When Meat Prices Go Crazy – the best protein sources on a budget

Meat prices have gone crazy and many people are wondering how to eat well on a budget. Steaks and chops are familiar, but they aren’t the only source of protein — or even the best sources.

A rib steak is only 60% protein but skipjack tuna is 92% protein — which is substantially more, and costs a great deal less. Skinless turkey breast is 86% protein and skinless chicken breast is 75% protein— both higher than a rib steak and both considerably less expensive. While medium-lean ground beef (80% lean) is inexpensive it only has 41% protein, and canned pink salmon, beef- or chicken liver, canned mackerel and sardines all have more protein in them than that!

Below are some examples of relatively low-cost animal source foods, sorted from the highest amount of protein per ounce (28g), to the lowest and as animal products, these are all complete proteins — having all 9 essential amino acids.

Highest protein animal source foods, from highest to lowest

But what to make out of canned pink salmon? “Salmon patties” were a staple in my home growing up. They are made from drained canned pink salmon, mixed with a little chopped celery, minced green onion and egg to bind them, formed into patties, and either fried in a bit of fat or cooked in a non-stick skillet. They are an excellent source of highly bioavailable protein, a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, and are inexpensive and delicious! They can be served with homemade cabbage salad (Cole slaw) or a side of cooked frozen vegetables (which are just as nutritious as fresh, and much less expensive).

Canned tuna is delicious mixed up with a bit of mayonnaise, with or without some minced celery and is terrific added to casseroles with pasta, or for those eating low carb — with chunks of lightly cooked cauliflower, instead of noodles. These casseroles can be a complete meal with the addition of frozen vegetables, and are lovely with a sprinkle of grated cheese on top.  Tuna is such a great source of protein as well as omega 3 fat, and is often on sale making it even less expensive.

Some people don’t like liver because their only experience with it is something akin to shoe leather, but when it is bought fresh and cooked on a barbeque (or broiled in the oven) until “just cooked”, it is delicious. Chicken liver can be cooked that way too, but is also delicious pan fried with onion, mushroom and peppers, or made into a pate.

Spinach soufflé

Eggs can provide most of the protein in a spinach soufflé with or without the addition of some grated cheese…

Shakshuka

…or they can stand on their own served as Shakshuka as the main dish for dinner. A cucumber and tomato salad makes a delicious side dish and all together, this is a very affordable and tasty meal!

What about some non-animal sources ?

Non-Animal Source of Protein

Ma-Po tofu

Tofu is very versatile and to many people’s surprise, contains all 9 essential amino acids.  It comes in so many forms, from firm blocks, to silky and custard-like and can be cooked into so many wonderful dishes. If you haven’t tried Chinese Ma-Po tofu, you are missing something! It has a delicious sauce made from a bit of ground meat (or omitted for vegetarians), garlic, green onions and brown bean sauce, and is simply just delicious! Serve it with stir fried broccoli or bok choi and garlic.

fish without bones

Firm tofu, cut in small rectangles, dipped in egg and pan fried with some ginger and green onion and finished by steaming with a bit of broth is just delicious!  The Chinese fondly refer to tofu as “meat without bones” and I call the egg dipped fried with green onion and ginger, as “fish without bones” (because this is often the way the Cantonese prepare fish).

Highest protein non-animal source foods, from highest to lowest

Lentils of many types have a good protein to energy (kcals) ratio and are a good source of most essential amino acids, but are missing sulfur-containing methionine and cysteine. Lentils are delicious made Middle Eastern or Indian style and serving them with a 1/2 cup of rice or 1/2 a pita bread will provide the missing amino acids, making it a “complete protein”.

Pinto beans can be made into a delicious vegetarian chili with canned tomatoes and while they lack the amino acids methionine and tryptophan, serving the chili with a few corn tortillas make these complete.

Hummus isn’t the only way to enjoy chickpeas!  They are wonderful cooked into a curry with onions and a bit of tomato or stewed with big chunks of fresh garlic and made into Moroccan Chick Peas (Pois Chiche Moroccan). Hummus with a half of pita, or Pois Chiche Moroccan with couscous complete the missing amino acids.

Protein in Some Nuts, Seeds and Grains

Highest protein per kcal foods, from highest to lowest (nuts, seeds and grains)

As you can see from the table above, the pita bread or basmati rice provide some protein and so does the tahini in the hummus.

Nuts and seeds, while not inexpensive do provide some protein and can be used with bread or pita to make a complete protein.

Dairy Sources

And don’t forget dairy! While most people think of hard cheese such as cheddar or feta as high in protein, these are high in fat and not that high in protein.  But cottage cheese is amazing! Ounce for ounce, cottage cheese provides way more protein than steak, or ground beef, and even more than turkey or chicken breast!  Who would have thought?

Different Types of Cottage Cheese Compared [Added November 8, 2021)

I decided to add this  clarification to explain the different types of cottage cheese. 

 

 

Pressed cottage cheese” is sometimes called baker’s cottage cheese, or “Farmer’s cheese”.

“Dry cottage cheese” is just the curd that is used for making “creamed cottage cheese”, but without the liquid.  In years gone cream was added to the dry curd to make “creamed cottage cheese” hence the name — but now it is a mixture of milk with various gums, such as carrageenan, guar gum and xanthan gum.
As can be seen from the table below, these have very different amounts of protein per ounce.
Difference between dry cottage cheese, pressed cottage cheese and regular (creamed) cottage cheese

The pressed cottage cheese (see photo, below) can be mixed with egg, herbs such as parsley and green onion and formed into patties and fried (like the salmon patties, above) or mixed with egg and used as a filling for lasagne.

Eating low carb? Slices of deli chicken make a great substitute for the noodles (really!) and the cottage cheese and egg filling can be rolled up in strips of zucchini like manicotti.

Have a look at the protein to energy (kcal) ratio of pressed cottage cheese in the table, below.

low carb manicotti, in process
Highest protein per kcal foods, from highest to lowest (dairy source, with eggs)

Creamed cottage cheese is delicious for breakfast but is also terrific has a protein source for lunch, and Greek yogurt is also amazing with 1/2 cup of berries thrown in and both of these are still higher than steak…and eggs!

There are so many good sources of inexpensive protein that can stand on their own, or mixed together to make so many delicious combinations!  Looking to other cultures that use these ingredients is a great way to find out what to do with them. Chinese, Korean and Japanese have wonderful easy recipes for tofu.  Hispanic cultures including Mexican have so many ways to cook pinto beans, kidney beans, and black beans — both with and without meat and for lentils and chickpeas you need not look far. Middle Eastern recipes abound using these, as do South Asian recipes from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Remember, protein is a very important macronutrient needed as a building block for the body. Carbohydrate and fat are the body’s energy sources, but the body can make its own glucose from protein or fat, provided they are supplied in sufficient quantities.

Protein is so important that according to the “protein leverage hypothesis“, people  will just keep eating and eating until their body gets the protein it needs. Targeting protein first is important to keep from overeating foods that are “protein dilute”. Remember, it is not only children and adolescents that need protein, but older people actually need more protein as they age, to lower the risk of sarcopenia (muscle wasting).

Final Thoughts…

Yes, meat prices are crazy these days, but steaks and chops are not the only source of protein and not even the best source!  Salmon, tuna, chicken and turkey breast are all excellent sources and one doesn’t need to eat the expensive variety to benefit.  Frozen pink salmon or canned tuna are fine!

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To your good health!

Joy

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