1. Know when to shop
If you’re in the market for budget meat, you must learn to think like a store manager. With incoming deliveries several times per week, facilitating turnover is key. Here are some key times to shop for meat:
- Shop later in the evening—after suppertime: This is when you’ll see meat and fish discounts start suddenly appearing as meat and fish department managers try to move out the old to make way for the new.
- Pre– and post-holidays are great meat/fish stockpile times: If you have a bit of extra freezer space, nabbing holiday-centric meat sales can keep your meat budget low.
- Mid-week is the best time to nab clearance cuts: For grocers, the week actually runs from Wednesday to Tuesday, not Monday to Sunday. So many store managers will post mid-week sales reductions to move older inventory in advance of the weekend's shopping.
- January (believe it or not): The law of supply and demand has conspired to ensure the month of January will always be one of the best times to buy bulk meat—when supply is high, but demand is at an all-time annual low as folks recover from their blown holiday budgets.
2. Know the cheapest cuts
Learning about meat can feel like learning another language—heck, the cow alone has a mind-boggling number of different cuts! But it can be worth it to your wallet to persevere. Here’s a cheat sheet to get you started:
- If you do the work, you pay less: For instance, in most cases, "bone in" will cost you less than "boneless" (same goes for skin versus skinless).
- But don't factor out the bones until you're sure: If you’re buying a cut of meat (such as rib-eye steak or pork ribs) that contains a big, heavy bone, you may actually pay more for the bone-in than the boneless!
- Fresh is always priciest: The fresher the cut, the higher the price.
- "Trim" cuts are cheaper than whole cuts: Salmon trim, for instance, will be cheaper than salmon, but it tastes the same.
- Family size will be cheaper than single portions: Not as much as bulk, but more than individual servings, a family size packet of meat may be three pounds (rather than one pound), but it will last longer and cost you less per pound.
- Go for bulk if you can swing it: If you have a membership to a grocer like Costco or Sam's Club, often you can find bulk buys on meat and fish, especially on weekends. You’ll pay less per ounce or pound when buying in bulk.
- When in doubt, choose "sirloin" over "tenderloin": Here, your wallet will thank you.
- Ground or minced meat: These cuts have been passed through a processor to break the cut into much smaller pieces.
- Ribs: Because half of each rack is bone, ribs tend to be less expensive in terms of the amount of meat you get.
3. Don't forget about frozen meat
While you may want to feature the "freshest of the fresh" meats and seafood for special occasions, for normal family dining, the frozen aisle has plenty to offer. Here are some cheaper options to look for:
- Frozen seafood: Big bags of frozen shrimp, calamari, scallops, crab, and clams are nearly always cheaper than the same amount of seafood will be by the fresh pound.
- Frozen fish: You can get better deals on frozen fish than on the fresh counterpart.
- Frozen meat: Frozen ground, strip, or chuck beef can still be quite flavorful in recipes.
4. Distinguish cut from type
The best way to begin to decipher "butcher lingo" is to befriend your local butcher.
- This graphic offers a great example of all the different ways to name meat from a particular area of the cow.
- For instance, you will notice that the "short loin" area produces: a) the t-bone, b) the top loin, c) the porterhouse, d) the tenderloin roast.
- So if you need a cheaper cut from the same area of the animal, just ask—generally speaking, butchers are happy to share their knowledge!
5. Identify the cheapest types of meat protein
Just as price can vary by the cut style, price can also vary by the type of meat. Here are two helpful examples:
- Turkey: Turkey is one of the cheapest meat proteins you can buy, yet it is also low in fat and very nutritious.
- Poultry: Poultry is typically less expensive than beef or pork, especially when purchased whole.
6. Canned meats can offer a great deal
Just as it’s easy to forget about frozen options when standing in front of a case of fresh goods, in the same way it’s easy to forget that some popular meats are also available canned. Here are some popular canned options:
7. Processed meat can make sense depending on the recipe (or the diner)
Kids love hamburgers and hotdogs for a reason. Lunch meats are an easy fix for busy parents trying to do too much with too little time. Give yourself some grace (time- and budget-wise) by working in cheaper processed meat options where it makes sense.