Buying Proteins on a Budget

How to Save Money on Meat, Eggs, Soy & Fish

meat and cheese platter
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Protein

It's important to get enough protein, and this is probably the most expensive part of the diet, and 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 get an idea of how much it will cost. What I've done is tried to estimate how much a gram of protein would cost in each of many protein foods. I figured this out near my home near the central coast of California in May 2008.

I'm hoping that even though the exact numbers might change from place to place and time to time, that the ranking (in other words, most and least expense for protein) will be a good guide.

For the most part, I stuck to unprocessed foods. As soon as you put that chicken breast into a frozen dinner or made it into nuggets, you'd better believe the price will shoot up. The exception to this is that I've included a couple of processed soy products -- 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, of course, 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 six grams per ounce for most fish. An exception is "meatier" fish such as tuna, which are 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 (.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

I've always wondered how much extra it costs to get boneless chicken. With the bone in, it costs less per pound, but you're paying for the bone. (Also the skin, but that's quite edible.) I asked the butcher at my local market, who told me that in the average chicken breast (actually we are talking about half a breast, but it's what's usually considered a chicken breast), there is about 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound (4 to 5 oz.) of bone and cartilage. This means that usually around 1/3 or so of the bone-in breast is unusable. So if you buy a pound of bone-in breasts you are actually getting about 2/3 lb of edible chicken. What does this mean in terms of cost? If the boneless breasts are less than 50% more than the bone-in breasts, they are a good deal -- not often the case, but it does happen.

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

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Cuts of Meat and Other Protein Sources with Average Protein Amounts

Learn to Cut Up and Bone Chicken Yourself

Often you will see great prices on whole chickens -- much less expensive than the "sum of the 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 some resources on the Net to help you out. 

Video: How to Cut Up a Chicken

Video: Martin Yan Bones a Chicken in 18 seconds

Non-Meat Sources of Protein

Non-meat sources of protein are often, but not always, less expensive per gram of protein. Let's take a look at some examples:

Eggs: A large egg has 6 grams of protein. At $2.16 per dozen (the average price of a dozen eggs in the US in May 2008), a gram of protein from eggs costs 3 cents. Egg Nutrition, Storage, and Recipes

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 (which isn't hard!). More About Yogurt on a Low-Carb Diet

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 (actually, slightly less) at 4 cents per pound.

Hard cheeses are all costly as protein sources.

Tofu: At $2.00 for a pound of tofu, a gram of protein costs about 5 cents.

TVP: This dehydrated soy product produced the best buy on protein in my investigation. Bought in bulk, it's less than 2 cents per gram. One online source for a similar product is Dixiediner.com.

Storing Proteins

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

How to Freeze Eggs, Milk, Celery, and Other Surprising Foods

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