buying a portion of an animal, the weight quoted is the animal’s hanging weight before being butchered into parts and cuts. You will lose one-third to one-half of the quoted weight in processing. Despite the lost weight, It’s still always been cheaper to fill my freezer this way than with store-bought meat. An added bonus is I get to decide how I want the meat processed, including how thick my steaks are.
For a more in-depth look at buying from a local farmer, check out Once a Month Meals’ article How to Purchase Local Grass-Fed Beef, which works for types of meats, not just beef.
Much like vegetables, organic meat has seasons. While you can buy any type of meat year-round, purchasing in season can save you up to 50%. This is a great time to stock the freezer -- you can even indulge in the more expensive cuts and parts.
Your location determines when each seasons is.
And there you have it. If you're like me and want to continue including organic meat in your diet, these seven tips and tricks will help you save money.
Heidi Medina is a freelance blogger, writer, editor and photographer who runs the food blog Simply Sophisticated Cooking, while living an independent lifestyle. See her latest yummy creations on Instagram: SimplySophisticatedCooking.