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How to Get Enough Protein on a Budget

Eating healthy proteins doesn't have to cost a fortune.
Eating healthy proteins doesn't have to cost a fortune.
Comstock/Thinkstock

Protein is as essential to your body as soil is to a well-maintained garden. Since protein is made up of components called amino acids, the issue of how to get enough protein into your diet can get confusing, so let's clarify a couple of things before we start looking at inexpensive ways to shop for protein-rich but budget-friendly foods.

There are 20 amino acids, and nine of them make up what is known as a complete protein, one that provides the essential amino acids the body needs to maintain itself. The most common complete proteins are animal products like meat, fish and dairy. These are often the most expensive proteins at the market, too. Complete proteins aren't the only dietary option, though. Complementary proteins can also provide all the essential amino acids -- with a little planning and some creative meal preparation.

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Complementary protein sources are foods that contain some but not all of the essential amino acids. When grouped in twos or threes and eaten at the same time, or within a few hours of one another, they can also provide all the amino acids that a complete protein would provide -- often at a much lower price. Beans and rice are a good example. Separately, they lack essential amino acids, but combined, they offer all nine essential amino acids. They offer some other benefits, too, like fiber, vitamins, minerals and a protein source that can be lower in fat than an animal-based product.

Let's head over to the market to take a look at a number of protein-rich menu options that are nutritious as well as inexpensive. These foods are good for you and full of flavor. Choosing one over an expensive cut of meat won't be much of a sacrifice. We promise.

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If you make a beeline for the meat department every time you go to the market, living lean will require rethinking your options. Meat can still be on the menu in ways we'll get to in a minute, but other choices should be part of the mix, too, including complementary proteins you can mix and match. This will make mealtime more of an adventure and has some surprising benefits, like upping the amount of fiber in your diet. It can also work to introduce your kids to a wide range of ingredients instead of the same old stuff for mealtime.

Before we start, let's list some good sources of complementary, vegetable protein:

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  • Nuts - walnuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios
  • Seeds - sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
  • Grains - oats, wheat, rice, barley, corn (bread, pasta, dumplings, biscuits)
  • Legumes - soy products, beans, peas, peanuts

Remember, using the items above as ingredients in cooking can provide all nine essential amino acids without your having to head over to the meat department or fishmonger. Just use them in combination. We talked about beans with rice, but peanut butter on whole wheat bread is another popular choice. A good rule of thumb when combining complementary proteins is to match legumes with grains, legumes with nuts (or seeds), or grains with nuts (or seeds). Pound for pound, using grouped complementary proteins to build meals is one of the least expensive options around. In fact, savvy cooks have been doing it for generations with one sneaky twist: They've added just a little meat for variety and flavor.

Soups and stews have historically contained lots of ingredients and been served with or over grains to complete a meal. That tough as shoe leather piece of meat may not be a good entree option, but added to other ingredients and cooked long and slow, it lends its flavor to all those secondary proteins, providing them with a depth and resonance that's completely yummy. Think back on those comfort foods you remember from childhood. How many of them used a little meat or dairy with other ingredients like pasta, beans, peas, rice, barley, lentils or corn? A few generations ago, frugal cooking was the norm instead of the exception. Grab granny's recipes and rediscover an American tradition.

Setting the topic of secondary proteins aside for a moment, there are still inexpensive ways to add primary protein sources to your diet and have enough money left over to make the house payment. Here are some good bets:

  • Eggs - They come in their own handy containers and provide 7 grams of protein each. Eggs have gotten a bad rap in the last few years. They aren't the titans of cholesterol we thought they were, and they're one of the most inexpensive protein options in your friendly neighborhood market. Just be sure to cook eggs thoroughly before you serve them to avoid problems with Salmonella contamination. The whites should be firm and reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Tuna - Canned tuna is a cheap source of protein that will increase the amount of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. There are around 30 grams of protein in a 5-ounce can of tuna. Current guidelines published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend limiting the amount of tuna consumed by young children and pregnant or nursing women to 12 ounces per week. (Light chunk tuna typically contains less mercury than albacore tuna.)
  • Milk - The white stuff has about 8 grams of protein per 8-ounce cup as well as around 20 other important nutrients. The best proteins are also lean, so choose low- or non-fat milk varieties.
  • Yogurt - If milk isn't your refreshment of choice, get your dairy protein from yogurt. An 8-ounce container of regular yogurt will provide you with 11 grams of protein, and if you go for Greek yogurt instead, you can almost double the protein content. Greek yogurt is more expensive than regular yogurt, but the added protein may be an enticing inducement to spend a little more.
  • Ground turkey - If you watch for sales, ground turkey can be quite a bargain. You can sometimes pick up a 1 pound chub for a little over a dollar and use it as a respectable substitute for ground beef in dishes like meat loaf, chili, meatballs and even burgers. A 3.5-ounce serving of ground turkey contains around 25 grams of protein. Check the label before you buy, though. Bargain brands may use a larger skin-to-meat ratio for a fattier product.

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Protein is a healthy food, but it's also a filling food. That means your family will feel more satisfied with less. If it's a choice between a salad and a burger, you don't have to be a burger lover to recognize that a simple salad may lead to snacking within a couple of hours of the meal. Add some garbanzo beans and some grated cheese to that salad, and they will make those greens a more filling and satisfying proposition. That's the power of protein. When you're trying to feed a family on a budget, veggies are important and fruits are fine, but it's the protein that makes for a filling meal.

When you're shopping for protein-rich foods:

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  • Buy in bulk - Bulk purchases are usually better bargains than their smaller serving counterparts. Larger quantities of eggs, chicken breasts and milk require less packaging and are less bulky to transport. Buy large "family pack" quantities and freeze what you don't plan on using right away. When you do prepare recipes, make double portions and freeze half. That way, you'll always have a protein-rich meal prepped in the freezer.
  • Buy whole - Whole chickens, pork loins, roasts and other meat varieties can be purchased and cut to suit -- by you. Cutting meat doesn't take an advanced degree, and you can save by buying larger quantities, cutting and repackaging them yourself. Many meats are easy to cut with a little practice, so the process can take a few minutes once you get home from the grocery store. (If you're lucky, you may be able to get an accommodating butcher to do it for you, but often grocers offer bargain prices on whole cuts because they require less handling so any extra service may be subject to an additional fee.)
  • Shop the extreme sales - You know about advertised sales, but most meat markets also have unadvertised sales of packaged products that are reaching the end of their freshness dates. They are usually displayed in the same meat market location every day and can sell for a much as 50 percent off the retail price. Shop early for the best selection, though, and use these items right away.
  • Buy dry - Secondary proteins like grains and legumes are among the best protein deals at the store, and they're often at their cheapest when purchased dry. Head over to the rice aisle of your market and check out the dried lima beans, garbanzo beans, black beans, lentils, barley and brown rice. The bargains may surprise you, and these great ingredients can last up to a year in your pantry. When you want to use them, all they need is some water and a little TLC.
  • Visit the deli - The deli department of most major grocery stores have sliced meats available for quick sale. Quantities that don't sell are often used as ingredients for the next day's sandwiches. If delis have too much product, though, they sometimes sell the overage at a reduced price. That sliced turkey or black forest ham is just as tasty, but sells for a lot less. Check out the policies at your market, and watch for sales.
  • Join a warehouse store - Membership warehouse stores charge an annual fee to join, but offer attractive discounts on goods and services -- often including meats, dairy and other grocery store fare. The offerings are generally sold in bulk, too. These stores sell quite a few different products and if you buy enough, you can net a nice rebate -- enough to repay the membership fee and then some. One nice thing about these outlets is that they have everyday low prices that can often compete with the sale prices at your regular market.
  • Shop the no frills markets - Bare bones markets can offer very good prices on canned goods, dairy and frozen meats, but don't expect convenience. If you don't mind paying a quarter to use a shopping cart (you get the quarter back when you leave), and the idea of bringing your own bag doesn't turn you off, you can find items like cheese, milk, yogurt, peanut butter, lunch meat and other basic proteins for less. These are often off-brands you won't recognize, and the selection may be limited and change without notice. If you want to net a pound of cheese for half-off what you'd pay at your regular market, or score a frozen turkey breast at a big savings, though, a no frills market may be your best bet.

Related Articles

Sources

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