How To Beat The High Cost Of Beef
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average consumer price of the cheapest ground beef was $4.20 in March of this year (2015). That’s for the fatty stuff, 70% lean and 30% fat. Lean and Extra lean ground beef were averaging $6.09 in March, or about 1/3 more than the cheapest stuff. During the same time period, Chuck Roasts, Round Roasts and Boneless Beef Stew Meat were approximately $5.50 to $6 per pound.
I find these prices absolutely shocking.
As beef prices rose last year, I found myself spending less and less time in the beef aisle of the supermarket. I would plunk a 5-pound roll of the cheapest ground beef into my cart and then bypass the rest. Just the other day I saw normally budget-friendly short ribs advertised for a sale price of $6.15 a pound! That was their sale price! I actually stood there in the meat case, my mouth hanging open, checking and rechecking the price, to make sure I had read it correctly. I was experiencing sticker shock, and it was an unpleasant phenomenon.
Most normal market fluctuations work themselves out in a season or two, sometimes a year at the most, but this doesn’t seem to be happening with the high price of beef. I remember being surprised when the price of our cheap ground beef went over $3. Now it’s over $4 a pound. What’s the story behind the rising cost of beef?
I found an article from The Guardian, that explained things. It turns out that in 2013 there was a drought in the Midwestern United States. This affected the price of corn and grain crops. It also affected the pasture land where beef cattle graze. Since the cost of feeding them was growing prohibitive, a lot of farmers made the economic decision to cull their herds. That is, they sent a lot of animals to early slaughter. This drastically lowered the number of beef cattle in the US, reducing herd size to the lowest it’s been since 1951.
It’s a matter of simple supply and demand. There are fewer cows now, meaning supply has decreased. Demand is still high, so prices increase. Bottom line, there is less beef available to grind, so the price of ground beef skyrockets.
While this answers my question about why, it doesn’t tell me what to do about it in my own kitchen and with my own budget.
Taking the bull by the horns (ahem, pun!) I decided to make a list of strategies I could use to address this issue in my own life. I am a homemaker, housewife, home economist, with an MAMA in child development (get it? mama, Hee!) I’ve got nearly 28 years in the trenches of a home kitchen where the dishes always need washing; there’s never enough money in the budget for all the food I’d like to buy; and I’ve had to dodge Legos, toddlers and sneaky household pets just to get to the refrigerator. I can feed the cats, change a diaper, make supper, kiss my husband and call out spelling words all at the same time. While I may lack a degree beside my name, I have graduated, with honors, from the school of life.
These are the things I told myself as I gazed down at my kitchen notebook, determined to create some clear strategies to help me reach my goal–minimizing the effect of rising beef prices on my budget. After a lot of thought I came up with some useful cost-cutting ideas.
1. Buy by the price per meal or serving, not the price per pound.
Different cuts of beef have different prices. Ground beef costs about $4 per pound. Chuck roast costs about $6 per pound. Ground beef provides about 4-servings to the pound. Chuck roast provides about 3. This means that ground beef costs me $1 per serving, while chuck roasts cost me $2 per serving. While I appreciate a nice roast as much as the next person, I don’t like it enough to pay double the price per serving. When prices are out of control, we are better off choosing meats by their cost per serving than their cost per pound.
Short ribs, which are good in soup or stews, are rich, and delicious. They have to boil for an hour or two, but they make a very satisfying meal. The only problem is that they have a lot of bones. It takes half a pound of short ribs to make an “American” sized serving. In the example above, I relate how they were on sale for over $6 per pound. This is equivalent to $3 per serving. Making a meal of short ribs would cost me $12 to get the same number of servings that I could get from a pound of ground beef, which would cost me $4.
Some cuts of meat have more fat, gristle or bone. They provide fewer servings per pound. Some cuts have more lean meat, they provide more servings per pound. When you’re at the meat counter in the supermarket, look at the meat packages and ask yourself, “how many meals or servings can I get from this package?” From a 2-pound package of ground beef I can get 2-meals or 8 servings. From a 2-pound package of stew meat I can make enough beef and vegetable soup for 2 meals or 8 servings. From a 2-pound chuck roast I can get a single meal. It may make 6 servings, but my crew will eat every bit of it in a single meal.
At current prices, a ground beef meal will cost me $4. A stew meat meal will cost me $5 or $6 and a chuck roast meal will cost me $12. At current prices there are some cuts of beef that I simply cannot afford.
In my area, there are a few cuts of beef that have proven to be consistently more affordable than the rest. I list them here. These cuts may or may not be the best buys in your area. Do your own research to discover which cuts of beef are the most affordable for you.
- Regular 70/30 or 73/27 ground beef in 5-pound tubes.
- 10-pound boxes of frozen beef patties, 70/30
- Whole Beef Briskets, usually 12 to 16 pounds
- 10-pound boxes of frozen all-beef hot dogs
- Beef Stew Meat, marked down or on sale
It’s a short list isn’t it? I almost included Chuck Roast, on sale, but it’s simply outside of my current budget. It’s been over a year since I found it selling for a price I was willing to pay. Instead I buy whole beef briskets, and then cut them into 3-sections, wrap and freeze them at home. Beef Brisket makes a nice pot roast, and costs the same as the cheapest ground beef in my area.
An easy rule of thumb is to determine the price per pound of the most affordable ground beef in your area. Use this as your baseline. Determine how much more per pound you’re willing to pay for other cuts of meat. Since ground beef is already so expensive, I am not willing to pay more per pound for other cuts of beef. You may be willing to spend $1 or $2 more per pound for favorite cuts.
The frozen beef patties and hot dogs I get are from Sam’s. The beef patties are $3.50 per pound and the hot dogs $2.50. Whole briskets are $3.48 per pound, or 5¢ less per pound than the ground beef I buy, which is $3.53 per pound. Stew meat is normally about $5 per pound in my area, but is sometimes marked down to about $3.50 per pound. I buy it when it’s affordable. When it’s not marked down, we have hamburger stew instead of beef stew.
Like I said, these are the prices available in my area of the country in Spring of 2015. Prices in your area may be similar or they could be much higher. We each have to do our own homework to determine which prices are fair and reasonable in our local markets. Then we have to set a limit and live with it. Already knowing our limit will prevent impulse buying and allow us to better manage our budgets.
2. Compare prices to find the cheapest source in your area.
Some stores pride themselves on their produce. Some stores pride themselves on their meats. Some stores pride themselves on their gourmet variety. Depending on their priorities, different stores work harder to make different products affordable.
My local Walmart has a pitiful produce section. The stuff they sell every day looks worse than the marked down produce from other local stores. I don’t buy a lot of my produce from that Walmart. One thing this Walmart does right though, is it’s meats. On any given day they are at least 10% and often 20% less than other stores in my area. After using them for several years, I can attest to their good quality. Their marked down meat can be as low as half the price of the same cuts from other stores. I buy most of my meat, especially beef, from this Walmart.
A nearby Kroger has the most beautiful produce section you have ever seen. It’s like magazine pictures for upscale foodies. They have consistently affordable prices and even offer sales on some of my favorites like eggplant, summer squash and mushrooms. I buy most of my produce from them. Their meat however, is consistently higher priced than Walmart, the beef especially so. In my experience, the quality is about the same. Even when this Kroger marks beef down for quick sale, it costs more than the regular prices at my local Walmart. I do not buy meat from this Kroger. I buy it from Walmart instead because the prices are much better.
The only other store in my area that competes with Walmart beef prices is the local Sam’s Club. There I can get 90/10 ground beef, in 10-pound tubes, that costs less per pound than the cheapest ground beef from my local Kroger. Each store has it’s own priorities. It up to me to use these priorities to my advantage.
You may think it’s a terrible chore to have to compare prices from so many cuts of meat, and I would have to agree with you. I make it a practice to keep abreast of the cost of a few specific cuts of meat that are usually affordable, but I do not try to compare prices for all of them. The prices I track are regular ground beef, stew beef and brisket. Sometimes I track chuck roast too, but it’s gone up in price so much, that I don’t watch it as carefully as I did a couple of years ago.
Prices are relatively easy to track. When I stop by Kroger for fresh produce, I stroll down the meat aisle too and simply look at the price per pound on a few of the packages. I make a mental note, or even jot it down on the back of my grocery list. When I’m at Walmart for dry goods I detour down the meat aisle and check out the prices on my preferred cuts. At Sam’s I do the same thing. Simply by staying abreast of the changing market place I’m able to develop a feel for which prices are high and which are low. This type of knowledge allows me to make informed choices so that when I do see a particularly good buy on a favorite cut of beef, I can pounce on it and buy as much as my freezer can accommodate.
For instance, on a recent (April 2015) trip to Walmart I found Styrofoam trays of ground beef for $2.85 per pound. It was the cheapest grind, 70/30. Normally I buy their 5-pound tubes of 73/27 ground beef for $3.53 per pound. $2.85 per pound is significantly more affordable. I bought 16 pounds. I would have purchased more, but that was all I could find in the meat case.
When we recognize a bargain, we are in a position to take advantage of it. For me that meant buying 16-pounds of ground beef at once. If I only had a small refrigerator freezer, I still would have bought 8 pounds, because I understood just how much money I was saving.
Prices fluctuate every week and sometimes even every day. Still, there is usually one store that will sell ground beef for a better price than all the others. Since ground beef is primarily the type of beef we use, it pays to know how much it should cost, and then to consistently buy it from the store which offers the best price.
It’s also good to compare prices within the store. Larger packages of meat usually cost less per pound than smaller packages. Tubes or rolls of ground beef, usually cost less per pound than ground beef on Styrofoam trays. Large packages of beef can be divided into meal sized portions at home and then repackaged before freezing. I use flip-top sandwich bags for meal-sized portions of ground beef and then place all of the little bags into a larger, sturdy bag and store them like this in the freezer. Doing some of the work ourselves saves us real cash at the check-out.
3. Use less beef.
If a recipe calls for 1-pound of ground beef, it’s wasteful to use 1-1/4 pounds. That extra 1/4-pound can be fried separately and scrambled into eggs for breakfast, or scattered over a salad for lunch.
It used to be that most ground beef was ground in the store. A package of ground beef could weigh anywhere from 0.93-pounds to 1.37-pounds and still seem like it was a 1-pound package. Of course the 0.93-pound package costs much less than the 1.37 package. Both packages are used in the same recipe which makes about the same number of servings. It pays to choose the lower priced package.
Now days, when much of the ground beef we buy is prepackaged and pre-weighed before shipping to the supermarket, it’s easier to buy as much beef as we need, without going over. This saves money in the long run.
If the only ground beef available to you is packed in odd sizes, then choose the type that is the cheapest per pound and then repackage it at home, in more convenient portions. If you are a single person, or have a small family, then you may prefer your ground meat packed in 1/2-pound or even 1/4-pound amounts. Do this when you get home from the market, and freeze the portions in your home freezer. It will keep you from using more beef than necessary for any given meal.
4. Choose recipes that stretch the beef you do use.
Most ethnic cuisines are developed by people who are trying to get the most servings from the least amount of meat as they can. Think of Mexican chili, Cajun gumbo, Italian spaghetti sauce, Chinese stir-fry, even French Cassoulet. All of these dishes are tasty ways of making a little bit of meat stretch to serve a lot of people.
Stretching meat, specifically beef, is not a miserly trick designed to deprive your family, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Stretching meat is simply good economy, an economy that has been practiced by capable cooks across the centuries and across the globe. It’s not anything we need to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Cooks in other countries do it as a matter of course, without giving it any thought at all. In America we sometimes have an idea that our portions should be supersized. This is one of the reasons we are one of the most obese nations in the world. We don’t have to fall into the trap that larger meat portions equal more love for our family, or more status for our household.
As a matter of fact, I believe we show more concern for our families’ well being by providing smaller portions of meat, and larger portions of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. This is healthier for our families, and also kinder to our budgets, and easier on the environment. Managing one’s budget responsibly evidences a great deal more love for the family, than offering huge portions of beef and going into debt. Financial stability is worth more than giant portions of beef.
Back in the 1970’s, America, and much of the rest of the world, went through a recession. Inflation was rampant, especially in the supermarket. One of the ways homemakers coped was by developing methods of extending ground beef. Since ground beef is the type of beef I use most often, I find these older ideas especially pertinent to my modern day challenges.
Some of the ideas I’ve gleaned have proven quite useful (even if the fashion choices have been questionable). Meatloaf, burgers and meat balls, all extend ground beef with rolled oats or bread crumbs. Casseroles, soups, stews and stir-fries extend ground beef with vegetables and grains. Chili, cowboy beans, and burritos extend ground beef with beans. The expensive food–ground beef–is made tastier, more filling, and more economical by combining it with other, less expensive foods. These stretch the more expensive beef, providing more servings and less saturated fat, for a lower price.
My philosophy is that all good home cooking is based upon this principal. Some people call it country-style or home-style cooking. Some people call it the feast of peasants. My family just calls it dinner. What it really means is that we make the best of what we can afford. This has resulted in some really amazing regional dishes and universally admired ethnic cuisines, all of which are affordable to prepare in your own kitchen.
When you’re looking to try a new dish, glance through the library’s collection of international cookbooks. You’re likely to hit upon a new favorite, while still keeping a tight rein on your meat bill.
5. Substitute other, less expensive meats, for beef.
While beef may be up in price, poultry is down right affordable. Even if you’ve got a “meat and potatoes” husband, he is unlikely to object to oven fried chicken, turkey tacos, or a roasted turkey breast. At my house we have beef about 2 or 3-times a week, including one meal of beef hot dogs. There is no law that says we must eat beef 7-days a week. That is the road to boredom, and eating out because of food fatigue.
Some beef meals are easily changed into poultry meals. Ground turkey costs 1/3 to 1/2 as much as ground beef. It’s leaner and tastes pretty good in spicy ethnic dishes. I admit that ground beef makes a better meatloaf, but many other dishes are just as tasty when prepared with ground turkey instead of ground beef.
Current prices for chicken breasts are very low. My local Walmart offers them in large packages for as little as $2 per pound. I recently bought 12-pounds on sale for $1.39 a pound. This is less than half what I’m paying for ground beef. It’s even less than half of what I’m paying for sale priced ground beef. Chicken is just as versatile as beef in the kitchen. Glance through any cookbook or any restaurant menu and you’ll get lots of inspiration for your own meals.
When you need a fancy dish for company, roasted chicken is beautiful and delicious, not to mention incredibly easy to prepare. Chicken pieces require a little more work but they can be found for well under $1.50 per pound and often as little as $1 per pound. Assuming you get 2 servings to the pound, a meal for a family of four would still be well under the cost of an equivalent amount of beef.
Pork is higher priced than poultry. Some supermarkets are lowering their prices for beef, while increasing their prices for pork. Check around to see which markets in your area have the lowest priced pork, and then feel free to use it as you see fit. Ground pork is about the same price as ground turkey and when combined with ground beef makes a classic meatloaf or meatball mixture. Pork roasts, pork ribs, chops and cutlets are all cheaper than the equivalent cuts of beef and can be cooked in the same recipes. Simply make certain to cook pork all the way through. Beef cutlets might be good served on the rare side, but pork cutlets, in fact, all pork, should be cooked until it’s well done to avoid food poisoning.
Ham is comparatively low-cost these days. Consider roasting a ham instead of a beef roast. The family will enjoy the variety and you will enjoy the savings. Plus ham leftovers are a Southern cook’s secret to lots of quick and easy meals.
Fish and seafood are one of my personal favorite alternatives to beef. Large bags of frozen fish fillets are less per pound than ground beef in my area and I would serve them instead of beef any day, given my preferences. My family, however, doesn’t feel the same way. We compromise by serving fillets once a week and canned tuna or salmon once a week. If you’re family likes fish, it can be of great benefit to your budget, as well as your waistline.
If you want to save even more cash, then serve vegetarian meals and leave out the meat all together. I love lentils, which are cheap, easy to prepare and have a good, hearty flavor. Pinto beans are another good one. My meat and potatoes husband eats pinto beans without a single complaint.
Beef is just one of the foods available to the home cook. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other choices. Beef is popular, and generally well liked. It’s not the only food that’s good for supper though. When beef is high, we eat more chicken, turkey and pork. When pork is high, we eat more beef. Market fluctuations will always be with us. In five years we could be buying beef at bargain prices. For the current market however, beef is higher than it’s been in decades. We can ride out the storm in style, without compromising our budgets, or worse yet, going into debt just to maintain beef on our table.
Habits can become expensive. Just because we normally serve beef roast on Sunday afternoon doesn’t mean we have to keep doing so. Roast chicken, a good meatloaf, or a new crockpot special will lend a little variety to our menu and keep our budget in line.
If we normally serve steaks on Memorial Day, we aren’t trapped into doing so this year too. Flexibility in our attitudes allows us to take advantage of other bargains in the meat case. Leave ribeye steaks for those who don’t know any better, while stocking up on boneless chicken thighs, which are quite tasty on the grill, and about 1/8 of the price of ribeyes.
The high price of beef is really a matter of perspective. We can sit on our butts and complain about how the higher cost of beef is straining our budgets, or we can take advantage of that sale on chicken and plan our weekly menus accordingly. Prices always change, and they always increase. In a decade, what we’re paying for beef now, will seem like a pittance. Until the rest of our food-costs catch up with the high price of beef, we can take advantage of all of the other bargains in the meat market and maybe find a few new favorites along the way. When beef is affordable again, it will be fun to use to our advantage. By that time we’ll probably be reminiscing about how cheap chicken used to be.
What we can do now, today, is look at the market the way it currently stands and continue to use those foods which are most reasonably priced. Some years this will include more beef. Other years, like this one, it includes more chicken. Almost all years it will include a healthy portion of lentils.
We have control over what we choose at the market. We have control over what we cook in our kitchens and what we serve on our tables. The more of us who exercise this control through buying less beef, the faster the demand for it will drop, and the faster its price will come back down to reasonable levels. Until then, we live in a country with such bounty, that we still have plenty of other foods to keep us all full and well fed.
For further information, you may enjoy Ground Beef–What’s the Best Buy?