You may still be wincing a bit if you had to write a bigger-than-expected check to the state or Uncle Sam on tax day this month.
Moments like these make many of us ponder belt tightening, especially how we can save a few dollars on our food budgets.
First off, the easiest way to save money on food is to cook more of it at home. Second, the most expensive items on our shopping lists are often animal proteins: filets of fish, hunks of meat, cuts of poultry. So how can we save money and still get our protein fix?
Linda Watson of Raleigh, N.C., who offers frugal, healthy recipes on her Cook for Good website, says: “The most expensive protein you eat is a protein you don’t need.”
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The typical American consumes too much protein, said Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian with the heart and vascular institute at Novant Health in Charlotte, N.C.
Most adults need between 46 and 56 grams of protein a day. Keep in mind that two large eggs have 12 grams, a 4-ounce piece of chicken has 36 grams, and an 8-ounce cup of skim milk has 8 grams. Eat all of those in a day and you have consumed the recommended daily limit.
“We can get our needs met without having meat at every single meal,” Anderson said.
Fish, meat and poultry are not our only sources of protein. Think of financial guru Dave Ramsey’s oft-given advice to those trying to save money: Eat beans and rice and rice and beans.
You don’t have to be that spartan, but beans are a good starting point for frugal, protein-packed meals. Many other vegetables are excellent sources of protein: potatoes and green vegetables such as peas, broccoli and leafy greens. And don’t forget protein powerhouse Greek yogurt.
Another idea is to stretch the animal proteins that you do buy with other ingredients. Instead of a hunk of meat on your plate, use meat to season a vegetable stir-fry or a bean soup. One chopped chicken breast can go a long way in a pasta salad filled with vegetables. Ground beef goes farther for tacos if tortillas are also filled with grilled peppers, onions and squash.
When you do shop for fish, meat or poultry, only buy it on sale, advises frugal blogger Jessica Fisher, author of the Good Cheap Eats blog and a new cookbook by the same name.
Fisher has a lot of experience stretching protein dollars, feeding her family of eight. She combines turkey and black beans for a simple taco dinner. She makes lasagna with only a pound of ground meat, and sloppy Joes instead of hamburgers. She notes that today’s chicken breasts are so huge that she often cuts them into four portions.
Less meat doesn’t leave her or her family hungry.
“We feel satisfied,” Fisher said. “We don’t feel deprived.”
The cheapest sources of protein
We compare some of our favorite sources of protein by price per ounce:
▪ Dried beans: $1.87 for 32 ounces, which when cooked equals about 96 ounces; 2 cents per ounce.
▪ Canned beans: 77 cents for 15.5-ounce can; about 5 cents per ounce.
▪ Kale: $1.99 for 2-pound bunch; 6 cents an ounce.
▪ Eggs: $1.89 a dozen for large eggs, which are each 1.75 ounces; 9 cents an ounce.
▪ Boneless, skinless chicken breast: $1.99 a pound on sale at meat counter; 12 cents per ounce.
▪ Canned tuna: 90 cents for 5 ounce can; 18 cents per ounce.
▪ Ground pork, 90 percent lean: $3.99 per pound; 25 cents per ounce.
▪ Ground beef, 93 percent lean: $5.99 per pound; 37 cents per ounce.
Source: Prices based on Harris Teeter Express Lane
A few ideas for stretching protein dollars
Italian tuna and white bean salad: Combine 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon each kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and Dijon mustard in a large bowl and stir with a whisk. Add 1 cup halved grape tomatoes, 1 cup sliced red onion, two 6-ounce cans tuna packed in oil (drained and broken into chunks), one 15-ounce can cannellini beans (drained and rinsed) and 1 chopped head green leaf lettuce. Toss. Divide among four plates and top with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.
Peanut butter chicken and pasta: Whisk together 1/3 cup each rice vinegar and vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons each peanut butter and soy sauce, 1 tablespoon each honey and toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large skillet until hot. Cook 1 peeled, shredded carrot for 1 minute, stirring. Add 1 pound chopped skinless, boneless chicken breasts and 1 cup chopped green onions, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked.
Bring large pot of water to a boil; cook 1 pound linguine or thin spaghetti according to package directions. Drain, toss with sauce and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro. Divide noodles among four plates and top with chicken.
Sources: Recipes adapted from “Cooking Light The Complete Quick Cook,” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Oxmoor House, 2011); “Good Cheap Eats,” by Jessica Fisher (Harvard Common Press, 2014).