Home > Personal Finance > A Butcher’s 6 Secrets for Saving Money on Meat

Comments 7 Comments

When I think about thrift and meat — specifically in the U.S., but increasingly in areas like Europe — the first thing that comes to mind is the devotion folks have to tenderness. This tends to be the Holy Grail quality people look for in meat.

To me, this is a backwards approach to quantifying the quality of meat.

What we really should focus on is the flavor of meat. Meat — literally, the muscle tissue, fibers, etc. — has very little inherent flavor. (Most of the flavor we experience when eating meat comes from the fats in and around the muscle fibers.) The flavor that does exist in muscle tissue develops, mainly, from two things: activity and older age. Tenderness comes, mainly, from two things: confinement and younger age. I think you can see which one plays into the hand of the commercial meat industry. As they produce animals that grow faster and faster, they get them to market weight quicker and quicker, but the result is lackluster flavor.

What we are forgetting is that you can address the issue of texture (tenderness) postmortem (after death). You can never infuse more of the meat’s natural flavor into the meat postmortem. If we began focusing on developing flavor in living animals, we could still achieve desirable tenderness for an end product. But, it would turn the current industry approach on its head. (Not that that would be a bad thing.)

I should also add that, contrary to popular belief, the meat from older animals is not inherently undesirable in texture. I address this in many of my workshops.

I bring all of this up because there is an irony in how meat is priced in this country. You pay more for tenderness, but the more affordable cuts are, more often than not, the more flavorful options. Thus, if you know what to do with a cut, you’ll get more for your dollar while also producing more flavorful meals.

Here are my tips for using these factors to your favor when it comes to spending less on meat.

1. First and foremost, eat less meat & eat more vegetables.

Nothing cuts down on the expense of meat in our food budgets like reducing our intake. Meat is often the most expensive ingredient we purchase. It’s also the one that we overindulge in more than anything else (except sugar). We eat far more meat than our bodies require, impacting our health as well as the resources that sustain the animals.

When considering a portion size, choose 4 to 6 ounces. Move away from the large format single-portion cuts, like thick-cut chops and steaks. Instead, share them amongst multiple people, or purchase cuts that allow for smaller individual portions.

Fill the vacated space on the plate with vegetables, and cook them in healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, or lards and tallows rendered from healthy animals. The vegetables will provide you with more nutrients, and the fat helps you feel sated longer without the digestive stress that large amounts of meat can cause.

2. Purchase whole animals whenever possible. 

Photo courtesy of Adam Danforth

Adam Danforth holds a chicken for slaughter.
Photo courtesy of Adam Danforth

When you purchase a whole animal you are saving a considerable cost based on the direct connection to the farmer. You cut out a large portion of the overhead and middleman costs attached to meat while giving as much money to the farmer as possible. You also know more about where that meat has come from, if that concerns you.

Smaller animals, like poultry or rabbits, are purchased whole and easily butchered at home. Larger animals, like sheep, pigs, or cattle, can be purchased as whole, half, or sometimes quarter carcasses. The carcass is butchered into manageable, recognizable cuts, then frozen for home storage.

Furthermore, whole animals offer an opportunity to work with foundational cooking components that are otherwise unavailable or more expensive when purchasing stand-alone. This includes bones and fat, two of the most important ingredients in nutrient-rich and flavorful cooking. Turning bones into stock is quite easy, and rendering fat, which can take some time to refine (no pun intended), are both worth the passive time.

Now, just because we can buy a whole animal does not automatically mean that it is sourced from local farmers. When we look to smaller animals, like poultry and rabbits, the vast majority are coming off of commercial operations. In that case, it’s good to look for some measure of production quality, whether it be humane certification — Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) are two good ones — or plainly organic. Even in these cases, buying whole carcasses is still a benefit, and those animals require very little butchery to get what you want out of them. (Breaking down a chicken can be done with most home knives and learned from the vast amount of videos available online.) Even if you choose to roast the animal whole, you can keep the carcass bones and make a roasted stock from them.

If you’re further interested in bones, fat and organs, approaching a local processor can often yield super cheap results, since so many customers of theirs choose not to take them. And, the smaller processors often don’t have the infrastructure to keep them around, so they just head to rendering companies.

3. Avoid the middle meats & skip the tenderloin.

In America, most of the money made off a carcass is from an area called the middle meats — the span of meat along the spine from somewhere around the 5th rib to the pelvis. Common cuts from here are in the rib, center-cut, and loin chops in pork; the ribeye, porterhouse, T-bone and New York strip steaks in beef; and the rib, rack, loin and saddle chops in sheep.

Instead of these more expensive and less flavorful cuts, look to areas just outside the middle meats for cuts that can potentially offer more flavor. In pork and lamb, look for shoulder chops. In beef, look to chuck, Delmonico or sirloin steaks. They may take a bit longer to cook, at a lower temperature, but the results will be more flavor and less cost.

And, above all else, skip tenderloin. It’s the most expensive cut, pound for pound, and it’s also the least flavorful.

4. Learn how to braise and roast. 

The most flavorful cuts are those that have worked the hardest. (Refer to my earlier point on what develops flavor in living animals.) These cuts are often the ones that require lengthier, slower cooking times. Think: shanks, hocks, brisket, breasts, drumsticks, etc. These cuts break down during the cooking time to provide an unctuous sauce (part of the benefit of collagen’s hydrolyzation into gelatin) that will enrich any dish; the vegetables that are cooked with it will provide more nutrients; and any recipe will offer ways to extend it far beyond that of a quick-cooking single-portion cut (like steaks or chops).

Because they aren’t quick-cooking or grilling cuts, or famous middle-meat cuts, the cost of braising and roasting cuts are often much less.

5. Purchase older or dual-purpose animals.

This can be a bit more challenging to find, but availability is increasing around the country, albeit slowly. Older animals tend to be eschewed based on a stigma that they have poor texture and “gamey” flavor, but given the right husbandry and postmortem conditions, older animals can provide a better product than their younger counterparts and at a far more affordable cost. This also goes for dual-purpose animals: livestock that has been raised for reasons other than exclusively meat, e.g. dairy, fiber, offspring, etc.

One way to source these animals is to find a reputable wool or dairy operation and inquire about what they do with their cull animals, the ones that they are getting rid of at the end of a season. In these cases you’ll probably end up purchasing a whole or half carcass (note tip No. 2 above), which may further reduce the cost.

6. Find a knowledgeable butcher, and trust them. 

Most recipes offer a suggested meat to work with, but in many cases it’s not the only option. Talk to your butcher about cheaper alternatives that can yield similar, if not better, results. Also, ask your butcher about what cheaper cuts they recommend, and some guidance in how to prepare them according to your level of cooking. Your search can start here or here.

[Editor’s note: Strictly adhering to a budget plan, especially on your groceries, will allow you to eventually start saving money, pay down bills,consolidate debt and reach your financial goals. A sound management plan can also efficiently subsidize your food budget plan for alleviating debt. If you’re cutting spending to pay down debt and want to see how it’s impacting your credit, you can get two free credit scores every month on Credit.com.]

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

  • Ruben Santiago

    Oh Lord!!…. where to start…. This is SUCH a biased article!…Each less meat?… purchase the whole animal? Older or dual purpose animals?…C’mon get real!!!

  • Penelope Wincett

    Most expensive item? Go to Sam’s Club and price (1) sirloin beef patties (2) angus beef patties, (3) turkey burgers and (4) Morningstar (vegetarian) chipotle black bean burgers. The vegetarian burgers have the highest price per pound. Go to Walmart.com and price beef patties vs. lite firm tofu. The tofu has a higher price per pound. And the beef patties have flavor.
    Purchase the whole animal? Then you are paying for skin, bones, cartilage, fat and other waste.

  • VicSr

    Adam might be a good author but he doesn’t know much about meat. Tenderloin has no flavor…whats with that? The most prized piece of meat because of it’s flavor along with with rib eye being the second. Sirloin is good as long s it’s the first few cuts. Getting lower on the loin it gets tougher. New York strip…look at where that comes from and the only tender one you will get if it is chemically treated or beaten to death. People like him eat the meats that you have to cook low temp and for a long time with a bunch of junk seasonings to hide the flavor…meat lovers don’t do that. Basically, cooking is a drying process so the dryer…less flavor and tougher and Mother Nature wrote that rule. Best example I can think of is cooking fish. Cook that any way to much and look what you get and this includes boiling. I know! I know! It’s the gory blloooddd! Yuck! If yoy by cheap meat it is injected with water thus the red liquid. Properly fed, raised and processed cattle and other meats don’t “bleed”. Cheap meats get film wrapped inside a styro foam flat with a liquid absorbing pad underneath the plastic film wrapping. Where a butcher will cut meat and use butcher paper and wrap just it. The question here is where is liquid pad. Ya don’t need it there….must be magic. Duh! Good luck and shop a little wiser harder and you will get better meat. Oh! Walmart’s don’t cut their meats on premise. It is shipped from a factory. There is some meat that is wrapped there. Oh! Ground chubs of meat at Walmart, and a lot of other retailers, comes from Brazil.
    Chef Vic

  • Kar Mala

    my local stores discount their meats on the morning of the “sell by” date by at least 30%… late in the day, that discount goes up to at least 50% and sometimes more since they can’t sell it after midnight… it has to be disposed of. If your store does not have a “clearance” section on their meat counters, pull some meats from today’s date and ask the butcher to discount it.

  • Kar Mala

    my local stores discount their meats on the morning of the “sell by” date by at least 30%… late in the day, that discount goes up to at least 50% and sometimes more since they can’t sell it after midnight… it has to be disposed of. If your store does not have a “clearance” section on their meat counters, pull some meats from today’s date and ask the butcher to discount it.

  • Tweetybird

    A vegetarian must of written this story. I don’t even want to touch meat after reading it

  • Tweetybird

    A vegetarian must of written this story. I don’t even want to touch meat after reading it

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team