Beyond Beef: Tasty, Frugal Protein

In an age of rising obesity rates and increasing health consciousness, many of us are wondering whether we have enough protein in our diets. Sources of protein are not only plentiful in several everyday food items, but most of them are also affordable. (See also: Peanut Butter: The Poor Man's Protein)


One of the best-known sources of protein is tempeh, a fermented food made from soybeans. A longtime staple food in Indonesia, tempeh is slowly gaining traction in the U.S. and popping up in grocery stores across the country. It’s also possible to make your own tempeh, generally a cheaper option using dried soybeans than buying premade tempeh from a store.

Eggs...From Your Own Chickens

If you’re seeking a good source of protein without paying an exorbitant amount for organic, cage-free eggs, why not raise your own chickens? There is an upfront investment (coop, chicken feed, the chickens themselves, etc.) and ongoing work involved, but having your own chickens means you know exactly how your egg-layers are treated and could offer a daily supply of fresh eggs. For more information, check out our own Linsey Knerl's article on raising backyard chickens.


Whether they’re dried and bagged or canned, beans are an excellent source of protein (and iron!) that won’t break the bank. According to the USDA, black and kidney beans have the highest protein content, followed by baked, pinto, and lima beans. Dry beans tend to be cheaper than their canned counterparts, but again, it depends on where you live and shop for groceries.

Options at Farmers Markets

Farmers markets are one of the best places to buy fresh, affordable produce. Offerings will vary from season to season, but you can often buy protein-rich produce such as soybeans and support your local economy at the same time.

Canned Tuna

Another source of protein for frugal-minded families is canned tuna. Costs vary from store to store, but online, you can buy over 3 lbs of canned tuna for as little as $12. Tuna packed in water is generally less healthy than tuna packed in olive oil, but if cost is your only concern, go with the cheaper options. However, buyer beware — according to Consumer Reports, mercury in canned tuna is still a pressing problem. Studies show higher levels of mercury in white tuna than light tuna, so be sure to keep this in mind while you’re shopping.

Whey Protein

Whey protein powder purchased in bulk can be a frugal option, and it's especially convenient for those looking to add nutritional value to meal replacement shakes. Just make sure to watch out for allergies and overdependence (balance consumption with other sources of protein).

Not-So-Frugal Sources

When discussing significant sources of protein, I couldn’t leave out organic meats such as chickens (raised without hormones) and grass-fed livestock. Unfortunately, organic meats tend to be quite pricey in comparison to their grain-fed, hormone-loaded counterparts. If quality outweighs price however, organic is the way to go with your meats.

What about you? Do you know of any other frugal sources of protein? Tell us in the comments below.


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Guest's picture

This is the first time I have heard about Tempeh. I wonder how it tastes like.

I try to take in as much protein since I'm working out. I usually eat lean meat, chicken breasts, eggs and a protein shake to boot. I've had ideas of having my own backyard chicken coop but the work I have to put into maintaining it seems to be so taxing.

Guest's picture

After spending loads of money on Protein powder in the past, it's nice to hear some good alternatives that save money!


Guest's picture

I'm curious as to why "organic" meat would have any more protein than "regular" meat. Is there some citation for that claim? I'm not trying to discount any other benefit of choosing organic, but I'm not aware of any scientific reason for differences in protein.

Kelly Kehoe's picture

There currently aren't studies done on which has higher protein content, but I listed organic meats in the above article because of the health benefits over corn-fed, hormones-enhanced livestock.

My purpose was to list protein-rich food sources that were also the healthiest in their respective categories. For more information on the numerous benefits of organic meat, I recommend reading this page from Princeton University:

Guest's picture

I've avoided eating meat almost my whole life, and I turn to these sources of protein to supplement. I have never had tempeh, but beans and other plant proteins are great. Also, quinoa is a great way to stock up on protein.

Guest's picture

How about some non traditional meats, like goat. If you live anywhere that has a large African or Carribbean community, goat meat can be purchased cheaply. It tastes a little bit like lamb.

Guest's picture

Quinoa is great too!

Guest's picture

Many people do not realize that beans, by themselves, are not a "complete" protein. A complete protein is a protein that contains all of the essential amino acids; animal proteins (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, and eggs) are considered good sources of complete proteins. By combining vegetable proteins, a complete protein can be achieved - beans with rice and corn is a good example.

Kelly Kehoe's picture

Excellent point! The items on this list will provide the greatest health benefits when added to a balanced diet and not used as one's exclusive source of protein (unless, as you point out, it's a complete protein--but even then, these should be eaten along with other sources such as beans and other vegetables).

Guest's picture

Good list; as long as you're shopping in the right place for your budget, there are plenty of ways to get added protein. I was surprised that you didn't include peanut butter in your list because it was in the first paragraph. But buying one large tub of nut butter should last you a while if you pay attention to serving sizes, and it is a great source of protein.

Guest's picture

Is tofu the same thing as tempeh? Excellent point by one of the commenters about many of the options listed here not being complete protein. Some pairings: peanut butter and whole wheat (must be whole wheat); milk and whole wheat cereal; rice and beans; corn and beans; whole wheat pasta and beans. Tofu/tempeh and quinoa are among the only plant sources of protein that are complete. It is also important to realize that even though you've paired these food items to make a complete protein, the food items in question may still be fairly low in some of the essential amino acids. Last but not least, related to iron ... non-heme iron found in vegetable sources is generally not readily absorbed by the body. Absorption ranges as low as 2 percent for a non-heme source. Heme sources of iron are much more readily absorbed and range up to 35 percent. Pairing a non-heme source with even a tiny amount of a heme source can dramatically boost iron absorption from even the non-heme source. Yea, nutrition is kind of complicated.

Guest's picture

Wow!! All the frugal protein sources listed was a complete shock to me because I absolutely had no idea. Great read!!

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

Quinoa is definitely a good one. Even though it's a bit more expensive, I prefer canned wild caught salmon to tuna (still cheaper than buying filleted or whole from a monger). Other fish that can be canned and cheaper (and lower in mercury) are sardines and anchovies (since they're small with short life spans, less time to collect mercury).