Friday, November 23, 2007

Reducing the Grocery Budget - Meat

This post is part of a series I'm writing on how we reduced our grocery budget by approximately $3000 a year. If you haven't already read them, you might like to review the earlier posts:

Reducing the Grocery Budget - Part One
Reducing the Grocery Budget - Part Two
Reducing the Grocery Budget - Part Three
Reducing the Grocery Budget - Part Four

My DH is a man who likes his meat. I'm sure that's a scenario many of you are familiar with. If truth be told, I quite like my meat too. Although, as a teenager I *hated* meat. If my parents had let me eat vegetarian, I would have. The problem was (and still is) that I NEED to eat a reasonably high protein and high iron diet. For a long time, these were the excuses I used to not even contemplate changing the amount I was spending on meat.

If you're faced with family members who are not 100% behind your efforts to reduce the grocery budget, please move SLOWLY with this. I know I've said it before but it's really important to have a long term view when it comes to reducing your grocery spending. Those tiny baby steps, if you keep at it, will start to yield results.

Now the first thing I did when I wanted to reduce our meat consumption was to very gradually increase the number of vegetables we were consuming with our evening meal. Again, I had to do this carefully and slowly to avoid being faced with a revolt (led my DH of course lol) at the dinner table.

I've always been someone who enjoys eating vegetables but when I met my DH his repertoire of vegetables he would eat willingly included potato, carrot, peas and corn. Full stop! He is a LOT better now and I think it helps that I don't boil the bejeebiz out of anything I cook. :-)

I'm telling you all of this simply to say that I know change isn't easy to achieve - which is why it's important to make any changes you want to make very slowly. Over time I gradually increased the portions of vegetables on the plate and reduced the portion of meat. This was as much to benefit our health as our bank balance but it was nice that the two things went hand in hand.

One thing DH and I noticed over time was that as we ate less meat (and consequently ate more vegetables) we weren't looking to eat as much meat. It was like the more we ate, the more we wanted but as our bodies adjusted to a slightly healthier diet, it no longer was looking for the larger portions of meat.

I now work on 2 green and 2 orange/yellow vegetables per meal and we're slowly getting around to adding a purple/red variety (which will usually replace one of the other coloured vegetables). Including potato, the "norm" in our house is a variety of 5 different vegetables per meal.

Another thing I did during this stage of attempting to reduce our grocery budget was to set myself a "limit" for our meat. I started with $5 per meal. This was supposed to be an average figure and therefore allowed me to spend around $35 per week or around $150 per month on meat. The good thing about having a figure like this is that it gives you a guage. So for instance, if you buy a roast that costs you $10 then you *know* you need to get 2 meals out of that roast in order to make it fit within your budget.

Initially, as I said, I was working on an "average" figure of $5 so spending slightly more than $5 on a meal of meat sometimes wasn't really a problem. I did however, challenge myself to spend under that $5 limit as often as possible. Once I began to do that, any meals which cost me under the $5 started to actually save us money.

Once I had a handle on that (remember, still taking one small step at a time here), the challenge became to see if I could get us the occasional "free" meal. For instance, could I make $10 worth of chicken breasts do us 3 meals instead of 2? Every time I managed to get us 3 meals for $10, we were essentially eating "free" for 1 meal. I found these kinds of challenges quite fun. If you can tackle the grocery budget from a "fun" angle, you're much more likely to be successful over the long term.

I think it comes back a bit to the "game" mentality. Setting small challenges and seeing what you're actually capable of. You might start off by only knocking $1 per week off your meat spending but if you play that game 10 times, you've suddenly knocked $10 per week off your budget/spending.

Another thing I did was start to buy 2.5 times the amount of meat I would usually use for a meal and make that stretch for 3 meals. This is one of the ways where buying meat in bulk amounts can really help. Say chicken breasts are on special, you buy up a number of packs and then sort them all at once. By shaving just a small amount from what you'd usually use per meal, you can end up with a couple of free meals without hardly noticing it. You've taken advantage of a good price but you've also taken advantage of being able to take lots of small "bits" and turn them into enough for an extra meal. When you buy only one meals worth at a time, it's harder to do this (doable but harder).


When I first began menu planning I found it hard to get my head around WHY it seemed to reduce my grocery spending. I couldn't deny the fact that it did but I didn't understand HOW it did. Spending on meat is one category that can really benefit from menu planning. You do need to be a little bit deliberate about what you're doing when you menu plan though.

If your family has a favourite meal that is rather expensive, you don't have to strike it from the menu. But what about spreading out how often you have it. If you tend to have 1 expensive meat meal per week, can you stretch it so that you're only having 1 a fortnight. OR, if you really want to have that more expensive meal once a week, what can you do on another night to compensate for the extra cost? By having a plan you can really see what you're doing and look to change the patterns a little.

I'll give you an example here. We decided that for the sake of our health we really needed to make eating more fish a higher priority. This is a real challenge for the budget conscious as fish is one of the most expensive meats to buy. How I compensate for this is to alternate our fresh fish with canned tuna and also generic brand "cardboard" frozen fish. I get 3 meals of fish for under $3 and I know then I'm able to spend the extra few $$ on a meal of fresh fish once every 4 weeks. By looking at the overall picture, you can balance the scales a little.

Another thing I do with our menu plan is to plan at LEAST 1 frugal meal per week. We actually tend to have 2 frugal meals per week because Sunday nights is a fairly easy meal and tends to naturally fall under the "frugal" category (toasted sandwhiches, pancakes etc). Thursdays I try to plan a "low meat" meal. To begin with, I was trying several vegetarian recipes in an effort to reduce our meat consumption. One of the things I tried was vegetable lentil loaf . In the end DH decided that it would be much better if it had meat in it. LOL.

So I don't even attempt to make vegetarian meals anymore. I perservered for quite some time with various recipes but it just wasn't working out well for us. I decided that it was more important that we enjoy eating than achieve "vegetarian meal" status. Instead, I worked on having more "low meat" meals. If we eat 2 "low meat" meals instead of 1 regular meat serve and 1 "no meat" serve, the overall effect is the same really.

BACON is one of my best friends. I can add $1 or less of bacon pieces to a meal and that qualifies it as "having meat". LOL. Approximately every 6-8 weeks I purchase 1kg of bacon pieces and that will usually do us 6 or more meals. It's really a great stretcher in that you can get quite a reasonable amount of flavour from a very small amount. Sure, it's not the healthiest of meats, but I think I balance that out okay by not using very much.


This is a tricky one. Healthier cuts of meat do tend to cost more. Eating less meat per meal is definitely a healthy alternative so that's one solution.

Healthier mince (I think that's ground beef in the US?) is one product that many people will insist on paying more for. I hate buying mince because it is so hard to really tell what you're paying for. How do you really know that they "heart smart" mince is really any better than the "budget" mince? I prefer to make my own. If you have a food processor, it really is quite easy. I purchase budget roast beef when it's on sale for $5.99 per kg then dice it up and throw it into the food processor. That way I know exactly what is in what we're eating and it's reasonably low fat (I trim the small amount of fat from the outside of the roast first). Even with having to trim off a bit of fat, it's still costing me quite a lot LESS than the $12+ per kg charged for the "leaner" types of meat.

I also prefer to add my own additives to meat rather than buying things where they've been already added. Make up your own chicken or beef patties. It does take a little bit of trial and error to work out how your family like them but it's so worth it. Unfortunately I'm a "fly by the seat of my pants" type cook so it's hard for me to share with you what I do. One thing I do know is that over time I've been adding more and more vegetables to my meat patties and I think we like them more that way than when they were mostly meat.

Get aquainted (if you're not already) with beans and lentils. It's amazing what these can be added to. They're a fantastic source of protein and soooo cheap. I have sourced a place where they are almost half the price of what supermarkets charge so keep your eyes open (or do a search) for wholesalers, health food shops etc that might sell these types of things in larger quantities for a similar price to what supermarkets charge for a small bag. Dried is HEAPS cheaper than the tinned varieties. I simply soak a whole lot at once and then freeze them. All I need to do then is throw them in the slow cooker when I'm ready to use (don't forget though that kidney beans MUST be boiled to destroy something in them that our bodies react to). I do, however, keep some tins on hand as I figure it's still cheaper to use the tinned variety when necessary than to not use them at all.

I use beans and lentils in soups, casseroles, pie fillings, spaghetti bolognese, meat loaf/lentil loaf, patties, salads, on pizza.....they're pretty versatile really and it's just a matter of experimenting with the many ways they can be used. You're only limited by your own imagination! Just try not to get too carried away and add HEAPS the first time. I've found it's better to go slowly, slowly, adding more each time so the family gets used to the texture and their presence.


I hope you've gotten the message by now that I think the best way to tackle any aspect of your grocery budget is to make the changes very gradual. :-) If not, I'll repeat myself. Take it very slowly. What's the saying "Rome wasn't built in a day?" LOL.

I'm going to use my spaghetti bolognese "recipe" (sorry, don't get excited cos there is no recipe) to show you what I mean here.

How did I used to make spaghetti bolognese? 500g of mince (let's use an average figure of $4) and a bottle of pasta sauce ($3). Total cost per meal for the sauce part of $7 per meal.

Let's assume I buy the mince on sale ($3) and the pasta sauce either generic brand or on sale ($2). My sauce has now cost me $5 and I have an extra $2 in my pocket.

Now I learnt from my friend that spaghetti bolognese tastes nicer with a "fresher" taste of tomato so instead of using the sauce I now use a large tin of tomatoes (85c) plus add a grated carrot and a few onion flakes (15c). Sauce has now cost me $4 and I have $3 in my pocket.

Playing around and experimenting, I figure out that if I add a few red lentils (20c), plus a few extra vegetables (50c) I can actually stretch my 500g of mince over 2 meals. So I spend $4 (from last figures) and add 70c to that so $4.70 for 2 meals or $2.35 per meal. I now have $4.65 per meal in my pocket.

Gradually going through the process of adding bits and pieces like lentils, beans, more vegies and so on and I eventually stretched that 500g of mince to 3 meals. Because of the beans and lentils, the protein value is still there, the fat level is lower, the nutritional level is higher and the cost is lower. It's a win-win situation all round.

Last night I made up a batch of bolognese sauce in the slow cooker. I'm guestimating that I ended up with at least 4 litres by the time I had finished. That will do us 4-5 meals. I use it for spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and tacos mainly.

500g premium homemade mince ($3)
soaked beans from freezer (30c)
red lentils (20c)
800g generic tomatoes (85c)
bottle passatta (90c)
few blobs tomato paste (20c)
couple handfuls oats to thicken (10c)
minced garlic (10c)
chopped shallots (garden - negligable cost)
parsley (garden - negligable cost)
bag frozen spinach (garden - negligable cost)
bag grated carrot (would have gone to waste if I hadn't grated and frozen from a bulk lot so really negligable cost but let's say 10c)
bag grated zucchini (given to me during summer - free)
diced frozen capsicum (10c)

I think I've remembered everything. Total cost $5.85 divided over 5 meals $1.17 per meal. I now have in my pocket $5.83 per meal for the sauce portion. Even if I only manage to get 4 meals from it, the cost per meal works out to $1.46 - a great improvement on $7.00!

Had I gone directly from the meat plus bottled sauce version - I don't think anybody would have liked it and I suspect the dog would have had a feast. By making the changes slowly, we've had much more success. Admittedly my DS made a comment last night about how ours is different from everyone else's because we don't have big lumps of meat. I was able to point out to him several pieces of meat at least. LOL. It didn't stop him eating it. In fact, there wasn't a scrap wasted and the kids ate in record time. DH commented how that it was the best I'd made so far. :-)


I could list off a heap of tips here about bulk buying, buying marked down meat etc but it's hard because everyone's situation is different and the resources you have around you will be different. I very rarely get to purchase marked down meat because we don't live near large supermarkets and our local supermarket doesn't do a lot of mark downs. Also, I'd need to do an extra trip into town on a Saturday to have any chance of finding any so the petrol costs would outweigh the benefits. Some of you may be able to take advantage of that as a way of saving costs.

Bulk buying can be a good way to purchase meat cheaper but it is important that you're clear on what you're getting for your money. For instance, when I purchase a 1/2 cow direct from the butcher, his quoted price per kilo is for before the beast is cut up. So I pay for around 90kg at that rate but only end up with 60kg. My $4.50 per kg is really the equivalent of $6.75 from the supermarket shelf. So it's important to be clear on what the quoted price is for.

I have purchased a 1/2 cow a couple of times and split it with a friend so we take 1/4 each. Just be aware that even 1/4 of a cow is a LOT of meat. One of the temptations when you have a large amount of meat like that on hand is to eat MORE meat and discount any savings. I guess it's a matter of coming up with a method that's going to work for you.

If you use a butcher, it might be worth asking what they can do for you. They might do up bulk packs with a variety of items in them as a deal for you. It certainly doesn't cost anything to ask. It is important though to know your figures as a lot of those packs use a combination of cheaper items like sausages and rissoles with fillers in them to make the pack look more attractive.


One of the great ways to reduce the actual serving size of meat is to consider how it appears on the plate. Fill the plate with a variety of different coloured vegetables and smaller meat portions don't look quite so obvious.

You might have guessed that we tend to be a "meat and veg" type family. We do eat a few "all in together" type meals but they are a smaller proportion of what we have. Those of you who do a lot of stir frys and casseroles or curries and that type of thing will possibly already consume much smaller amounts of meat. They are a great way to stretch the meat portion of a meal without it looking too obvious.

The hardest thing I think I find about all the tips and ideas out there is wading through to find the ones that will work for my family.

But regardless of what you eat, considering how a plate or bowl looks can go a long way toward how satisfied everyone will feel with what you're serving.

There are many other ways that make meat look like more than it is. My favourite is to add sauces. This is particularly good for leftover roasts and corned beef. My kids love to have leftovers cut up and served in a sauce or gravy and I find we need less meat for a meal of this style. Sauces can make a small amout of meat look like quite a generous serving.

Sometimes meat on the bone can work out cheaper than meat without bones if you're looking at a "per meal" basis. From what I can work out, the value for money in terms of actual meat you get may not actually be there. But by serving the meat still on the bone, it takes up more room on the plate and therefore can give the "appearance" of more meat.

Like I said before, the list of ideas can be endless and it really does depend greatly on your own personal situation as to what will and won't work well for you. I hope this has given you at least a bit of a glimpse into what I've done. I know these few ideas have made quite a substantial difference to our grocery bill over time.

What sort of things do you do to reduce the amount you spend on meat? Perhaps you'd like to share them with everyone in the comments section.


Precious_1 said...

I add grated zuchini and carrot to spag bol. I once added a tin of 4 bean mix, but that produced a few "don''t do that again mum"s.

I also put grated zuchini into rissoles. A g/f uses two crushed weetbix instead of breadcrumbs. I personally like to use stuffing mix- no need to add more herbs.

Diced bacon...... lolol - I use it in so many things. Zuchini slice, egg & bacon pie, omletes, added in with mince for pies, on melts. so many uses.

lightening said...

One thing I did a few times was to mash up the beans so they weren't so obvious. You could even blend them to a paste. I think they are a bit of an aquired taste and texture.

Zucchini is great because it cooks down to pretty much being invisible. The silverbeet was a little more obvious - next time I'm going to whizz that first with my stab mixer so it "disappears". LOL.

Thanks for commenting Precious - I was starting to feel a little "friendless". LOL. Perhaps people are busy at the moment? Either that or I've somehow upset everyone!

Chocoholic said...

I just found your site and read all this and thought I'd comment. For the most part, I buy organic or pastured meat. While it's more expensive, I think it ends up saving you money. When the farmer's market here in the US was in season, I would stop at a meat stand there and buy things, now that it's going into winter, I stop at the natural/health food store for meat. I've found that, by spending more on a good quality meat, I eat less. It tastes better so I savor it more and by spending more on it, I think of it as more of a "treat" so eat it less often than if I were buying a cheap meat.

That being said, there are certain things I either can't find as organic here or it just isn't feasible for them. One is stew meat. I've found that Aldi's has the cheapest and the most tender in town. When I want boneless chicken breasts, I try to stock up when I see them at a price around $2/lb or less at the grocery store. Then I freeze them in portions of two breasts per pack. (It's just me in the house) That way, even if I eat a whole chicken breast, I still have one leftover that I can take for lunch or eat another night during the week if I don't have the time to cook dinner. That saves me from picking up food from a restaurant. I also try to have large portions of veggies on the side and if I am still hungry, get seconds on the veggies first.

lightening said...

Hi Chocoholic - thanks for your comments. Your experiences with top quality meats are interesting. I LOVE your username!!!! :-)