How to Shop for Meat on a Budget, According to Butchers
We asked butchers across the country for their secrets on saving money at the meat counter.
If you’ve been to the grocery store lately and felt some sticker shock in the meat department, it’s not your imagination: Prices are up. Way up.
In fact, prices of meat, poultry, fish and eggs are up 13 percent from last year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the biggest yearly increase in more than 40 years. Luckily, there are things you can do starting today to save money on meat.
We consulted with the people who know meat the best — butchers around the country — and asked for their advice for saving money on beef, pork, chicken and other animal proteins. Here's what they said.
Get out of your "cut rut."
One thing all the butchers said is getting out of the habit of sticking with cuts you know. Ribeyes, boneless, skinless chicken breasts or lamb rib chops may be familiar cuts, but they're also pricier. Kate Kavanaugh, owner of Western Daughters in Denver and host of The Ground Work podcast, calls this habit a “cut rut.”
“Open your mind to cuts that you might not have tried before,” says McCullough Kelly-Willis, founder of The Chicago Meat Collective, including shank, brisket, and chuck roast for beef, pork picnic shoulder, or lamb neck, bone-in shoulder or shank, she adds. These cuts tend to be less expensive because they’re tougher, so they benefit from longer, slower cooking methods such as stewing and braising.
Even if you’re already a fan of those cooking methods, you may only associate them with the colder months. “I think we have to uncouple the idea that braising meat is a winter activity and move it into a summer activity as well,” Kavanaugh says. “There’s nothing better than braised meat for tacos, for pulled meat sandwiches, in a salad.” Plus, along with saving money on those cuts, “they're going to be larger formats, so you can make multiple meals at once,” which can keep you from ordering pricy takeout on busy nights.
Another type of meat that will save you money every time: Ground. “Get more creative with eating ground lamb, ground pork, ground beef,” Kelly-Willis says. “They’re not just for burgers.” Transform them into dishes like larb, meat sauces for pasta, meatballs, and more.
Though ground meat is always an economical choice, you can save even more by buying a leaner variety if it’s available, notes Chip Bunzel, part owner of Bunzel’s Meat Market in Milwaukee. Though it might cost slightly more than a fattier variety, it will shrink less during cooking, he adds.
Use more of the animal.
“I think organ meats should be considered,” Kavanaugh says. “They've become a lot more popular than they used to be and for good reason. They are nutrition powerhouses. If you want to talk about really packing nutrient density bang for your buck, nothing's better than organ meats.”
Organ meats from smaller animals such as chickens will be milder tasting than larger animals, so start with something like a simple chicken liver mousse if you’re new to eating organ meats. Or, if organ meats feel too intimidating to cook and eat on their own, you can add them to other things. For example, start with a frozen beef liver, and grate a small piece of it into ground beef before making burgers. You won’t taste it, and just a little bit adds plenty of nutrients and stretches the meat.
Another way to use more of the animal is by being creative with the parts we’re accustomed to tossing (including fat), says Kimberly Plafke, production manager at The Meat Hook in Brooklyn. “Obviously, it's great to buy butter, I love butter. But you don't need to put butter in everything,” she says. “You can use pork fat, render it and use that as a fat in your food.” So after you’ve cooked bacon, for example, save the fat and use it for cooking and baking.
Plafke also touts the benefits of buying a whole chicken instead of individual parts. Use the parts you’re accustomed to for meals — the breasts, thighs, drumsticks and wings — then roast the bones, pull off any leftover meat for chicken salad, then use the bones to make broth.
Shop from small farms.
If you live near any small farms, check in with them to see if you can buy a share. “I would recommend getting a share of meat from a farmer,” Kavanaugh says. “It's where a farmer takes a whole animal and sells an eighth or a quarter or a half, or even a whole.”
The advantage to this is that you pay one price for the whole share. “Everything will be sort of equalized across the board at a set price per pound, which means that you're getting some of those more expensive cuts at a much better rate,” she notes. So instead of paying $30 per pound for beef tenderloin and $12 per pound for chuck roast, you pay one fee for the whole share.
Plus, because you buy and store the whole share at once, you’re protected from any price hikes in the supermarket for as long as your share lasts. Having all of your meat already purchased means fewer grocery store runs, so you potentially also save on gas, she adds.
If freezer space is an issue, Kavanaugh recommends going in with a group of friends for a share. “Go in on a whole beef share with five, ten, 15 people, where you're each just taking a really manageable share that's going to fit in your standard home freezer,” she says.
If a share doesn’t make sense for you, find out if any small farms near you offer freezer sales, Kavanaugh says. Some farms do it on a monthly basis, others when their freezer happens to fill up. “One of my biggest recommendations is to get on the mailing lists of local farms, so you can catch those freezer sales directly from the farmer,” she adds.
To find small farms near you, visit Near Home.
Lean on your local butcher.
Though it may seem like it would be more expensive to shop at a butcher shop instead of a supermarket meat section, that isn’t always the case.
For one thing, you’re likely to find a wider variety of cuts at a butcher shop, including more economical ones. “The supermarkets are only going to have a handful of specific cuts, tenderloin, New York strips, ribeyes. And those cuts are usually the most expensive cuts, the most well known cuts,” says Kevin Smith, owner of Beast & Cleaver in Seattle. “But if you go to a whole animal butcher shop where they're bringing in whole animals, there are so many other cuts that can be taken off of the animal, which are much cheaper, and you can get a bigger portion.”
If you’ve ever felt shy about asking your butcher for help, know that every butcher we spoke with encouraged questions.
“Ask your butcher about what the good cuts are this week, what's good and what's cheap,” Smith says. “There's nothing wrong saying that. I actually love it when customers come in and say, ‘What's a great cheap cut?’ Because every single piece on the animal is important and every piece can taste fantastic as long as you know how to cook it. Ask for the cheaper cuts and ask your butcher how to prepare them — a good butcher should know how to cook as well.”
Plafke agrees: “We get so happy when people care enough to ask how to use something or for a replacement for a standard item. We're happy to answer questions. We're super nice. And we like to have a good time. We love our regulars. When we see people we know are coming back, we get really excited.”
Beth Lipton is a Brooklyn-based recipe developer and food/wellness writer. Her writing and recipes have appeared in Clean Eating, Well+Good, Health, Livestrong, Eat This Not That and more. She has also developed recipes for brands including Primal Kitchen and Butcher Box. She is also the author of a new cookbook, Carnivore-ish.