Meat Money: Grocery Saving Tips for Carnivores
Looking to make the most of your money saving opportunities while cooking for the meat and potato lovers in your family? Find the cost of your favorite cuts is putting a rather large dent in your child's college fund? Read on. Help has arrived.
While we don't mind reducing our overall intake of meat at our house, we do like the overall flavor. Even in my single days when I dabbled for months at a time, dipping my toes into the waters of vegetarianism, I still found I occasionally wanted a fix. Not to mention that fact that our list of vegan friends is remarkably short. So how to proceed with meat money management? Here's a list of ideas.
This one mainly applies to ground meats, and the simplest way to go is with the one pound frozen bullets. These provide additional flexibility, don't freezer burn as quickly, and their smaller size makes it easier to skip the breaking down required for other bulk purchases. Bonus? Aside from hamburger (which I still buy in family packs), they are usually what goes on sale anyway. Case in point? The $1.69 pork sausage I snagged yesterday. OK, on to the actual technique.
Thaw enough meat for a particular meal prep session, and repackage any extra for another menu. (A good example of this would be scoring a handful or two of ground beef from the taco pan before adding seasonings and setting it aside for pizza night later in the week. On assembly cooking days, I'll cook up more.) Use a biscuit cutter or the open end of a clean, empty soup can and continue to press the meat against the pan, cutting it into smaller pieces as you go. Most people stop at the large chunk stage, which doesn't take the savings to the level most folks are needing these days.
My advice? Keep going until your pieces of ground meat are more the size of large granules or imitation bacon bits. You'll then be free to explore a concept Carrie Kirby touched upon recently, using meat more as a flavor source rather than a mainstay. By embracing this, you'll be able to stretch your ground meats further than you may have considered possible. A few examples? A knock off Zuppa Toscana for 8-10 people as opposed to 4-6, covering a large homemade pizza with a snack-sized baggie of meat versus a pint-sized one, or feeding a giant crowd of last minute breakfast company a filling meal of biscuits and gravy on only 1-2 pounds of meat. Filled savory pastries and other restaurant clones come to mind as other frugal options.
To dice is nice.
While you can certainly do this with any leftover meat such as ham, beef or poultry, when you've cooked a large batch for dinner, this is also a super easy hack for pre-cooked boneless meats you are able to snag for a good price. A close friend of mine has a favorite brand of boneless turkey ham she picks up regularly for just under two bucks a pound. It's one of her “meats of choice” when nothing happens to be on sale. Usually, when I buy these, I do at least one “slice and serve” menu with a simple side dish before moving on to other sale ham strategies, such as the ones linked to above. From now on, I'm taking the lead of my frugal friend. She dices the hell out of it from the very beginning, and puts it immediately into smaller packages for use in casseroles, soups, pasta salads, carbonara and more.
What I love about this slight twist on the technique? It allows those who don't have time to thaw, roast and de-bone enormous portions of meat (not to mention scour the pans and clean up afterward) to actually take advantage of a powerful saving strategy with little additional stress. In addition to precooked boneless hams, turkey hams, Spam and large blocks of pressed ham loaf, consider pepperoni, pre-cooked boneless turkey breast, or even snagging some breaded chicken breast strips from the deli counter to dice up at home for a DIY crispy chicken southwest salad with corn and black beans.
Use it as an accent ingredient.
The first example of a higher end way to do this that comes to mind is a dish I tried recently at Olive Garden: the braised beef and tortelloni in a basil marsala sauce. It's a tasty meal that clearly places meat at center stage, without making it the main ingredient. Since cooking marsala can be picked up relatively inexpensively (I make chicken marsala on a semi-frequent basis.), I'm considering custom cloning a version of this for us at home. A budget tip would be to try it with penne rigate rather than the fresh tortelloni.
A couple of other ideas? I've previously expressed my love of sliced steak dinner salad as a budget strategy for back yard barbecues, and would like to raise the suggestion here again for meat lovers. You get the full aroma-therapy factor if you grill it at home first, and can then thinly slice it diagonally for the full color variation. Want some more drama? Add a grainy spice rub prior to grilling for extra flavor and texture on the steak slices. Grilling a single marinated chicken breast and using the same dinner salad menu is also another way to feed more than one person from a single piece of meat.
Coupons can apply.
Grant you, for larger portions of fresh cuts, these are rare and usually require the purchase of another item. However, when it comes to canned and pre-sliced meats, coupons abound. Combined with a buy-one-get-one-free offer on double coupon week, you can score big. Another great time to try is during the summer when hot dogs go on sale. I've danced down the aisle with more than my fair share of free Bar S brand frankfurters, believe me.
Don't shy away from the larger cuts.
This is a slightly different form of bulk buying than the divide and conquer technique for family packs I wrote about recently for streamlined freezer savings. What I'm suggesting here is to get comfortable working with some of the larger meat items that go on sale regularly, such as picnic pork roasts, giant legs of ham or lamb, and for certain the long center cut pork loins.
The pork loins can be cut into smaller roasts, or sliced into lean boneless pork medallions to serve with a spicy peanut sauce or a fruit compote. As for some of the others, the simplest I've found to go is tossing them into an electric roaster on the counter and tossing some basmati into the rice cooker. Throw together a quick Asian coleslaw for a side dish, and you've got a not too stressful meal that provides loads of meat and rice leftovers for the freezer. (Think fried rice, casseroles and soups galore.) Found a great deal on boneless leg of lamb? Hack it up for grilled meat and veggie kabobs, or make friends with the butcher and have it ground up as a replacement for hamburger.
Stockpile during seasonal sales.
This does require freezer space, but can easily save fifty percent or more off your total meat bill. Combine this strategy with other ideas in this article, and you'll be living large while saving big. A few things that come to mind? Hot dogs during summer picnic season, turkeys during the winter holidays, and hams throughout various times of the year.
Shaved, not sliced.
For those who want deli meat and nothing else, you can get more mileage from your meat money this way. If you buy meat from the counter regularly, just ask them to shave your meat for you rather than slice it. Hard core savers can get a slicer and try it at home if they want, but busy folks who are just looking for some minor tweaks in their meat budget can do this with no extra stress, time, or up front cost. Beef up your sandwiches with banana peppers, bargain bacon, hummus and other goodies. Or splurge on a chef's salad since your pennies have been pinched ahead of time. Oven toasted subs are a great way to go with this as well, as the minor roasting time releases more of the fats and flavor. You'll be using less meat, and won't even really notice that much. I promise.
Buy a side.
A side of beef, that is. Meats from other animals may also be available this way, but beef is the one I hear most about from friends and family. Again, this will require some freezer space. If you are short on that, consider chipping in with a friend and sharing a side. You'll each get some of the cuts you would have gotten if you bought the full side, but you won't have to carve out as much freezer space or lay out as much cash up front. Bonus? Everything comes custom cut the way you want it, and prepackaged.
The half and half approach.
This requires mixing fifty percent meat with fifty percent TVP, which I realize sounds like sacrilege to the true carnivore at heart. Consider though, that if you already eat a fair amount of prepared meat products from the freezer aisle, you may be eating more of it than you think. A few places to work it in painlessly would be meatballs, chili, spaghetti sauce and sloppy Joes.
OK folks, that's my best effort at breaking down meat money management strategies for the home team. Got another tip or money stretching recipe suggestion? Sound off below!