Weekly Protein Budget: Tips for Saving Money

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Protein can be one of the most expensive components of any diet, and you want to be sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet while staying within your budget. Once you’ve figured out how much protein you need to eat each day, you can calculate how much it will cost.

It requires a little math, but you can estimate how much a gram of protein will cost before you head to the store. Keep in mind that the expense will vary depending on where you live and the current market. It will also help to understand why some high-protein foods are generally more expensive than others.

Whether you eat animal-based protein, plant-based protein, or both, once you have a target goal for your protein intake each day, you can set a protein budget (both for your diet and wallet).

Animal-Based Protein

Red meat such as steak and poultry such as chicken breast have about 6–8 grams of protein per ounce. Cuts of meat with a lot of fat will have a little less protein than leaner cuts.

Since it's not as dense as most meat, fish generally has less protein. Halibut, for instance, is about 5.3 grams per ounce. Tuna is the exception—at nearly 7 grams of protein per ounce, it is more on par with poultry as a protein source.

Knowing the current market averages for meat, poultry, and fish makes them among the easiest protein sources to budget for. Refer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website for market pricing, as well as local and regional price guides for the most up-to-date information.

For every dollar per pound, a gram of protein will generally cost slightly less than a penny (0.9 cents).

According to recent data from the USDA, a boneless, skinless chicken thigh can average around $2.76 per pound, but a whole chicken is priced around $1.58 per pound.

There are 16 ounces in a pound. Thus, if a gram of chicken has 7 grams of protein per ounce, one pound of chicken thighs would have about 112 grams of protein.

To figure the cost of one gram of protein:

Use this equation to estimate:

(price per pound) x (number of grams) = (cost per gram)

$2.76 per pound / 112 grams = 0.02 (about 2 cents per gram)

If whole chicken is priced at $1.58 per pound, chances are you’d be buying a bird that weighs more than a pound. The smallest, a young chicken or broiler chicken, is typically at least 2 to 3 pounds. Roasting chickens can be 5 or more pounds.

Let’s say you get a smaller, whole, chicken that weighs 3 pounds (48 ounces). There would be approximately 336 grams of protein in the entire bird.

However, there’s another piece of the equation you need to factor in when you’re buying a whole chicken—it’s not all edible. Unlike some steaks and pork cuts, it's harder to see the bones in chicken, which can make it tricky to estimate how much of what you’re paying for will get eaten. To get the actual cost per gram of edible protein, you’ll need to estimate how much of the bird you’ll actually be able to use.

According to the USDA, around 68–84% a whole chicken is considered edible, though this will vary depending on the size of the bird. For a 3-pound bird, let’s assume that around 70% is edible.

Going back to your numbers for the entire bird, we figured about 336 grams of protein in total. To calculate 70% of 336:

336 x .7 = 218.4

Thus, 235, is your new total grams.

From there, the equation looks like this:

$1.58 per pound / 218 grams = 0.007

That’s just over half a cent per gram compared to 2 cents per gram. 

Boneless vs. Bone-In

If you’re used to buying boneless chicken, one way to save money is to buy the meat on the bone. Buying meat bone-in costs less per pound—of course, you’re paying for the bone, which may or may not be useful to you.

The same goes for buying a whole bird with skin. If you usually buy skinless poultry, you may end up tossing out the skin if you don’t include it in your meals. Even if you do, cooking the bird with the skin intact will help keep the meat moist and flavorful. If you don’t want to eat it, you can remove it before serving.

However, both the bones and skin can be tasty additions to stocks and soups. With a few key recipes and a little time to let them simmer on the stove, you don’t have to let them go to waste.

Learn to Butcher

To save money on certain meats, learning how to do a little butchering at home could be a big help. Often you will see great prices on whole chickens; the birds are generally less expensive than the sum of their parts.

Enrolling in a culinary class or even using online video tutorials and how-tos can show you how to take a whole chicken apart and even remove the meat from the bone.

Non-Meat Protein Sources

Non-meat sources of protein are often, but not always, less expensive per gram of protein. While the prices can vary just like animal-sources, they have been relatively stable for a decade.

Eggs

A large egg has 6 grams of protein. Depending on the brand and whether you buy organic, a dozen large Grade-A eggs typically costs around $3.00 to $3.50, putting the cost of a gram of protein at about 4–5 cents.

Beans and Legumes

Beans are among the cheapest protein source you can buy. Not only are they generally low-cost, but they can easily be purchased in bulk (by the pound or in cans) and stored in your pantry for months, if not years.

Buying your beans dry and by the pound is usually more cost-effective than buying them canned, though both are affordable options depending on how and when you plan to use them.

One cup of cooked pinto beans has about 15 grams of protein.

Whether you buy a 1-pound bag of dry beans or a 16-ounce can, you’ll spend about $1.00, depending on the brand and applicable sales tax. 

A one-pound bag of Good and Gather dry pinto beans has around 91 grams of protein, while an entire 16-ounce can of Bush’s pinto beans has about 21 grams of protein.

Each offers multiple servings, but the dry beans will be easier to portion out and keep longer than the canned version (which you’ll likely use for a single meal).

Dairy

Milk has about 8 grams of protein per cup. A gallon of regular whole milk costs about $3.28 in most parts of the U.S. There are 16 cups in a gallon, so a whole gallon of milk would have approximately 128 grams of protein.

$3.27 / 128 grams = 0.026

That’s just under 3 cents per gram.

Another popular milk-based protein source is yogurt, especially protein-packed Greek-style yogurt. However, unless you make your own, yogurt is likely to be one of the costlier dairy sources of protein.

Depending on the variety, brand, and size you choose, your yogurt budget could vary quite a lot.

Most brands come in smaller single-serve sizes or multi-packs cups (usually 3–5 ounces), though you can usually get larger 32-ounce tubs.

For example, 1 cup of Chobani nonfat plain Greek yogurt has 14 grams of protein, and there are about 4 cups in a 32-ounce tub. That means an entire tub of yogurt has about 56 grams of protein. The cost of a 32-ounce tub is about $5.00.

$5.00 / 56 grams = 0.09

That’s about 9 cents per gram of protein.

A 32-ounce tub of Great Value nonfat plain (non-Greek) yogurt costs about $1.84 and has about 40 grams of protein per tub.

$1.84 / 40 = 0.05

Round that cost up to 5 cents per gram, but there’s a catch: A serving of regular yogurt is ¾ of a cup. So, if you want to eat more and get more protein per serving, Greek yogurt packs more of a punch even though it costs more.

Most brands of cottage cheese sell tubs by the pound for about $2.50. With around 11 grams of protein per half-cup, cottage cheese has about the same ratio of protein to cost as other milk products (3–4 cents per gram), so choosing whether or not to include it in your diet will more likely come down to your personal tastes and preferences.

Hard cheeses can be quite costly—especially artisan cheese bought by the pound at the deli counter or a specialty store. Even the more affordable options, like gouda and certain varieties of cheddar, can easily cost $10 per pound or more.

With around 6–7 grams of protein per ounce, cheese isn’t as protein-dense as other options and it also adds calories and fat.

While cheese can be a good source of protein and other nutrients, adds variety to your diet, and can be used in a number of dishes, it isn’t necessarily the most cost-effective way to meet your daily protein needs.

Tofu and Soy

If you don’t eat animal products or just want to add more plant-based proteins to your diet, tofu and soy-based protein sources can be a great alternative.

While the price of each will vary, the most popular brands of store-bought tofu cost around $2.00 per pound, putting the cost of protein at about 5 cents per gram on average. 

Tofu usually comes in 12 or 14-ounce packs, and some brands sell by the full pound (16 ounces). Many tofu products can also be purchased in bulk or by the case.

Texturized vegetable protein (TVP), a dehydrated soy product, is often used as a meat substitute, as it packs just as much protein but none of the fat.

It’s also the most economical non-animal protein source: When you buy TVP in bulk, it only sets your protein budget back by 2 cents per gram.

Sample Weekly Protein Budget

The first step in setting your weekly protein budget is figuring out what your protein needs are. The USDA dietary guidelines recommend most people aim to get about 10–35% of their total daily calories from protein.

Depending on your dietary needs, activity levels, and goals, start by determining how many grams of protein you need per day.

If you’re eating 1,800 calories per day, make sure you’re getting at least 45 grams of protein each day. If you’re regularly active, you may want to go higher than the minimum, so perhaps aim to get 50 grams of protein each day.

Now that you know how much protein you want to eat in a day, multiply it by 7 to get a sense of how much protein you’ll need to budget for an entire week. In this case, you’d be aiming for 350 grams for the entire week, which you’ll break up into different meals depending on the protein sources you buy.

Before you start shopping, it will help to have an idea of the meals you’re planning for the week. It’s fine if every single meal isn’t planned out with certainty, but a rough outline will help and prevent you from buying more than you need. Here’s an example of the protein content of various meals in your plan that can help inform your grocery shopping.

Breakfast

  • 2 eggs (12 grams)
  • A cup of Greek yogurt (14 grams)

Lunch

  • Black beans for soup (14 grams)
  • Tofu for salad (14 grams)

Dinner

Snacks

When you go to the store, you won’t just be shopping for protein, but knowing how it fits into your overall diet will give you a sense of how much of your grocery budget you’ll want to spend on meat, dairy, and other sources of protein.

Week to week, you may also be influenced by what’s available locally, what’s on sale, what you feel like eating, and how much time you have for cooking.

Many budget-conscious Americans might spend an average of $50–75 per person on groceries each week. Let’s say you’ve budgeted $75 for your food needs for the week and you’d like to spend no more than one-third ($25) on protein sources.

Armed with your meal plan for the week, here are some estimated costs for protein sources you might have on your grocery list.

  • 14-oz bag of whole almonds ($7.00)
  • Tub of plain Greek yogurt ($2.00)
  • A dozen eggs ($3.00)
  • 13-oz bag of flaxseed ($2.00)
  • Jar of peanut butter ($3.00)
  • 1 pound of dry black beans ($1.00)
  • 1 pound chicken breast ($3.00)
  • 14-oz pack of firm tofu ($3.00)
  • 4-pack canned tuna ($5.00)

Buying everything on your list would put you at around $30, which is a little more than you wanted to spend on protein for the week. However, some items on your list, like dried beans, peanut butter, nuts, and flaxseed will likely last you longer than the week.

Even the meat could be saved for another time: While you could get four servings from the pound of chicken breast you bought, as long as it’s properly stored, you could freeze it for another week’s meals.

One of the easiest ways to save money on protein sources is to buy in bulk when you see a sale. However, this will require some thoughtful planning, as many protein sources (particularly meat) are perishable.

For food safety and to preserve the quality of the protein, you’ll need to be prepared to store them properly. Depending on the variety of protein and how long you’ll be storing it, refrigerate or freeze protein sources like poultry as soon as you bring them home.

If you’re planning to cook them soon, within a few days or a week, refrigeration will be sufficient. Most sources of protein freeze well, so you can also prepare and pack them for longer-term storage.

If you want to reduce your spending, you could easily buy fewer of the items that would carry over to future meals. Instead of buying a full dozen eggs, only buy a half dozen. You could also save money on nuts, which can often be purchased in single-serve pouches.

Once you know your protein intake goals and have identified a few go-to favorite sources, you'll be able to plan ahead to take advantage of bulk-buying opportunities and sales, which will help you save money.

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