Time and a little effort can slice unnecessary costs from food bills
No one needs to be told that grocery prices are going up. The totals at the checkout are proof enough that food budgets are being stretched as thin as spaghetti strands.
Still, stats bear it out. In September, Statistics Canada reported a 3.9% year-over-year increase in food costs. But inflation really dined out on meat, which averaged a 9.5% increase overall, from processed meat at 6.5% to 13% for beef to a grisly 20% for bacon.
Such numbers point to three options that can be sliced and diced to best suit budgets challenged by the economic uncertainty of the persisting pandemic, disrupted supply chains and livestock feed crops destroyed by wildfire or drought.
- Eat the cost and hope it doesn’t taint the flavour of that prime rib.
- Give up and go vegetarian.
- Follow these tips for trimming the fat from your meat bill, from Professional Meat Cutting and Merchandising instructor Chris Bradshaw.
Buy bone-in products
“Bone-in meats are always cheaper than boneless ones, [because] there is less handling done by the butchers,” says Bradshaw. Expect to save four or five dollars per kilogram.
And you’ll get more for your buck, he adds. Save those bones to make stock for soups, gravies and other dishes.
Buy in bulk
You’ll pay more up front for larger quantities, says Bradshaw, “but over the time of using that product, you’ll save money” because of the per-kilo cost.
At NAIT’s Retail Meat Store, for example, where students practice their trade and sell the results, a 10-kg box of hamburger costs roughly $20 less than individual packages.
Learn some simple cuts
Take bulk to the next level by buying not just more, but larger pieces, which are even cheaper per kilo. Bradshaw recommends whole beef striploins and ribeyes, full pork loins for chops or roasts, and whole poultry. “You can package them yourself at home. It’s another way to save a lot of money.”
You’ll need a good knife and to know how to use it safely, and a guide to cutting. You could sign up as one of Bradshaw’s students, but he also says there’s no shortage of online instruction on DIY butchery. Just look up the specific cut you’re cooking. “Have your laptop or your phone set up. You can watch videos and go step by step.”
Package the pieces properly. Meat sealed in red butcher’s paper (it’s waxed on one side to keep air, and therefore freezer burn, out) will last around 14 months in a chest freezer. In a fridge freezer, with the door frequently opening and closing, expect 12 months. Plastic vacuum-packaging will add a month or two in both cases, says Bradshaw.
Get creative with leftovers
Plan to turn one meal into more, suggests Bradshaw, rather than forgetting about leftovers only to have to toss them out a few days later, when they begin to turn. So, if you roast a chicken one day, make it new by turning it into sandwiches or wraps the next, then soup the following day.
Combine with meat alternatives
An overly obvious way to save money on something is to buy less of it. Nationally, this may mean participating in a trend that sees Canadians eating far fewer meat products than decades past. In the kitchen, this will mean combining meats with protein supplements and other similarly filling, satisfying foods.
Cutting back on meat portion sizes and replacing with more veg is a quick fix, says Bradshaw. A spicier one is to add a protein supplement like black beans in place of so much ground beef in burritos, for example, or to consider a less protein-intensive dish like tacos al pastor, a mix of thinly sliced pork, onion, pineapple and cilantro.
“You’re able to stretch [a meat product] by how you're preparing it,” says Bradshaw, “by adding vegetables and other foods that make the portion look larger. It’s a bit of a trick to your eyes.” Besides, all that meat “[is] not always something that you absolutely need. Especially when you’re trying to save a little bit of money.”
Buy the tough cuts
Tacos al pastor is a good example of trimming costs another way, says Bradshaw, as it uses tougher and generally cheaper cuts of meat, like pork shoulder.
“If you have an understanding of how to properly cook them and prepare them, you’re able to take those cuts and make a five-star dish – and really enjoy the flavour that comes from those cuts,” he says. In general, “they need long cooking.”
Another of Bradshaw’s preferred ways to deal with a tough cut involves chucking a shoulder roast into the slow cooker with barbecue sauce. “When you come home, you have a meal ready to go.” Just prepare some rice or potatoes as a side for your perfect pulled pork. “It makes [dinner] very quick and simple.”
Visit the NAIT Retail Meat Store
The NAIT Retail Meat Store, located on Main Campus, is a place for students to practice the trade of meat cutting before joining the industry. This benefit also extends to consumers. Everyone is welcome (just be prepared to show proof of vaccination or valid rapid test).
“We’re using our store to move product and let the students learn,” says Bradshaw. Profit is not a priority. “We’re anywhere from 40% to 55% cheaper on a lot of our product compared to a lot of other places.”
Be prepared for price fluctuations to be the norm
Meat won’t always be so costly. Recently, prices have even begun to drop, says Bradshaw. How long will that last? You might as well ask, When will the pandemic stop disrupting supply chains? Or, will drought conditions persist next year?
Developing better habits and practices around meat consumption and preparation today could mean better eating for a reasonable cost tomorrow. “Things are coming back to normal,” says Bradshaw. “Hopefully we see that continue for the next while.”
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