Meat has long been the most expensive item on our plates, but prices for chicken, beef and pork have jumped even higher as the pandemic moves into its third year. The sticker shock at the grocery store is real.
At the end of 2021, beef was about 20% higher than the year before. Chicken prices had risen about 8.5% and pork was up nearly 17%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. The increases continued into 2022.
The reasons are many:
- Supply chain issues.
- Bottlenecks at processing plants because of labor shortages and COVID shutdowns.
- Lousy growing weather in parts of the country translated to higher feed prices.
- Rising energy costs.
Whatever could go wrong, seems to have gone wrong. And we are paying for it at the grocery store.
While we understand that inflation is hitting food prices hard, we still would still like an occasional ribeye steak, and chicken even more often without having to take out a second mortgage.
Here’s some good news: By the Fourth of July, prices are expected to mostly level off with a much smaller increase overall this year. Like 4% more for beef rather than double-digit increases of 2021.
10 Ways to Shop for the Cheapest Meat
While these tips have been collected in response to sharp pandemic-related increases, they are good to have handy for budget grocery shopping anytime. Here are ways you can enjoy beef, chicken and pork for more reasonable prices.
1. Buy Wholesale Meat
Wholesale meat suppliers often sell to restaurants and grocery stores, but anyone can walk in off the street and buy meat in bulk.
Check your zip code in the Wholesale Meat Supplier Directory.
By shopping at a local wholesaler, you can get months’ worth of beef, pork, chicken and fish for less than grocery store prices, and it should fit in a standard-sized freezer.
This covers most meals each week, and dramatically cuts down grocery-store meat purchases.
Bring a jacket! Wholesale warehouses are often just one giant freezer full of meat.
Prices may vary, depending on your local market. But you’re always guaranteed to pay less at a wholesaler than you would at the supermarket.
Keep in mind wholesalers’ hours are usually different from the typical supermarket. Many are open from about 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2. Shop at Local Farms
Many local farms and ranches are willing to sell you an entire cow or pig, and you can easily buy turkeys and chickens for a low cost.
Kitchen Stewardship has an in-depth guide on how to buy an entire cow.
Once you pick your cow, work with the butcher to specify how many pounds you want in each style of meat — ground, steaks, ribs, etc.
When all’s said and done, you’ll leave with over 200 pounds of beef, which could easily last more than a year.
The up-front cost is higher, but you can save hundreds of dollars on meat each year. Plus, this is much higher quality meat than you’d find in a grocery store. In many cases, it’ll also be organic.
This option isn’t for everyone, especially if you live in an apartment. But it’s perfect if you have space for a second freezer.
3. Look for Coupons and Sales
Pay attention to your grocery store’s sales flyers.
If meat goes on sale significantly cheaper than it normally sells for, it’d be smart to stock up.
Meat coupons are rare, but you can find them on company websites and in the Sunday paper. Sometimes, they’ll be right on the meat packages.
4. Change Your Shopping Pattern
Most of us are creatures of habit when it comes to grocery store shopping. If you head for produce or dairy as soon as you get to the store, change that up so your first stop is the meat department.
This way, you can see what’s on sale and what looks good. The pandemic has caused some occasional shortages and if you have your heart set on boneless, skinless chicken thighs, you may be disappointed.
This technique will require you to be flexible in your meal planning. You wanted bone-in pork chops but boneless are on sale? Get out your phone and look for a recipe. After you’ve gotten some sale items, you can proceed to the other departments to start building your meals.
Notice how huge boneless, skinless chicken breasts have gotten? Double the servings by splitting each breast lengthwise. The thinner cutlets cook faster and are more reasonably sized portions.
5. Plan Ahead
It’s crucial to remain flexible to get the cheapest meat prices, and meal planning will help you achieve this. If you know the family is coming for brunch in a couple of weeks and bacon is on sale now (how lucky, right?), grab a pack or two and throw them in the freezer. Same if you know you are making your famous spaghetti meat sauce for a special birthday coming up and ground beef prices are good.
Planning can help you stretch those expensive proteins. If you buy a whole chicken and roast it yourself, you can use the carcass to make chicken soup. A whole chicken yields about 4 cups of meat so you might have enough to serve it with veggies and potatoes, with leftovers for wraps and then that soup.
In addition, planning ahead will send you to your pantry staples to complete meals. Another way to save money.
6. Shop at Ethnic Grocery Stores
There’s a likely chance that the issues affecting large grocery store chains will be affecting smaller retailers too. However, it’s worth it to check out mom-and-pop stores and neighborhood ethnic markets to see if their prices are less.
Chains like H-Mart carry everything you typically see in any grocery store, but they also carry snacks, meats and produce seen exclusively in Asian cuisines.
7. Compare Average Grocery-Store Prices
Grab a notebook and visit each of your local grocery stores. If you don’t have time to do this yourself, consider sending your partner or teenagers who drive to help with reconnaissance. Or gather a group of friends and call yourselves The Price Hunters.
Write down your favorite meats’ average price-per-pound. Ask employees how often the store runs meat sales and what price you can expect at any given time.
Compare findings to pick the cheapest grocery in your area. Calculate how much gas money you’d have to spend to get there to decide whether a sale is worth it. If you have to drive 20 miles out of your way for the deals, they aren’t much of a deal.
8. Learn to Cook Cheaper Cuts
Ground beef has traditionally been cheaper than other versions of beef. However, even that’s gotten pricy. Still, it’s versatile and can be stretched to feed many people. Consider meatballs, tacos, pasta sauce, burgers, sloppy Joes, stuffed peppers and the list goes on. Gingery Ground Beef is a tasty dish that has few ingredients and is easily doubled to feed a crowd.
Remember to be flexible. If ground turkey is on sale, it’s a worthy substitute.
Chicken quarters — the leg and thigh — and drumsticks are almost always a better price than boneless, skinless breasts, and they have more flavor too. Pork shoulder, beef brisket or any cut with the word shoulder in the name usually cost less than steaks and chops because they’re tougher cuts of meat. Get out your Instant Pot or slow cooker to cook them low and slow for a weeknight dinner.
Martha Stewart’s Sweet and Sour Brisket is a good weekend project but can also be adapted for the slow cooker. Pantry staples — ketchup, brown sugar, white vinegar — make up most of the ingredients. Leftovers can be served shredded over pasta with grated Parmesan cheese.
Keep your phone handy and looks for recipes and cooking tips when you are at the meat counter — or ask the butchers.
9. Divide and Conquer After a Bulk Purchase
It may be a pain in the pocket initially, but those jumbo packs of meat save money in the long run.
The key to the savings here is to divide the pack into portions to fit your family needs. When you get home, wrap the smaller portions in foil and then place in zipper-type plastic bags. Use a permanent marker to note how much and what is in the bag. Add the date too. You might think you’ll remember later, but you won’t if you have several unmarked foil and bagged packages in your freezer.
10. Cut Down On Meat-Per-Meal
When you make a soup, increase the amount of beans, vegetables and other ingredients so that you can decrease the amount of meat. When making burgers at home, 1 pound of ground beef should make four burgers — maybe even five. Load them up with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, etc.
Nutrition experts say our plates should have more colorful, plant-based food — veggies, salads, grains — than meat. If you are hankering for a steak to share with your partner, buy one and split it.
Another way to cut the price of meat is to go meatless for one or two dinners a week. The Meatless Monday campaign has plenty of ideas for hearty meals that don’t rely on animal protein — the ultimate way to get around the high cost of meat.