Best Buys for Protein, Meat-Free
I grew up on food stamps, so eating on a shoestring was never a foreign concept to me. When I left home (in the mid 80’s) I could only afford $15 a week for food, some weeks only $10. Today, that would be the equivalent of $20 to $30 per week. $15 seemed like a lot of money to me back then. Still, I pared everything down to the bare bones. Meat was one of the things I struggled to include in my budget. I knew I needed it in order to get enough protein, but it was hard to buy enough to serve it every day. I worried a lot about developing some bazaar disease that usually only happened to starving people in drought stricken, third-world countries. I worried I might be the first case to appear in America in 100 years. It was an ongoing concern, sprinkled with a dark underlayer of shame.
At that time I was devouring my library’s vast selection of cookbooks to find foods I could afford to prepare. After discovering the section on vegetarianism, I learned that I could get all of the protein I needed from non-meat sources. This was absolutely revolutionary for me. My entire world shifted. All of the shame and worry I had over not getting enough protein was finally put to rest. It felt like I had been living underwater and was finally able to breathe again.
These days there is a lot more information about vegetarian protein sources; and it’s easy to find too. The idea is no longer revolutionary. It’s just common knowledge. Back then though, I learned almost nothing about vegetarian diets in school. Ordinary, common people in middle America were still vaguely doubtful of long-haired-hippy freaks who wouldn’t eat good, red-blooded American beef. Most people thought vegetarians just ate a lot of fish. It was a suspicious activity at any rate. To be honest, most of us just didn’t know any better.
To me, this new information felt like discovering the wheel. I could barely believe that eggs, milk, cheese, dry beans, peas and lentils could give me all of the protein I needed, at such a reasonable cost. All of a sudden I didn’t have to work so hard to be able to afford more meat. I could eat beans, eggs and peanut butter and get plenty of it without even trying, and at a cost I could afford. It opened up an entirely new world of cooking for me, and I’ve never looked back.
US RDA For Protein
According to current United States Recommended Dietary Allowance (US RDA), women need 46-grams of protein a day and men need 56-grams. If you are pregnant or nursing then raise it up to 71-grams of protein a day.
For an average woman, this can be met by having 2-cups of milk, 1-egg and 1-1/4 cups cooked beans, peas or lentils. For a pregnant or nursing woman it would take 4-cups of milk, 2-eggs and 1-1/2 cups of cooked beans. For an average man, it would take 2-cups of milk, 2-eggs and 1-1/2 cups cooked beans. If you consider that most grains such as wheat, corn, rice and rolled oats, also contain some protein, you can see that it’s not especially difficult to meet your protein requirements, even on a rock-bottom budget. I’ve read more than one expert’s view that in America, if you’re getting enough calories, then it’s more-than-likely that you’re getting enough protein. It doesn’t require a lot of thought or planning on our part.
To give you some perspective, here is a list of the protein content of some common foods.
- 1/2 cup cottage cheese, 15-grams
- 1/2 cup cooked lentils, 9-grams
- 1-cup skim milk, 8-grams
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter, 8-grams
- 1/2 cup cooked split peas, 8-grams
- 1/2 cup cooked dried beans, 7 to 8-grams
- 1 ounce cheddar cheese, 7-grams
- 1 egg, 6-grams
- 3/4 cup yogurt, 6-grams
- 1 ounce Velveeta-type cheese, 5-grams
- 1/3 cup uncooked rolled oats, 4-grams
- 2 slices bread, 4-grams
- 1/2 cup cooked white rice, 3-grams
- 5-ounce potato, 3-grams
- 1/4 cup cornmeal, 3-grams
To give it a practical application, a meal made up of a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk has about 21-grams of protein, or almost half as much as a woman needs for an entire day. A bowl of oatmeal, milk and a couple of slices of cinnamon toast have 16-grams of protein. Even before dinnertime we’ve managed 37-grams of protein. All we need is another 9-grams to get enough for the day. Most dinners, even the cheap variety, provide far more than that, even without adding any meat, fish or poultry to the equation.
This is a lot of statistics that you may gloss over without a second glance. That’s fine. I include them simply to reassure you that protein is a lot easier to get into our diet than I realized when I was young. Maybe everyone else figured this out a lot time ago, but to me it was a big deal. The main thing to take away is that protein isn’t anything we need to worry about. Whether we are vegetarian or not, if we eat enough food to keep from being hungry, then we are probably getting more than enough protein, even without trying.
Best Buys for Protein
The following foods are the best buys you can find for protein. They are cheaper than any meat, poultry or fish you can buy.
Dried Beans, Peas & Lentils. Legumes are far and above the most affordable source of protein available in the modern American supermarket. A pound of dried beans has about 100-grams of protein for the low price of about $1. That’s a penny per gram. Even if you buy expensive dried beans, you’re still paying less than 2¢ per gram of protein. Still a bargain, by any calculation. Beans are healthy too. They provide a lot of the things our bodies need to keep going, especially when under the extra stress of not having enough money to make ends meet. Here is a quote from the U.S. Dry Bean council that sums it up pretty well.
A nutrient-rich food, beans contain protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidants, and important vitamins and minerals, such as folate, manganese, potassium, iron, phosphorous, copper and magnesium. The lean protein in beans helps maintain and promote muscle while beans’ complex carbohydrates provide a sustained energy source.
Beans, peas and lentils have been used by peasants and poor folks for a millennium. World famous ethnic cuisines have sprung up all over the globe that turn simple legumes into delicious gourmet fare. When we’re pinching every penny until it squeaks legumes are the answer to a prayer.
For instance, if you are starving and have no food in the house, don’t fret. Cook up a pot of beans and another pot of white rice. Serve beans and rice for supper every night and you will not go hungry. You can get a pound of beans and a pound bag of rice for less than $2 if you shop carefully, less than $3 if you are a spendthrift. You’ll get 6-large servings of beans and rice (1-cup of each; 2-cups food total) for less than 50¢ per serving (less than 33¢ per serving if you’re a good shopper). Each serving gives you 23-grams of protein. You’ll get a lot more nutrients that you would from ramen noodles or mac n’ cheese too. I find it shocking just how little a bowl of rice and beans costs. It makes me question why anyone would ever want to pay $15 for a steak when they can have a bowl of rice and beans for 33¢. It’s like they live on a different planet or something.
Dried beans usually need to be soaked before cooking. There are two ways to do this.
Quick Soak Method. Put the beans in a large pot. Add enough water to cover them, plus 1-inch. Bring the beans to a boil on the stove. Allow them to boil for a minute or two. Turn off the burner. Cover the pot with a lid or a handy pizza pan. Allow them to sit for 1 or 2 hours. Then boil until tender, about an hour or two.
Overnight Method. Place the beans in a large pot. Add enough water to cover, plus 1-inch. Set the pot on the counter or in the oven (which is turned OFF) overnight or for at least 6 to 8 hours. Boil the beans until tender, about an hour or two.
If you don’t want to soak your beans, then try cooking them in a crock pot.
Crock Pot Method. Place the dry, unsoaked beans in a large crock pot. Cover them with water, plus 1-inch. Set on HIGH for 6 to 8 hours. Eat. This can be done overnight or while you’re at work or school during the day.
Split peas, lentils and blackeyed peas do not have to soak overnight. You can just plop them in water to cover and simmer for 30 to 60-minutes, or until soft.
Older beans take longer to become tender than newer beans. If your beans are a couple of years old or older, then you can hasten the softening process by adding 1/4 to 1/2-teaspoon of baking soda to the cooking water. This might damage a few nutrients to a small degree, but it’s better than going hungry. Don’t add soda if you don’t have to, but if your beans are very old, it may be a necessity to get then soft enough to eat.
Canned beans are more convenient to use than dried beans, but they cost at least twice as much. It takes 4 (15-ounce) cans of beans to equal 1-pound of dried beans. Compare the prices in your own store to see how much cheaper the dried variety is. A slightly heaping 1/2-cup of dried beans, or about 4-ounces, will cook up to about 1-1/2-cups of cooked beans, or the equivalent of a 15-ounce can. Canned beans also have a lot of sodium that your own home cooked beans do not. To remove up to 40% of the sodium in canned beans, pour them into a colander and rinse them in cool water until the water runs clear. This has only a very small effect on the nutritional content of the beans and gets rid of a lot of excess salt.
After you cook dry beans they will keep in the fridge for about a week. Boil them again if you’re iffy about them on the 7th day. Your own cooked beans can also be frozen. Measure 1-1/2-cups into a freezer container or clean, empty jar and freeze until you’re ready to use them. They keep longest if they are covered in water or cooking liquid. You can thaw them in the refrigerator overnight. For quick thawing place the tightly sealed container of beans in a large bowl of water. They’ll thaw in an hour or so. If the dish you’re cooking has enough liquid in it like a soup or stew then just add the frozen beans directly to the pot. As they cook in the pot they’ll thaw nicely.
Dried beans, peas and lentils are bland. They taste best if they are well-seasoned. This may be as simple as adding salt, pepper and margarine, or as complicated as chili or curry. If your family doesn’t like beans then try combining them with meat in a main dish such as in chili con carne or ham and bean soup. As the family gets used to seeing beans in their bowls, you’ll find you can use less meat and more beans before they’ll notice what you’re up to. I find it helps if I’m honest about the finances. More than once I have told the kids that we are poor this month, so expect to see a lot of beans on the supper table. Somehow announcing it upfront like that makes my kids, at least, more willing to have a cooperative spirit about what shows up on the dinner table.
Another tip for getting the family to eat more beans is this. For some reason, meat-eaters seem more accepting of lentils than other types of legumes, especially at first. I don’t know why this is, but I’ve seen it proven true time and time again. If you are serving legumes out of necessity, try offering a lentil dish the first day you go meat-free. Your carnivores may not sing songs of joy, but my bet is that there will be less grumbling than you expect. Offering cheese, minced fresh onions, and other toppings can also help.
There used to be a myth that beans needed to be combined with a starch or animal protein to provide a “complete” protein. This is not true. Plant proteins contain all of the amino acids needed for human nutrition. If you don’t believe me there is a great article at Forks Over Knives that makes the point better than I can.
Peanuts & Peanut Butter. Believe it or not, peanuts are not a nut. They are another legume, just like beans, peas and lentils. That’s why they’re so high in protein. They’re also high in fat, which makes them especially filling. Peanuts are used in many international cuisines including African, Jamaican, Caribbean, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, and of course the American South. They’re also good spread on bread or toast or crackers for a quick snack.
Peanut Butter is usually cheaper per pound than peanuts. It can be used in breads, cookies, sauces, soups and spicy main dishes. If you add peanut butter to any dish with chicken or textured vegetable protein (TVP) in it, especially barbecue, you can make it taste more like pork. I don’t know why this is, but I know that it is true.
Peanuts cost more per pound than peanut butter, but are still an affordable option. Look for dry roasted, unsalted peanuts if you can. They usually cost the same as all the other peanuts and can usually be found in store-brands. When a recipe calls for nuts, you can often use peanuts instead of more costly walnuts or pecans. To chop peanuts place them in a plastic bag, like a bread bag or the waxed paper bag from a box of cereal. Twist the top together loosely. Cover the bag with a dish cloth and pound it with a rolling-pin or the edge of a saucepan, or even a hammer. Continue until the peanuts are as finely chopped as you like. Of course, you could also use a blender or food processor, but then you’d have to wash it. If you chop them as described you can work out your frustrations and save washing the blender.
Peanuts are good in stir-fries, tossed in salad, stirred into hot cereal, added to baked goods like breads and cookies, in stews and curries. They make a really good snack too. Combine equal parts peanuts and raisins and you have the original trail mix called G.O.R.P (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts). When you need a cheap and filling snack it’s a great choice. Keep a bag of it in your car or backpack and you’ll never be tempted by fast food when low-blood sugar hits mid-morning or late afternoon. If you add a glass of milk you’ve got a great breakfast on the run.
Eggs. At the time of writing, eggs are experiencing a price-hike. This won’t last forever so I’m including eggs on this list. Eggs are one of the best things you can buy on a budget. They make baking a breeze, can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They make good snacks. If you’ve ever made scrambled eggs you know they are the original fast food.
People used to worry about the cholesterol in eggs, but in 2015 the USDA finally admitted that dietary cholesterol does not raise our body’s cholesterol. So eggs, even the yolks, are once again “legal” on a healthy diet.
When we’re working with a rock-bottom budget it is perfectly reasonable to eat an egg a day, in addition to using them in baked goods. Eggs keep well in the fridge, so if the eggs in your area are cheaper in 18-count or even 24-count cartons, don’t be afraid to buy the larger package. There is nothing more comforting when you’re on a budget, than knowing there are plenty of eggs in the fridge.
If you haven’t thought much about eggs besides having them for breakfast, let me give you some food for thought. Eggs make good sandwiches. Fried egg and cheese sandwiches, maybe with a slice of fried baloney, are a long time Southern favorite. Fried Egg and Bacon BLT’s (would that be a BELT?) have been known to make grown men and women nearly cry with joy.
Boiled eggs can be turned into egg salad simply by mashing them with a bit of mayonnaise. Boiled eggs also make great deviled egg, which everyone seems to love. I like boiled eggs in curry sauce or sliced and added to black bean soup or on top of a salad. They’re tasty just eaten with a bit of salt too.
Boiled eggs are easy to make. Place the desired number of raw eggs (in the shell) into a saucepan. Cover the eggs with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat slightly and boil for 10-minutes. Drain and cover the eggs with cold water to cool them. Store in the fridge until you need them. In their shells, they keep for a week in the fridge.
If you have a choice, boil your oldest eggs first. New or fresh eggs are harder to peel than older eggs that have been in the fridge a week or two.
Eggs are good baked in the oven. Drop them into a nest of grits or cornmeal mush or hash browns. Bake at 350-degrees until they are done to your liking, about 10-minutes or so. They’re good in Quiche, impossible pies, and other cheese dishes. Frittatas, Breakfast Burritos, French Toast, Breakfast Sandwiches, and Omelets all make great use of eggs for breakfast or a quick supper.
Eggs are one of the best things you can buy when you’re broke. They supply plenty of protein. When you’re in a rush, eggs are super fast, and they blend well with other foods. Of all the foods on this list, I have to admit that I consider eggs the most necessary and the most useful. To my mind a kitchen without eggs is a hungry kitchen. A kitchen with plenty of eggs has a full tummy.
Milk and Cheese. These are discussed in-depth in a couple of other articles, Best Buys From The Dairy and Powdered Milk so I won’t go into too much detail here. I can tell you this, at the time of writing, fresh skim milk is the best bargain in the dairy department. Usually instant nonfat dry milk or powdered milk, is the best buy. Right now though, it’s fresh milk, so enjoy it while it’s cheap. When fresh milk is expensive and powdered milk is cheap again, don’t be afraid to make the switch. Powdered milk is just as nourishing as fresh milk, and has the convenience factor built right in.
Milk has protein yes, but also calcium, Vitamin D, riboflavin, potassium, phosphorus and Vitamin B12. It’s good for drinking and cooking. It goes into many recipes from casseroles and sauces, to egg dishes and soup. Incredibly versatile, it deserves a place in any rock-bottom budget. If you don’t drink dairy milk, then soymilk is a good replacement. Unlike almond milk or rice milk, it’s high in protein, like dairy milk. It costs more than dairy milk, unless you make it yourself, but is just as versatile.
The cheapest type of cheese available to the American consumer is store-brand versions of processed cheese, better known by the brand name Velveeta. Velveeta is made from real cheese, but it’s designed to have a longer shelf life, to melt more smoothly and to be softer at room temperature. You can read all about the process behind making Velveeta at the Discover Magazine. It’s not as scary as you’d think.
Processed cheese is especially good for sandwiches, sauces, casseroles, macaroni cheese and soups. It melts beautifully, never clumping up like cheddar or mozzarella. Most processed cheese tastes like American Cheese, so it’s mild enough to be especially useful for most types of cooking. If you prefer a sharper flavor simply add a bit of lemon juice or a dab of mustard to whatever dish the cheese is in. This will give you a richer, sharper flavor.
Besides Velveeta, the most reasonably priced types of cheese are cheddar and mozzarella, usually shredded and in large bags. Both are pretty versatile. I substitute cheddar wherever a recipe calls for orange cheese like Colby or Gouda. I use mozzarella wherever a recipe calls for white cheese like swiss or provolone. Fancy and gourmet cheeses are outside of a rock-bottom budget. They do have nice flavors, but they don’t have enough superior nutrition to justify their cost. Plain old cheddar and mozzarella will give you plenty of diversity for an affordable price.
Cottage cheese is surprisingly high in protein, with 15-grams in a 1/2-cup. The 24-ounce container of cottage cheese should cost about the same as a gallon of fresh milk. It provides 6 half-cup servings, and it’s easy to eat it when you’re in a rush. I like it with fruit for breakfast or as a snack. It’s not the cheapest source of protein on this list, but if you can afford it, it’s certainly worthwhile. Even though it’s higher priced than milk or processed cheese, it’s still more affordable than most types of meat. I would add cottage cheese to my grocery list before I would add a pound of hamburger.
Yogurt is another option. It has about the same amount of protein as milk. Homemade yogurt is very affordable, costing about as much as fresh milk, but not everyone is willing to make it themselves. Like cottage cheese, a large carton of yogurt (1-quart) costs about as much as a gallon of milk. Look for store-brands and choose a plain, unflavored version for the most versatility. Greek Yogurt is much higher in protein than regular yogurt, but it costs twice as much, or about as much as 2-gallons (8-quarts) of milk for only a single quart of yogurt. I do not consider this a good buy so I don’t recommend it when you’re on a budget.
There are other affordable non-meat sources of protein such as tofu and textured vegetable protein (TVP or TSP), but they are not as accessible as other items on this list, and their prices can vary quite a bit by location. If they are cheap in your area then by all means take advantage of them. Both are usually more affordable at health food stores than the supermarket. If they aren’t cheap where you live, then there are still plenty of other affordable options.
If you do not drive, or have mobility issues, it may be worth it to you to consider buying some things through mail order. Walmart.com has excellent prices and offers free shipping if you spend over a certain amount. Following is a list of items that are affordable and worth consideration.
- Great Value Pinto Beans; 4-pound or 8-pound bags or 20-pound bags
- Great Value Northern Beans; 2-pound bags
- Great Value Black Beans; 2-pounds
- Great Value Unsalted Roasted Peanuts; 16-ounces
- Great Value Creamy Peanut Butter; 40-ounces
- Great Value Instant Nonfat Dry Milk, 4-pound box
- Great Value Melt N’ Dip or Easy Melt Processed Cheese, 2-pound package
Other beans, split peas and lentils are cheaper to buy from your local markets. Fresh eggs and other fresh dairy products are not available through mail order.
It is not my intention to turn anyone vegetarian with this article. If you are vegetarian, I won’t try to change your mind and if you are a meat eater I grant you the same respect. For myself, and my family, we still eat some meat, fish and poultry. I don’t make them my only options though, especially when money is tight. When we’re rock bottom broke we may not be able to afford to eat the way we’d like to. We may have to make do with the food we can afford. In that case, there’s no reason to worry about protein. There is no shame in not being able to afford to put meat on the table every night. or even every week. We still have plenty of options with the foods listed above. A few spices, some onions, and our favorite low-cost starches will all make beans, peas and lentils taste far better than anything we could get at a fast food joint. They’ll keep us strong and healthy until we can afford a more varied diet.
In another article I will discuss meat, poultry and fish, but I haven’t written it yet. When I do, I’ll link it here.
Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. Proverbs 15:17