Get the Most Muscle for Your Money With These Cheap High-Protein Foods

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A dinner dish comprised of tofu and tempeh,
Need a cheap, plant-based protein? Why not try tofu and tempeh? Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Budgets can be difficult to stick to, especially when it comes to grocery shopping.

Sure, there are tons of ways to save on groceries, including mastering coupons, taking advantage of rebate apps or planning your meals in advance. But if you have a specialized diet or are just looking for healthier food options, you can count on your grocery bill being higher than average — even if you’re using money-saving strategies.

If you’re on a high-protein diet — for a lot of people, this means meat, meat and more meat — you could end up paying significantly more each month for your groceries because a meat-heavy diet can get expensive, real quick.

And if you stick to a vegan or vegetarian diet (or you simply just want to eat less meat), you may be turning to prepackaged protein bars and shake mixes to make up for the lack of animal-based proteins. But those products are often even more expensive.

So what’s a protein-loving Penny Hoarder to do when faced with the choice of picking up some groceries or, ya know, buying the gas to get to the grocery store?

Look for alternative protein-rich food options, that’s what! And by alternative, I mean less expensive.

Plant-Based Sources of Cheap Protein

While there are some inexpensive animal-based proteins out there (we’ll get to those), these plant-based proteins are great for anyone who follows a diet free of all animal products.

Beans and Peas

Beans are the most commonly talked about protein-rich plant-based alternative. At about 39 grams of protein per cup, black beans are one of the most protein-dense foods you can eat that is free of animal products. For comparison’s sake, a cup of chopped or diced chicken breast has 43 grams of protein.

What’s more, boneless chicken breast clocks in at an average of $3.28 per pound, which makes it significantly more expensive than the 16-ounce can of black beans I saw for 72 cents.

But it’s not just black beans! Kidney beans, green beans, green peas, soybeans, chickpeas, lima beans, pinto beans, black eyed peas — the list goes on and on, and they’re all rich in protein and incredibly low in cost.

Peanut Butter

A jar of peanut butter is a cheap protein.

Peanut butter is inexpensive and packed with protein. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Two tablespoons of peanut butter — the recommended serving size — contains nearly 8 grams of protein. And if you consume peanut butter the way I consume peanut butter, you should have no problem meeting your recommended daily protein allowance. (Just kidding, that sounds mildly unhealthy.)

Green Veggies

Brussel sprouts are a good source of protein that's both cheap and plant-based.

One cup of Brussels sprouts contains 8 grams of protein. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

A lot of green veggies are surprisingly high in protein, along with so many important vitamins and minerals. Foods like spinach, broccoli (and broccoli’s cousin, broccoli rabe), Brussels sprouts and even asparagus are all high in protein for their calorie count.

Tempeh and Tofu

A dinner dish comprised of tofu and tempeh,

Tofu and tempeh is packed with protein and its cheap. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Given soybeans’ high level of protein — we’re talking 66 grams of protein in one cup of roasted soybeans — it’s no wonder soy-based products like tofu and tempeh are dense in protein. Due to the unique processes that go into producing each, their protein density differs: Tempeh has 33 grams per cup while tofu has 20 grams per cup.

Grains and Pseudograins

A cup full of raw farro before it's cooked.

One cup of farro contains 23 grams of protein. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

When I said grains, what was the first thing that popped into your brain? Was it your trusty quinoa? Or maybe those finicky (but so worth the hour you spent hovering over the stove while they cooked) lentils? Well, then your brain would be wrong — but only mildly wrong. Allow me to explain.

There are grains, and then there are pseudograins. Unless you have an allergy or sensitivity to grains, you can use them interchangeably. The difference is that pseudograins are technically seeds, but we eat them like grains.

Actual grains that are high in protein include barley and farro, at about 23 and 24 grams of protein per cup, respectively, along with sorghum, kamut and rye.

Protein-dense pseudograins include buckwheat at 22 grams of protein per cup and lentils at 18 grams per cup, followed by amaranth, quinoa and teff.

Seeds and Nuts

Other seeds — the seeds that we sprinkle in smoothies and use for a extra little crunch on salads — are also high in protein. However, we usually eat these types of seeds sparingly because they’re relatively high in calories. Pumpkin and squash seeds are excellent sources of protein at almost 10 grams of protein per quarter cup, but chia seeds and flax seeds are also great high-protein additions to your snacks and meals.

After peanuts, the nuts that are highest in protein include almonds, cashews and pistachios — which provide about 12 grams of protein per half cup.

Animal Protein

If you do eat animal-based products, there are some cheaper options to help you save in the checkout lane.

Eggs

Eggs are pictured in a carton.

Eggs are an inexpensive and healthy source of protein. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

For a while, eggs got a bad rap for being high in cholesterol. Recently, though, that reputation has changed, and new research suggests it’s OK to consume eggs as a healthy source of protein, vitamins, minerals and good fats.

Here’s a thorough breakdown of what to look for in eggs, but it all comes down to is this: Eggs are an excellent, inexpensive source of protein.

Greek Yogurt and Cottage Cheese

Greek yogurt in a glass bowl.

Plain Greek yogurt has less sugar and more protein than typical yogurt. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

In one cup of plain greek yogurt, there are about 29 grams of protein. Cottage cheese clocks in at just under 28 grams of protein for roughly the same amount.

Canned Tuna

Tuna salad on a plate

There are about 30 grams of protein in one cup of canned tuna. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Fish is another great source of protein, but even here in Florida, where we’re surrounded by water on three sides, fresh seafood can be pricy. The workaround? Canned tuna, which is cheaper to transport and store, is an inexpensive protein source you can find anywhere. There are about 30 grams of protein in one cup of canned tuna.

‘Inconvenient’ Chicken and Beef

If you still prefer meat as your primary source of protein or just want to have it once in awhile, there are some ways to save at the grocery store. Deboned, skin-off chicken breasts and 90% lean beef are expensive, but that’s just the cost of convenience. If you’re willing to do a little extra work, you can save money on meat by cleaning and deboning it yourself.

Grocery stores sell whole chickens and bone-in, skin-on pieces at significantly lower prices per pound. If you commit to spending an extra few minutes prepping the meat, you’ll see some pretty big savings.

As for ground beef, there’s often a difference of a few dollars per pound between 90% lean and something closer to 70% lean. To save money every time you shop, you can purchase the cheaper, fattier beef and rinse it yourself to make it more like the pricier lean ground beef. If you’re shaking your head at me right now because that sounds like too much effort, it’s not that complicated, I promise. Here’s a helpful explainer of how (and why) the process of rinsing beef works.

There are plenty of inexpensive ways to meet your recommended daily protein intake, so you’re not stuck paying for expensive powders, bars and meats every time you go grocery shopping.

Either way, and whatever your dietary restrictions, we can all agree that a low grocery bill is the best grocery bill.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.