Buying Proteins on a Budget

meat and cheese platter
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Protein can be the most expensive component of your diet. It's important to get enough protein, but there's no need to overload on it. It's a good idea to get familiar with how much protein you need on a daily basis, so you can calculate how much it will cost.

The costs of each gram of protein are one way to compare different sources. The costs will vary depending on your location and the current market forces. The ranking used here is a snapshot of one place at one time but provides insight into why some high-protein foods are more expensive than others.

To make the comparison easier, only unprocessed foods are compared except for some of the processed soy products, such as tofu, and dried soy products such as TVP.

Boneless Meats and Poultry

These are the easiest to figure out. Except for very fatty cuts of meat, which will have a little less protein, an ounce of meat or poultry has about 7 grams of protein per ounce. Fish, being less dense, has slightly less protein—closer to 6 grams per ounce for most fish. An exception is "meatier" fish such as tuna, which is close to 7 grams.

How can you tell how much a gram of protein costs? For every dollar per pound the meat costs, a gram of protein will cost slightly less than a penny (0.9 cents, to be exact). So, if your cut of meat costs $4 per pound, the protein is 3.6 cents per gram. If it costs $5.60 per pound, the protein is 5 cents per gram. At $10 per pound, the protein costs almost 9 cents per gram.

Bone-in Cuts

How much extra does it cost to get boneless chicken? With the bone in, it costs less per pound, but you're paying for the bone. Also consider that if you discard the skin, you are still paying for it if you don't buy skinless products.

The average half of a chicken breast has about 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound (4 to 5 ounces) of bone and cartilage. This means that around one-third or so of the bone-in breast is inedible. If you buy a pound of bone-in breasts you are actually getting about 2/3 pound of edible chicken. What does this mean in terms of cost? If the boneless breasts are less than 50 percent more than the bone-in breasts, they are a good deal. You won't often see that kind of sale, but when you do, it is worth stocking up.

Unlike chicken, the bone is showing in most beef and pork cuts, and you can more easily estimate how much is not usable.

Learn to Cut Up and Bone Chicken Yourself

Often you will see great prices on whole chickens. They are much less expensive than the sum of their parts. It's worth learning how to take a chicken apart, and even remove the meat from the bone. The best way to do this is to take a class, but there are many online videos to help you out.

Non-Meat Sources of Protein

Non-meat sources of protein are often, but not always, less expensive per gram of protein. The prices for these items have not varied much in a decade, although that could change at any time. Let's take a look at some examples:

  • Eggs: A large egg has 6 grams of protein. At $3.00 per dozen, a gram of protein from eggs costs a little more than 4 cents.
  • Milk and Yogurt: Milk and yogurt each have about 8 grams of protein per cup. At $2.60 per half a gallon, that is a little over 4 cents per gram of protein. Yogurt is going to be much more than this unless you make it yourself, from 10 cents per gram and up.
  • Cottage cheese has about 15 grams of protein per half-cup serving. At $2.50 per pound, it turns out to be similar to milk for the price of the protein at 4 cents per pound.
  • Hard cheeses are all costly as protein sources and they vary widely depending on the cheese.
  • Tofu: At $2.00 for a pound of tofu, a gram of protein costs about 5 cents.
  • TVP: This dehydrated soy product is the best buy for protein. Bought in bulk or packaged by Bob's Red Mill, it's less than 2 cents per gram.

Storing Proteins

One of the issues with protein sources is that most of them are quite perishable. Be sure to refrigerate or freeze them as soon as you bring them home. Almost all proteins freeze well, so you can buy in bulk when there are sales.

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