Often one of the first categories to get tossed by the wayside on a tight budget is usually the animal protein sources. I really struggle with this for many reasons, and I certainly do not plan to do so myself. First off, I feel animal proteins are a critical component of a healthy diet, especially for growing children. Sure, grains, legumes and starches are cheaper and fill bellies, but they do not nourish the way proteins do, in fact often the opposite. Sure, you could subsist on cheaper starches as filler foods, but will you be as optimally healthy that way? Certainly not. I also, don’t really agree with the idea that legumes area good source of protein. Legumes are not a protein based food, they contain some proteins but are not a complete protein food. Meat proteins contain all the essential amino acids, plant proteins, such as legumes do not.
The Role of Protein in the Body
About 18% of our body composition is composed of proteins, whereas only about 2% is carbohydrate. Proteins are the building blocks of the body. Our body uses and assembles 50,000 different proteins to form organs, nerves, muscles, and flesh. We need proteins for enzymes, protein molecules that are the managers and catalysts for all biochemical processes. Also for antibodies, proteins that help fight infection. To make hemoglobin, specialized proteins in the form of red blood cells that carry oxygen. As well as to build healthy hormones, proteins that regulate our metabolism and almost every function in the body
Daily consumption of good, complete proteins is essential to a healthy system. We first must consume quality protein and then digest it well so it can then convert to the essential amino acids we need for optimal function. A broad overall amount of protein that is a good baseline for everyone is about 30% of your daily intake should come from proteins.
Animal sources of protein are far richer and often more easily assimilable than many plant sources of incomplete protein. Grains and legumes need to be properly prepared and still pale in comparison to the quantity of protein per serving. Not to mention, animal proteins will contain the fats and other substances that benefit your overall ability to utilize your nutrients. Legumes don’t contain the fat that a piece of meat will. Why is that a problem, well you need fat to assimilate many nutrients, namely your minerals. Yes, you can prepare legumes with animal fat and by all means you should, but it’s still not as optimal, as legumes are very low in some of the key essential amino acids. If you are going to use legumes and grains as fillers on a tight budget to supply your protein, you will have to combine them well to ensure getting all the amino acids and you will need to eat much greater quantities than you would a piece of meat. Not to mention, legumes are at least 60 percent starch with only relatively small amounts of incomplete protein. Most of us today eat too much starch as it is and have compromised blood sugar in some form or fashion. Just because we have a tight budget does not mean we have to settle for less than optimal nutrition. Also, legumes contain various anti-nutrients that can contribute to mineral deficiencies, they must be long soaked and properly prepared to avoid this issue. And even then, they are still sub par to animal proteins. They also contain goitrogens which inhibit thyroid function and can be very hard on a leaky gut.
That said, we do eat some legumes in my home, but we will not be replacing our meat sources with legumes as a protein source. I don’t tolerate beans too well anyway, I can have some well prepared white beans, lentils and split peas as occasional filler in my diet.
- Best case – buy a side of beef, pork, lamb. This is something you have to save up for, but it’s critical you do. You pretty much can’t afford not to. Buying beef by the side is a significant savings and usually costs under $4 per pound. Plus, you get the fat, the bones and the organs. This stretches your budget and meals much further.
- Use the bones to make homemade bone broth. Making bone broth has a protein sparing effect, it’s loaded with all the essential amino acids. I’d rather see people focusing on getting bones for bone broth than thinking they can fill in with legumes. Bones can be used more than once to make stock, especially if you have a gelatin rich piece of bone or foot or knuckle in your stock pot. A mug of bone broth for lunch would server you far better than a bowl of beans and rice, nutritionally speaking. Add some beans if you like to fill you up, but know that it’s the nutrients in the broth that are doing you the most good.
- While you are saving up for your bulk purchase of meat (and mind you it doesn’t have to be a half, it can be as little as 1/4, 1/8 or 1/16 – I’ve purchased each of those quantities in the past based on what I could swing at the time), find a local farmer that sells their meat in parts. I like to buy the chicken backs, necks and stewing hens. I can get all of those for under $2 per pound. It’s not as much meat as a roast, but it provides me with meat and bones for stock and often just enough fat too. Look for the bacon ends from your farmer – I get mine for $3.75 per pound. This way I can still have some bacon, not as much as I’d like but I can fry up a couple of pieces or use it in recipes to add more flavor, fat and some protein.
- Make use of organ meats. Organ meats are always cheaper and they are more nutrient dense anyway. I never pay more than $2 per pound for any organ meat. Organic dry legumes are around $1.69 per pound and could never in a million years measure up nutritionally to that of liver or heart. I like to mix ground heart with ground beef to stretch it. I like using heart better than liver because the taste is far more tolerable to me than that of liver.
- Seafood – I still include seafood in my tight budget and I really do try for 2 times per week. I buy canned wild salmon and make salmon cakes or tuna to make tuna salad. And I buy white fish, usually sole to make for one dinner as well. I can spend around $6-8 on fish for one meal, which is a bit more than my budget can handle every day, but I figure if I make soups that stretch the budget I can pull off a cheaper fish dinner once per week. I also used canned clams, sardines and anchovies and try to slip them into foods where they might not be noticed. If you live near the water you may be able to get great deals on seafood. My friend Julie lives near the coast in Canada and gets mussels for $5 for at least a pound or more. That’s $5 of super packed nutrition and if you make a stock out of it, you are stretching the nutrition even further. Buy fresh whole fish that aren’t fileted already, look for the cheaper lesser popular fish – save the heads and bones to make stock. Buy shad roe sacks and learn how to prepare them (yes, that is on my list of things to do).
- Hunt or Fish or friend someone who does. I personally don’t hunt or fish – no time, no equipment. BUT, I know people who do. I’m already contacting those people now – why? Because often they may end up with more meat than they can store or know what to do with. Plus, they are proud to share their slaughter – something about hunters and giving away their kill.
- Raise your own chickens, ducks or hooved animals if you can. I sure wish I could.
- Find a good source of pastured eggs. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t eat eggs. We eat so many. There are more and more people local to me raising chickens that often want to sell off some of their eggs. Perhaps you could find a source like that and do some bartering.
- Quality over quantity – I’d rather see my kids getting 1-2 ounces of protein at a meal than not at all. I also know I can get the best quality proteins for about the same price as the cheapest cuts in the store. It takes a bit more effort to gather the meats from the various sources, but to me it’s worth it. If all we can each eat at dinner is a small amount of shredded beef from a leftover roast, I’d rather do that than have a meatless meal. Even if it seems to be a cheaper way to go, I don’t feel it is worth it in the long run.
- Use Dairy as a protein source. So long as you tolerate dairy. We fortunately live in the heart of raw milk land and can get raw milk for $3.50 per gallon. I saved this budget tip for the end of my list in case you are not as fortunate as I am to get such a good price on quality milk. Making your own homemade yogurt is still a better option than filling with grains/legumes, even if it’s not fresh raw milk. Just do the best you can. I fill in with making my own kefir, yogurt, cream cheese, and sour cream for dips for veggies. I can get grass fed pasturized cream for $5 per quart – so I may buy several at once and freeze and use sparingly to fill in the gaps here and there. I have two boys who fill up on milk as a snack or as an accompanyment to dinner and that always helps fill their bellies longer. Often you can find some good deals on quality cheeses at Trader Joe’s – I like their grass fed cheddar and their shredded bag of raw milk parmesan. An ounce of cheese added to a lower protein meal can help boost the protein quite nicely! A little can go a long way. Learn to make your own farmer’s cheese and ricotta as well. You can even use the leftover whey from straining yogurt or kefir to make cream cheese as a source of protein – use it in a smoothie, or drink it up. (so long as you tolerate it that is)!
- Bake with coconut flour. When I bake I try to use coconut flour simple because it requires I use more eggs. Baked goods can often stretch the budget, but also at a cost to nutrition since they are usually mostly sugar/starch. I don’t mind baking with coconut flour even if it does contain some sugar because it often contains significant fat and protein. Is it cheaper to bake with other flours? Yes, of course because you will need less eggs, fat and more of the cheaper ingredients. However, if optimal nutrition is your goal you will appreciate what I am saying here. I don’t always bake with only coconut flour, sometimes I stretch it with other flours. I also am learning to use millet and buckwheat and gluten free sourdough starters, just to fill bellies more, since in the winter we tend to up our starches a bit anyway. My boys are so active that I don’t mind this at all.
Check out my recipes page for soups/stews and other budget friendly meals and ideas, such as: Liver cubes, Heart Healthy Chili, Homemade Ranch Dip, Yogurt, Sour Cream, Kefir, Asian Style Chicken Wings (can be adapted if needed, I get wings for $2 per pound from my farmer and save the tips for stock and the bones too), Homemade Beef Stock, Turkey Soup and more!