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Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget – Meat

This post is part of the Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget.  You can read more about the series here.

Today we’re talking about meat. Mmmm…meat. If you’re a vegetarian, you may wish to skip this post and just come back another day when I’m telling fart jokes and complaining about my husband and his mangina when he gets a cold.  For everyone else, let’s get to the brass tax.

The US Government currently regulates labels for how meat is grown.  It is meant to inform customers about what they are buying, but per usual, it’s more confusing that helpful.

Anti-biotic free: this one is pretty straightforward…it means the animals weren’t routinely injected with antibiotics during their lives.  If they caught a sniffle or something, they could be given medicine, but were not killed for a restricted period before the meds left their system.  Side note: the idea of a cow getting the sniffles is cracking me up.

Free-range: this means the animals were allowed outside at some point.  It doesn’t mean that it spent ALL day outside, or even had access to lush pasture, it just means they went outside.  Think of it as a range from animals grazing lazily on grass, to an inmate getting “rec time” in a cement pen.

Pasture-raised: this one means the animal has been allowed to graze in the pasture.

Vegetarian-fed: animals were not fed byproducts of other animals.  There are reports of cattle in CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) being fed chicken feathers, chicken poop, and other icky stuff.  I’m pretty sure if you put chicken feathers or grass in front of a cow, they would choose the grass every time.

Now, when chicken is labeled as vegetarian-fed, I scratch my head a bit.  I’ve watched my six chickens fight over a worm, a bug, and a slug when they’re scratching in the yard.  If a chicken hasn’t been fed anything but grain, corn, etc., I feel kinda bad for those chickens.

If you’ve been buying traditional meat from a normal grocery store, looking at meat with certain labels can be a HUGE price shock!  Traditional whole chickens run about $.99 a pound, but “fancy” chicken usually starts at $2.79 a pound – the difference of about $8 per bird. Oy vey.

When we made the switch to meat that was a bit less “conventional”, we took baby steps…very tiny baby steps.  We’d replace one kind of meat with the fancy meat, let our food budget adjust, and then start on another type.  When we moved home in 2008, we continued on this path with meat found at Costco or Fred Meyer (grocery store).

Then, in 2010, I stopped by a small local butcher than I had driven by hundreds of times before. The meat in this place didn’t have organic certification or cute labels or anything like that.

I can’t remember what I first bought – I think it was burger – but I do remember that when we went home and cooked it, it smelled really weird.  It took me a few minutes to realize why.  Because it smelled like meat.  Like normal meat.  Not like chemicals, or icky feed the animal had eaten.  Just basic meat.  And hot damn, the taste was unlike anything we had experienced before.  Even better than the more expensive properly labeled meat from the store.

I returned to the store time and time again and spoke with the employees.  I got to know about their farm sources and how the animals were raised and all that good stuff.  Once I started doing the math, I realized that their meat was actually cheap than many traditional cuts at the grocery store. They also sold freezer packs of various cuts for at a discounted price if you wanted to buy 25 or 50 pounds at a time.  It was a great find, and a resource that I’ve turned to time and time again.

Other people contract directly with a farmer to buy a “share” of an animal like a cow or a pig.  The farmer takes care of the raising, the butchering, and the parceling and you pay a certain price per pound.  For people who eat a lot of meat or have large families, and want meat raised in a humane manner, this is the way to go.  We don’t eat near enough beef or pork to purchase it in that quantity, but it is quite cost-effective.

A reader recommended that I talk about wild game meat in this post.  I’ll tell you, I don’t know much about it, other than when my brother-in-law goes hunting, my sister tells me that elk is tasty and she hopes he comes back with one.  Sorry, but that is what I know about that. 

I know quite a bit about wild seafood, because my family did a lot of fishing, crabbing, and shrimping growing up.  Wild caught seafood is exactly how it sounds – caught out in nature.  Farmed fish and seafood is usually similar to CAFO with cows – a ton of animals crowded in to a small space eating whatever they are fed.  They’re not out catching their food and hunting it down.  Seafood is a catch 22 since there is not enough wild stock left to support the world’s seafood habit, but on the other hand, many farmed fish is raised in countries that have sketchy safety records. 

For people who eat a paleo diet, aka a lot of meat (Tina, you know I’m looking at your family!), your meat consumption will likely not match up with how I prepare meat for our meals.  You’ll rarely see things on my meal plan that requires a large quantity of meat.  I have gleamed a lot of insight from looking at how many traditional Asian families prepare meat.  They use it as an accompaniment or garnish to the dish; it is rarely the focus.  I love recipes like cashew chicken or arroz con pollo, because chicken is a part of the meal, but veggies or another ingredient really takes center stage.  Soups are an amazing example of how a little meat can go a very long way in providing nourishment and protein, without breaking the bank.

When Troy and I went gluten-free for a one month experiment in 2012, our meat consumption definitely went up, but not by as much as we had anticipated.  About once a week, Troy would grill up chicken breasts and some flank steak, and we’d portion it out to use in meals.  I’d make a chicken salad, or we’d have sliced chicken on spinach salads, and other things like that.  Even without bread as a filler in our meals, we still rarely had “just” a piece of meat on our plate. 

Meat is such a personal issue for many people, and I am not here to tell you how to eat it, if to eat it, or anything like that.  A personal choice is exactly that – choices that you make that are best for you and your family. 

Do you eat meat?  If so, what is your family way to serve it to your family?
Yo yo, head’s up, this post might contain affiliate links which help to support my site. And my canning, seed buying, and aggressive saving habits.

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16 comments on “Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget – Meat”

  1. We do like our meat! But we LOVE our veggies. Personally, I’m sick of steamed carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, but the hubby and kiddo could happily eat it every day. Lucky for me I do the groceries. Brussles Sprouts are on the menu this week!
    A couple of things I’ve learned this year about buying meat by the animal- Make sure you know exactly what cuts you are getting. We cook with mostly ground meat (we like to mix animals together), so we were a bit disappointed when we only got one pound of ground lamb from our entire lamb.
    Buy cookbooks that specialize in the animal you plan to buy. We bought “Beyond Bacon” because I knew I was going to have cuts of pork that I had no idea what to do with. Oh, and it has a recipe for fudge that I can eat :0)
    Ask for a sample pack before you purchase a large quantity. Yes, each animal will taste slightly different, but seeing as they all eat mostly the same thing, the flavor won’t be much different from animal to animal.
    Know when the farmers butcher their animals. We got our 1/4 cow and whole lamb in September, we’ll get our whole hog in December. Spreads out the payments a bit and keeps the freezer nice and full.
    Volunteer to help butcher chickens if you get the chance. A few hours of yucky work (though not really yuckier then working with a chicken from the fridge), and chances are you’ll go home with free chicken. And, you will learn how to butcher a chicken. Might be a skill that comes in handy someday.

    Thanks, Sarah, for these posts. Super helpful!

  2. Too funny! I just posted about my struggle to use LESS meat, and my first EVER successful attempt at serving a meal without meat that actually got eaten. I married a meat-and-potatoes man, and he feels like life isn’t complete without a good piece of meat. (That sounded a lot less sketchy in my head…) Anyway…I would probably fall into the category of “buy half a cow and call it a day” once I have enough freezer space to make that a possibility. In fact, guess what I’ve asked to get for Christmas…can you say “upright freezer?!?” 😉

    If I hadn’t waited until Wednesday to post about the soup, I would totally have added it to the Homemade Mondays link this week!

    • Troy is not picky at all, and never really cares what is on the plate, but I know plenty of people like your husband!

      Oh man, I hope you get that freezer for Christmas! A chest freezer improved my life, but an upright one changed it.

  3. Good post! When we moved to a larger city with many more options for grocery shopping, I worked hard to reduce our meat consumption and made sure the meat we do buy is better quality. We do once a month cooking, and half of the entrees on my list each month are vegetarian. For the meat based dishes, we do the same there where the meat is not the main event. Between the two of us, we probably buy 4-5 pounds of meat for the entire month. I can make a pound of meat 6-8 servings depending on the recipe. When we can, we get our meat from Whole Foods, and on occasion Trader Joes or Kroger if they have their Simple Truth brand on sale or if I have a coupon (though I prefer not to, but hey, we’re poor graduate students!). We stick to cheaper cuts of meat such as ground beef and chicken thighs, and I really never cook fish, though I probably should. One of these days when we have kids we’ll look into buying a 1/4 cow, though I can’t imagine having that much meat at one time!

  4. We made the switch to buying organic meat and (most) dairy a few years ago. It’s hard on the budget, so we ended up eating less meat. My husband was initially pretty unhappy about that, but he came around once he realized he still liked what I was cooking (and as chef, I have ultimate power in what is being served). What worked for us was swapping beans for meat in recipes. Much cheaper, especially if you buy them dried, and pretty tasty and filling. I have about 15 recipes that I rotate through. I would say a third rely on meat. Quite a few times, I just reduce the amount called for in a recipe. You really don’t notice it.

    One challenge is that we live in a place with limited grocery options. I can find most of the organic items I’m looking for, but not always. However, we live in a rural state, and the seasonal farmer markets are great. Next year, we’re going to buy more meat from local farmers and freeze it for the rest of the year.

  5. Great post! We have a couple local butchers that I am definitely going to talk to. I have 4 kids & as much as I want to buy organic pasture raised everything, it’s just not in the budget. But baby steps I can handle. We have also been using meat more as the side dish with the veggies as the star in an effort to eat healthier.

    • The awesome thing about my local butcher is that the freezer pack price is actually cheaper than conventional meat at the grocery store. I hope you find good prices and tasty eats at yours!

  6. I grew up on a farm so this post is very interesting to me. We do buy half a beef and half a pig as needed. We usually know the people that we’re buying from so that helps. All of the animals we buy are farm raised. One thing you didn’t mention that greatly affects the flavor is when the males are castrated. If it is done too late, the meat tastes terrible. We get our chickens from either our neighbors or the Hutterites or Mennonites. They tend to have organic chickens that are less than half of what they cost in the grocery store. In my opinion, chickens are pumped full if the most hormones of all the meats. Chickens shouldn’t reach full maturity in 6 weeks but that is what they’re doing in the commercial feedlots.

    • I had NO idea about the castration. Really? So interesting. I love the internet and people commenting, because I learn the coolest/most random things.

      I completely agree – a chicken shouldn’t be ready to eat in 6 months. A chicken shouldn’t just flop around because it’s breast is so large and it’s legs are so weak that they can’t support themselves.

  7. Great post. Makes me feel incredibly blessed to live in New Zealand, where we don’t actually have beef or lamb that’s raised inside, it’s all “pasture raised” here, baby! Pork has been an issue here recently, especially regarding sow crates – with such a good state of affairs for our cattle and sheep, not many of us Kiwis actually realised that our pigs were mostly raised indoors. Very glad to know otherwise now – and be able to get free range poor too. Good, certified free range chicken and eggs are much easier to come by here than they used to be. All that being said, we don’t actually eat that much meat here – hubby is a vegetarian (for medical reasons, so doesn’t object to meat being in the house, thankfully!) so meat is definitely used as a side-dish (or dressing, even!) here too.

  8. My husband was meat and potatoes, too. when we married. He actually refused to eat a few times if there wasn’t any bread! Now after years of being broke and raising kids, and having to budget just to feed us all, he is less rigid in his dietary tastes. We haven’t got a local butcher here, and it’s a two hour trip to do any grocery shopping that isn’t a run to the two local stores we do have. I shop at one local store that does cut and wrap all their meat, so some of it is better. Mostly for now we shop at a restaurant supply store to get larger cuts of meat that we can break down or use a home meat slicer on. It saves us a lot doing it that way. When we lived in Port Orchard I used a local butcher there that had great meat and some of the different cuts we like. Goat mixed with lamb and ground is greatis you like to cook Greek dishes, or Mexican, and goat on it’s own is good, too. We finally managed the purchase of a large freezer (Almost big enough to fit the hubs in if he really annoys me!) and are now planning on buying a half cow or pig. We are even looking at local farms for those. I’ve worried for years about what they put in meat and the whole GMO thing has me even more worried. I want to know what goes into my food and how it was raised. One thing I’ve used is a company called Zycon. They have monthly sales and you pick up huge amounts of meat and sometimes other things. It’s really high quality when we can get our budget and their sales dates together!

    • I’ve heard good things about Zycon!

      You’re still in Washington, right? Just central? Have you looked in to Azure Standard for any meat? I’ve never ordered any, but everything I’ve ordered from them has been top quality.

      I’m lucky in that Troy is the least picky person in the world. Whatever is on the plate, he’ll eat. Before we got married, he ate sandwiches at every single meal.

    • Will check them out for sure. We live in Grand Coulee still so it’s pretty much country out here. Like I said, two hour drive most ways for big shopping. We do have a Safeway, but I buy very little of their meat, too corporate, if you get my meaning. We have another local chain, but small and more in the area that does the meat. I think that’s my biggest budget expense now, I stock up on can sales and don’t buy many prepackaged things. The restaurant store also sells flour and sugar in huge bags so one lasts us several months. I really needed this place when my kids were younger!

  9. We’re not picky about our meat’s origins (mainly through laziness) but we do make it stretch. A whole chicken easily does the two of us for lots of meals. When we’ve been really broke we’ve eaten a lot of chicken because we can stretch it. Sunday – cook the whole bird, eat some meat with veggies and potatoes, Monday remove the rest of the meat and boil the carcass and a bit of the meat for soup (five lunches), use the rest of the meat in curry/risotto/pies/whatever takes your fancy, making several portions and get put in the freezer. Curry is easier to stretch than risotto but risotto will always do at least two meals, one the night we eat and one to go in the freezer.

    Sorry, that turned into more of a “how far can you stretch a chicken” than any useful discussion about meat.

  10. Hooray! I’m glad you at least mentioned game. But since you didn’t have too much to note, here is what I learned. I was not raised in a hunting family, but I married an avid hunter. Thanks to his fall hobby, we get the majority of our meat in one shot. But here are the other advantages for us.
    – The meat is very local. He hunts on a friends property twenty miles away, meaning a really low carbon footprint.
    – Last year, we started doing our own processing. Before that, we had it done locally. Either way, it comes out to less than $2 a pound. That is counting spices, packaging, ammo, tools…everything but the gun.
    – Game meat that lives wild eats the best possible diet. Clean grasses and water, no drugs, no one messing with them. On top of that, it is leaner and more nutrient rich than the ground meat you get at the grocery.
    – If you are concerned with the treatment of animals you eat, one taken by an experienced and ethical hunter is the best way to go. A good hunter won’t take a shot for the sake of the shot; they shoot to kill. I have never seen a deer my husband has shot go more than a few yards after he hits it.
    Granted, this comes with a few caveats. We live in Montana; no matter where you live in Montana, you are near hunting ground. Also, the initial cost is huge. Even just a gun, ammo and basic supplies are expensive. Finally, learning to cook with game meat has a few little tricks. Overall, for what we put in, we get a lot of benefits.

  11. We live in northern Colorado, and for the past two years have purchased a 1/4 cow from a local farmer, and have it processed in the town next to us. The 1/4 cow lasts us all year. We did have to buy a used chest freezer for $100, though. This year is the first year we have purchased 1/2 a hog from another local farmer, and it will be processed in a town an hour away. I can’t wait to try the pastured pork! I hear different things about how it tastes, from different to better. So we will see!