The best way to stretch your grocery budget when buying meat is to buy inexpensive cuts like bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and tough cuts of beef and pork that you simmer in the slow cooker for hours.
At least, that's what I thought. I was wrong.
After months of blowing our grocery budget, I decided it was time to get back on track to my goal of spending just $285 a month. (If this sounds really low, it's because we go out to eat a few times a week.)
The best way to stretch the budget for two people who like to eat meat at almost every meal turns out to be purchasing boneless, skinless chicken breasts on sale.
You'd never think that a cut of meat that requires more labor--someone, or some machine, has to butcher the bird, remove the bones, remove the skin, and trim off lots of fat and gristle--would be the most economical. But I've found this to be true.
A local, low-budget grocery store puts this cut on sale for $1.59 a pound every few weeks, and we stock up then. We cut all the unsavory parts that remain off the breasts, which takes about 40 minutes for 12 pounds of similar sized cuts of meat that will cook in roughly equal amounts of time. We then freeze them in bags containing 1.5 pounds each, since that's how much we like to cook at one time. Cooking weeknight dinners becomes really convenient, because we now have premium, perfectly trimmed pieces of meat at a fraction of the cost.
But the trimming process leaves about 1-2 pounds of fat with pieces of meat mixed in. We used to toss this out, figuring that we were still coming out ahead overall, and that the time it would take to cut the meat more precisely wasn't worth it (the 80/20 principle). But I've discovered that I can toss all of the scraps into a crock pot on low for a few hours, melt the fat away, and be left with mostly usable scraps of chicken breast that are great for mixing with a sauce or putting in omelets, quesadillas, enchiladas, or any other dish that's good with small pieces of meat. I still lose whatever I paid per pound for the chicken fat, but I lose less than 10% of what I purchased, or about 16 cents per pound.
Bone-in, skin-on chicken legs, on the other hand, cost me 69 cents a pound on sale, and I lose a whopping two-thirds of that in bones, fat, gristle and skin that gets thrown out (maybe you like to use some of these things for stock, but I don't). I have a kitchen scale, so I actually did the math--I'm not just eyeballing it. That means I'm effectively paying $2.10 to get one pound of useable meat, still doing plenty of labor to separate out the edible meat, and getting a less healthy product (though dark meat simmered in its own fat in a slow cooker certainly is tasty!). The same goes for pork shoulder, which might cost $1.69 a pound and similarly loses 2/3 of its weight after subtracting skin, bones and fat.
Would it be cheaper to eat rice and beans, or quinoa, or other vegetable sources of protein? Maybe. But we like meat, so we find ways to make it as affordable as possible.