Are Your Carnivorous Habits Too Costly?

A few months ago, I purchased some lunch meat from the deli counter in my local supermarket…and then almost keeled over when I saw the price. The price of meat has been climbing steadily in recent years, but in that single moment my shopping habits changed forever. I decided to reduce my family’s meat consumption dramatically.

Ribeye steaks on the grill by WmJR on Flickr

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI), the U.S. city average price of lean ground beef has risen 43% in the interval between Feb. 2001 and Feb. 2011. If your paycheck has not risen at a similar rate, you are probably feeling the pinch in the check-out line at the supermarket too.

There are many reasons to restrict consumption of meat products, including environmental and health concerns. But for me, the pivotal moment was brought on by pure sticker shock.

A quick rundown of some common grocery list items (Feb 2011 figures from the CPI) makes the price disparity abundantly clear:

  • Bacon, sliced, per lb. (453.6 gm) $4.37
  • All Pork Chops, per lb. (453.6 gm) $3.48
  • Chicken breast, bone-in, per lb. (453.6 gm) $2.29
  • All Uncooked Beef Roasts, per lb. (453.6 gm) $4.33
  • Bananas, per lb. (453.6 gm) $0.63
  • Potatoes, white, per lb. (453.6 gm) $0.61
  • Broccoli, per lb. (453.6 gm) $1.89
  • Beans, dried, any type, all sizes, per lb. (453.6 gm) $1.34

These items are just a tiny sampling of the products we consume, but they are indicative of the overall price pattern. Sure, there are plenty of expensive fruits and vegetables (imported, organic, and out-of-season items especially), but if you can live without pomegranates and white asparagus you will come out way ahead by loading up on fruits and vegetables and minimizing your meat purchases.

To reap immediate financial benefits, you don’t have to go totally vegetarian—simply reduce the percentage of meat in your diet. Americans tend to eat about twice as much meat as is necessary; the recommended amount is about 50 g/day for an adult female and 65/g day for an adult male—less than the amount in one chicken breast or pork chop. With adult and childhood obesity on the rise, practicing moderation as a family and instilling healthy eating habits is vitally important.

Here are some ways to cut back:

Reduce Portion Size: Instead of cooking a meal with a chicken breast for each person at the table, prepare a large stir-fry with using one chicken breast and loaded up with vegetables. Prepare a large pot of chili with protein-rich beans and a small amount of ground beef, instead of inch-thick hamburgers for the whole family. Cutting back on meat consumption in this way is economical and your family will barely notice.

Use Meat for Flavor: Try a bean soup with a few slices of cooked minced bacon, or a pasta dish with a small amount of crumbled Italian sausage. These types of dishes are very flavorful but only use a few tablespoons of meat in the whole dish.

Skip Lunch Meats: Lunch meats and other highly processed meats like hot dogs are high in nitrates and other preservatives. Studies have shown that high intake of processed meats increases mortality risk. This fact, coupled with the often hefty price tag, makes this choice a non-starter.

Bye-Bye Filet Mignon: Substitute less expensive cuts of meat. Purchase stew meat instead of a pot roast for a satisfying slow-cooker meal, or opt for pork chops instead of t-bones for your next barbecue. Watch out for grocer’s specials so you can stock up on (and freeze) your favorite cuts when they are on sale.

Once a Day, Max: Think of meat as a once-a-day menu item. There is no nutritional need to eat meat as often as many of us do. Having meat with breakfast, lunch, and dinner is an unhealthy and outmoded way of eating.

Meat free Mondays: We can all take a note from Sir Paul and get on board with Meat-Free Mondays, a campaign launched by former Beatle Paul McCartney in an effort to reduce the impact of the meat industry on the environment. The MFM website provides recipes and encouragement to those interested in exploring the environmental, health, and financial benefits of reduced meat intake.

Triple Benefits

There are not many choices we can make that have the huge triple-whammy benefits that lowering meat consumption has.

Environmental—Eating less meat reduces your family’s carbon footprint and helps curb the meat industry’s ever-increasing demand for grains. The insatiable demand for grains leads to pollution, greenhouse gas production and deforestation, and also leaves insufficient grain reserves for human consumption.

Health—Reducing meat consumption lowers your family’s risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stomach ulcers and an host of other medical complaints, according to a U.S. National Cancer Institute study.

Financial—You can realize significant savings over the course of the year by making substitutions and changes in your carnivorous habits. The savings in future health care costs, while unknowable, may be the most important benefit of all.

This article was written by contributing author Laurel Gray.

Comments

  1. Meat is the LEAST expensive item in my diet, so I will continue on my merry way with it! That being said, I rarely have any grain fed meat – so there is no grain/stamp on the environment.

    And my doctor recommends lean meat for me…. such as deer, elk, goose, duck… supplement with freshly caught fish, clams, crabs, and bay oysters….

    Rarely is there ANY cost to me, except for time cutting and wrapping, or boiling bones down. By donating my time to hunters etc, for wrapping, I get enough free to keep me out of the grocery store. And most neck bones etc are saved for me. Maybe you should try finding such a deal :) Lots of soups, stews, and shredded meat meals :)

    This week a front quarter of young dairy cow landed in my lap – she broke a leg and had to be put down … so I processed the meat on the kitchen counter, wrapped it, and froze it to share with my grandkids.

    I do buy an occasional 99cent/lb ham, or the bonus boxes of bacon ends and pieces…. The secret is to buy the value packs and freeze… and ONLY buy when on sale. Like Corned beef was on sale last month for $1.69…so several in the freezer.

    On the other hand – veggies are terribly expensive out here… usually more expensive than meat…. so of course, I grow a garden… It’s the only way to come out ahead :)

    • An excellent point…my husband used to hunt when we lived in the U.S., and we had lots of venison for stews, chili, sausage etc…and lots to share as well. Unfortunately, not an option for us where we live now.

  2. PS – if you read the ingredients on store bought lunch meat, you probably wouldn’t buy it at all :) lol!

  3. Meat for flavor is the way to go. If you know a butcher you can also try asking for organ meat — it’s (sometimes) cheaper since it’s a less desirable cut, and some have very intriguing flavors. A palm-sized lump of ground beef heart gives a wonderful aromatic flavor to a whole wok of fried tofu and mushrooms.

  4. We have a family with five kids. I understand eating cheaply. At the same time I love meet and choose to live th slo carb lifestyle. We have a rule, we will only buy meet when on sale and never spend more than $2/pound. It can be done. We do it all the time. Pork, boneless chicken breast, steak, ribs, sausage. We have it all. Just stock up when it’s on sale.

  5. We’ve actually found that the local organic meat we buy at the market has gone up a lot less than the mass produced grocery store stuff. The good stuff has done up about 10%.

  6. Nice and detailed post, although I think some of the points are contentious. The parts I agree with are the vegetables are super-important, are a great way of eating, are more environmentally friendly than meat, and are more ethical (at least we’re not murdering things with faces!)

    Let me know if you mind, but here are some counterpoints and an additional suggestion.

    Meat is expensive: 43% higher over 10 years is not that much growth. It is a 4% per year rise, and hopefully people’s wages have been going up like that at least.

    Meat is unhealthy: Not sure I totally agree with that. Excess meat probably is, so obese people probably are harmed by taking in more meat — although a high fat and protein, low carb diet can let you drop pounds very very quickly. Most processed meat like hot dogs or chicken nuggets, are almost not even meat.

    I would add another point for meat: Learn to cook it! I think that a lot of people just, as you said, stir fry some chicken breast. Made that way, chicken breast has hardly any flavour, it is the teriyaki or whatever sauce you put in. You don’t even need the meat because the dish would taste about the same. It’s like that for most chicken recipes, chili, pizza, casseroles, etc. All those things taste 90% the same if they were just vegetarian. If you want meat, decide to get something flavourful and cook it right, make it the centrepiece. So steak, roast beef, stew, grilled salmon, fish n chips, lamb or goat (yum!). Those ways take more effort and so you will be rewarded with a really special dinner, plus you’ll have it less often.

    Just some ideas! Very nice post.

  7. What went up even more, at least here in Germany, is the price of fish. Actually, fish costs even more than the most expensive cut of meat. Is this the case it the US, too?

  8. Great article! I’ve noticed that food prices have been on the up and up and intend to grow a garden to subsidize the cost. You make a good point that we Americans eat way too much meat and that cutting back a little won’t hurt.

    -Ravi Gupta

  9. To end your carnivorous habits, you could always try eating sunflower seeds, drinking lots of carrot juice and soaking up rays.

  10. Living in cattle country helps. We have meat lockers that cut out the middle man. Still- meat is expensive.We have gotten to the point of using a pound in two dishes.
    Fresh fruit and veggies are finally beginning to come into season. We are considering a hot house approach next year.
    We cannot be meat free- my family has a long history of anemia which in turn causes a failure of the adrenals. AGGG! Getting iron is easiest through red meat.

  11. If you are serious about putting money aside for the future and possibly retirement figuring out where you can cut costs now is probably one the most important things you can do. Chances are all of us can make significant improvements how we purchase items at the grocery store.

  12. While I’m all for eating less meat (we eat WAY too much here in the US) the statement that people need 50-65 grams of meat a day isn’t accurate. We need 50-65 grams of protein a day, which isn’t the same thing. Meat has both protein and fat (how much fat depends on the animal – pigs have tons, rabbits have little), and grains and vegetables have protein as well.

  13. My husband loves meat, but I do try to fit in a couple nights of meat free dinners each week. If you haven’t yet, I’d suggest checking out eatwild.com. Personally, I try to buy my meat from local ranchers who let you come visit the farm and see first hand what your animal’s life is like. It’s much healthier (grass-fed and pastured), tastes better and I rarely pay more than $4/lb because I’m buying directly from the source.

  14. @marcie – I think that’s definitely the way to go if you can. Swapping and bartering and helping each other out.

    I’m vegetarian, my husband isn’t, but we have a neighbor who loves to cook and often brings him over what she’s making for dinner. Stews, hamburgers (including all the sides), jambalaya, etc. I always make sure to bring her cookies when I bake and we take care of her hens when they’re gone (as she does ours). It’s a win – win situation!

    • so your husband gets to suffer because you don’t eat meat? what a great wife you are letting your neighbors feed your husband. Sheesh.

      • Nasty comment! Especially since you have zero clue about our relationship. My husband has NO problem with me cooking a vegetarian diet. In fact hes impressed that I have stuck with it. He is more than happy to cook meat whenever he wants and he often does. I was making the point that our neighbor loves to cook, cooks meat dishes I no longer do, and really enjoys sharing them with my husband (she is a grandmother with no close family and has adopted us). In exchange, I bake goodies for her that she no longer bakes since it’s just she and her husband and he’s trying to lose weight.
        Don’t jump to conclusions.

  15. For health and environmental reasons, I haven’t eaten meat for about four years. The savings in my grocery bill is dramatic, which I consider an extra bonus to my improved health and smaller carbon footprint.

  16. I agree for the most part but you can have your meat and save money too! I buy whole chickens from Costco (wish I knew a farmer that I could get fresher chickens from). Two chickens run about $10.00 (depending on weight). Here’s an example of how I spread it out – I defrosted one chicken on Saturday. I cut the drumsticks off and had those grilled for dinner. Sunday, I cut the wings off and grilled them for lunch. Tonight, I finished carving out the bird – I cooked up the chicken breasts (I take the large breast portions and cut them vertically) as well as the “tenders” or the pieces under the breasts. I grilled those up tonight and they will be eaten in chicken burritos the rest of the week for lunch (about an ounce per burrito) and I’ll incorporate them in meals throughout the week. The thigh meat is still in the fridge for meals later this week. I took the bones this evening and boiled them down in my pressure cooker for chicken stock. I’ll have soup next week (or later) from vegetables and barley with the broth added. I’ll be eating chicken at least once per day for the next week – all for $5

    • yep – one chicken will feed you all week…. and then there’s cooking down the bones for broth for chicken barley rice veggie soup…. :)

    • Ed, I agree completely! Whole chickens are the way to go, and I always make a huge pot of chicken annd rice/barley soup at the end to finish off every bit.

  17. I used to buy my groceries (meat, veg, cookies etc) at a supermarket but recently have been disatisfied with the quality of the fresh produce there (hah, they’re not so fresh actually).

    So recently I started going to the night market (something like the farmer’s market) on the weekends. Found that I spent less on the same items, but I got more in terms of quantity and they were fresher too. I could also get household items (spoons, knives etc) for a lot cheaper there.

    Needless to say, I don’t shop at the supermarket anymore. I go to the night market once a week, or twice a month to get what I need. I cook my own meals and bring them to work for lunch. I have bread and peanut butter and jam stocked up at work so I could have a snack if I want to.

    And yea, stir fry is the easiest food to make. Just add some salt, spices and vegetables and you’ll have an awesomely filling meal!

  18. Hmmm,
    let’s see here: we’re not supposed to eat meat, we should give away most of our belongings, we shouldn’t drive cars and it’s terrible to have a nice big house. Don’t have kids because they are expensive, pets can replace offspring because remember animals are people too?
    Seems this green movement has infiltrated the frugal movement and the result is pushing to lower our living standards to where we live like bangladeshi’s or something. I have seen enough third world countries and lived in Europe long enough to know that I don’t much care for that kind of life. You people that advocate that kind of lifestyle are eating tofu and bicycling to work in the rain from your tiny studio apartment while I will try and be frugal so that I can afford to live in some comfort.
    One volcano erupts and has a larger “Carbon footprint” than all of mankind, so how about just giving it a rest?

  19. Careful, 20 and Engaged… I went vegan “for a week” over four years ago, and it felt so good that I extended it for one more week, then another, and then I woke up one day and realized I no longer thought of meat as food, or milk and eggs either. Check out the vast array of vegan cookbooks for inspiration, I eat way better now than when I was omni. Good luck!

  20. An interesting way to cut down on the cost of meat while not damaging your health and the environment (and still eating the stuff) is to order large amounts of it from a “green” ranch. I found one here in the San Francisco Bay Area that promises grass-fed cows with organic pasture and humane treatment. Pound for pound, it works out to be less expensive than typical supermarket meat. And it tastes amazing.

  21. Most people have become conscious about the fat content of red meats and many are choosing low fat meat products. It is without a doubt better to eat smaller portions of meat that larger ones.

  22. Humans are meat eaters. There are a few who choose not to and that is fine, but why the push to convert the rest of us to your lifestyle? I am happy with mine and glad that you are happy with yours, so leave me alone and go live your own life …

    All of the previous comments lack one component. The recognition of why we are having this discussion at all. Why is the cost of Everything through the roof? Why do we have to economize and eat less of what is normal to us? Because our country is in debt up to her chin and the folks we hire to fix things don’t do it. You can blame the President, the ‘evil’ corporations, the equally ‘evil’ rich folks, but Hey it all comes down to one thing: Congress makes the rules, passes the bills, calls the shots… If bad policies happen in our country, you can look to them! Why don’t folks look to them and hold them accountable? Make them live in a budget just like we do, and get things back on track? Then we can all eat our lean red meat without guilt…. and be able to pay for it as well…

  23. I’ve noticed that not buying meat is especially helpful (financially-speaking) when eating out. At least in my experience, vegetarian dishes have consistently been a cheaper item on the menu. So, this charge to eat less meat is helpful not only at the grocery store and on your budget, but on your eating out budget too.

  24. I used to work at a steakhouse. According to the National Cancer Institute, 1 serving of meat is equal to 3 oz. which is the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap. At the steakhouse I worked at (a fairly popular chain), the smallest steak we had was 6 oz. That’s enough for 2 people! Most people that came in ordered a 10 oz. sirloin or even a 12 oz. ribeye. Yikes!

    By getting a 6 oz or 8 oz steak at a restaurant and splitting the meat and getting one extra side, you can save an average of $10 per couple at a restaurant. Say you eat out 10 times a week (a modest number for most Americans), you’ve saved you’re family $100 a month, or $1,200 a year, or $48,000 over a lifetime span of 40 years. (Now imagine you took a family of 4 out to eat and applied the same principle: you have now doubled your savings every month).

    My wife and I have recently started cutting back our portions and eating healthier foods. We thought our budget would take a huge blow by doing this, but because we eat less we can afford the fresher, tastier foods that we now buy.

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