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How to Get the Best Value When Buying Fresh Meat

Copyright December 9, 2011 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
Revised May 2, 2016.
All Rights Reserved.



Meat on the Grill Note: All meat prices in this article were obtained on May 2, 2016.

During hard times it is important to get the best possible value for your food dollars.

Value does not mean cheap. Value considers both the quantity and the quality of the type of meat you purchase. This short article will discuss how to get the best value when buying chicken, beef, and pork.

First, however, please allow me to state the obvious. If possible, purchase meat when it is on sale and then immediately freeze it until you need it. If you have been experiencing the hard times like most of the rest of us then you already know this. But if you are just now finding it difficult to pay all your bills then the following information may be of interest to you.

Meat is usually offered at a special lower sale price in two different ways:
  1. One-Week Sale: One or two specific types of meat are usually on sale for an entire week at a grocery store. The meat that is on sale at one store will usually be different than the meat that is on sale at a competing grocery store. For example, one store may have chicken breasts on sale and a different store may have hamburger on sale. When a store has their meat on sale at a really good price then this is the best time to purchase that specific type of meat in quantity.

  2. One-Day Sale: When fresh meat is packaged the package label usually contains a "sell by date." In most cases the meat will be considered fresh through this date. At the beginning of each day many grocery stores examine all their meat packages that were not sold the previous day and they select all the packages that will expire at the end of the current day. A new marked down lower price label is then usually put on these packages to encourage shoppers to buy these specific packages first. The new sale price on one of these packages is usually about 15% to 35% lower than the original price on the package. The best time to find these specially marked sale packages is in the morning at most grocery stores. If you will ask the employees in the meat department at what time each day they normally examine and mark down their older meat packages they will usually tell you.

Freezing Suggestions

Most families will not need a separate food freezer to take advantage of meat sales if they will strategically utilize the space in their existing combination refrigerator/freezer.

Take everything out of your freezer and temporarily place the food on a counter beside your freezer. Then immediately replace the food into your freezer, one package at a time, to better utilize the space inside your freezer and eliminate gaps and wasted space between the packages to the extent possible. While you are doing this look at each item on the counter and determine whether or not you will ever eat it. It is not unusual for a family to discover one or more food items in their freezer that have been there for years. These items will normally have "freezer burn" and they should probably be thrown away. This is the type of decision that must be made by each family based on a variety of factors that are unique to that family.

In the future when adding meat to your freezer you may wish to consider "double bagging" the meat:
  1. Instead of freezing a large package of meat you should separate the meat into the amount your family will eat at one meal. Later when you wish to cook that item you can simply remove one package of meat from the freezer, thaw it out, and cook it and you will know you will not have any leftovers at the end of the meal.
  2. Place each one-meal serving of meat inside an ordinary zipper sandwich bag (assuming the bag is large enough for the amount of meat your family will eat at one meal). Then place that bag of meat inside a larger heavy-duty one-gallon freezer bag. You can usually seal three or more regular size sandwich bags of meat in a single one-gallon freezer bag. Later when you wish to cook that item each individual sandwich bag of meat will be relatively easy to separate from the other bags without disturbing the seal on those other sandwich bags.
  3. Write the date and the type of meat on the outside of the heavy-duty one-gallon freezer bags. This will help you to use the oldest meat in your freezer on a first-in first-out basis so you can almost eliminate any problems due to freezer burns.
  4. You can usually see the meat item through the two clear plastic bags and you will have a pretty good idea of what is in the bag before you read the writing on the outside of the package. You will also be able to see the condition of the meat before you thaw it out so you will have a pretty good idea that the meat is still in good condition and thereby eliminate any surprises later when you examine the meat after it has thawed out.
Clear Plastic Wrap: Some people prefer to use clear plastic wrap instead of a plastic bag. There is nothing wrong with clear plastic wrap. However, I prefer to use ordinary plastic sandwich bags because they are quicker and easier to use and to seal.

Aluminum Foil: Some people prefer to use aluminum foil instead of a plastic sandwich bag as the first wrap around their meat. However, aluminum foil is not transparent and you can't see what is inside the foil. And aluminum foil does not form an airtight seal around the meat. Therefore, I prefer to double bag fresh meat using an inner sandwich bag and an outer heavy-duty freezer bag.

One-Quart Freezer Bags: If you are not experiencing the hard times like the rest of us and you can afford the more expensive one-quart zipper heavy-duty freezer bags then you could use the one-quart heavy-duty zipper freezer bags instead of the cheaper zipper sandwich bags as the first bag for your meat.

Recycling: If you are experiencing hard times then you may wish to consider reusing the exterior heavy-duty one-gallon zipper bags several times. Since you will be double bagging your meat the inside of the heavy-duty one-gallon bags should remain clean and you would only need to change the writing on the outside of the bag in order to recycle it.


Chicken

Fried Chicken Whole Chicken Seasoned When buying chicken that still contains the bone your best buy is usually the most expensive package that contains the same number of identical chicken parts, such as breasts, drumsticks, or wings. The reason is because each chicken piece will contain approximately the same amount of bone but the more expensive packages will contain more meat. In other words, you will be purchasing the largest chickens with the most meat on their bones instead of the smaller chickens with less meat on their bones.

For example, if you are buying a package that contains 12 chicken drumsticks, and all the packages contain 12 drumsticks, and all the packages are sold by weight, then all the packages will contain the same number and size of bones, but the most expensive package will contain the most meat. In other words, the most expensive package will contain the drumsticks from the healthiest, plumpest chickens and you will be receiving more meat for your money.

When shopping for chicken you should consider the cost of the meat you are buying and not simply the cost per pound. For example:

Price Comparison for Different Pieces of Chicken

Chicken PieceMeatSkinBoneAverage WeightAverage Cost per PoundMeat Cost per PoundMeat and Skin Cost per Pound
Breast67%12%21%0.99 Pounds$2.09$3.11$2.65
Thigh57%22%21%0.45 Pounds$1.54$2.70$1.95
Drumstick60%12%28%0.31 Pounds$1.56$2.60$2.17
Wing31%23%46%0.25 Pounds$2.72$8.78$5.03
Average Above 4 Pieces60%15%25%----
Whole Chicken including Neck and Back49%17%34%4.83 Pounds$1.22$2.49$1.85

The above "Average Cost per Pound" is the average cost at five different grocery stores in the Southeastern United States on May 2, 2016.
The above "Average Weight" per piece is based on a sample of approximately 200 pieces of each type of chicken.
The percent meat, skin, and bone is based on a sample of chickens that included chickens that were one-pound smaller and one-pound larger than average.
A chicken that is about one-pound lighter than average will have approximately 2% less meat, 1% more skin, and 1% more bone based on the total weight of the chicken.
A chicken that is about one-pound heavier than average will have approximately 2% more meat, 1% less skin, and 1% less bone based on the total weight of the chicken.
Therefore, the average plump chicken will contain a total of about 4% more meat than the average skinny chicken.

Skin or No Skin: The reason that the meat and the skin are shown separately in the above table is because some people prefer to eat chicken with the skin still attached but other people will refuse to eat chicken with the skin still attached. In addition, some recipes require the skin to be left on the chicken and some recipes require that the skin be removed from the chicken. Therefore, the above table should be useful to almost everyone and for almost any recipe.

Wings: The above table shows that chicken wings are the most expensive chicken pieces.

Whole Chickens: The above table also shows that a whole chicken is the most affordable way to buy chicken, but only by a little bit. Most grocery stores sell cut up whole chickens in addition to whole chickens. The cut up chickens and the whole chickens will both include parts that some people will not eat, such as the back, the neck, and livers. On the other hand, some cooks are very skillful in using the back, neck, and livers in a variety of different ways. For many years we always purchased the whole chickens or the cut up whole chickens. But we don't purchase them as often as we did in the past because our tastes have changed. When I do purchase them I will now only buy the cut up whole chickens because I personally do not like to spend my time cutting up a chicken when I have so many other interesting things I could be doing. In addition, the price per pound of the cut up chicken is usually identical to the price per pound for a whole chicken so there is no cost savings involved in my doing the job instead of the grocery store.

Sales: Most grocery stores will have chicken on sale about once every four, five, or six weeks. Usually they will only have one specific type of chicken on sale, such as whole chickens, or breasts with the bone and skin, or breasts without the bone or skin, or leg quarters, or whatever.

Breasts: In the Southeastern United States it is not uncommon to find chicken breasts with the bone and skin on sale for $1.19 per pound (therefore the meat and skin cost is $1.51 per pound), and boneless skinless chicken breasts on sale for $2.19 per pound (therefore the meat cost is $2.19 per pound). When these sales occur I usually buy about twenty-pounds of the chicken that is on sale and freeze most of it. Some of my favorite recipes require the boneless skinless chicken breasts, and some of my recipes require the breasts with the skin and bone still attached. Therefore I purchase both because my family will eat both depending on the recipe in which the chicken is being used.


Beef

Ground Beef: When buying ground beef you should consider the price per lean pound and not just the price per pound. The reason is because the fat will melt off into the frying pan during the cooking process and the meat that remains will be what your family eats. The exception is if you are making something like homemade chili and you use both the cooked meat and the melted fat to make the chili.

Hamburger

Price Comparison for Different Types of Ground Meat

Type of MeatPercent LeanPrice per Pound including FatPrice per Lean Pound excluding Fat
Ground Beef75%$3.51$4.68
Ground Chuck80%$3.85$4.81
Ground Round86%$4.57$5.31
Ground Steak86%$4.57$5.31
Ground Sirloin90%$5.54$6.16
Ground Extra Lean93%$5.78$6.22

The above "Price per Pound including Fat" is the average price at five different grocery stores in the Southeastern United States on May 2, 2016.
Most grocery stores will show the percent lean meat on the package label.
To calculate the price per lean pound you simply divide the total price per pound by the percent lean converted to a decimal (75% = 0.75).

T-Bone Steaks Club Steaks, T-bone Steaks, Porterhouse Steaks: All three of these steaks have the same bone and they are cut from the same area of the cow. The difference is the size of the fillet. The fillet is the smaller piece of meat on one side of a T-bone steak. It is usually more tender and more flavorful than the meat on the opposite side of the bone.
On a Club Steak the entire fillet is removed before it is sold to you.
On a T-bone Steak the fillet is about 1/4 the size of the entire steak, or about 1/3 the size of the piece of meat on the opposite side of the bone. Two T-bone Steaks are shown in the picture on the right.
On a Porterhouse Steak the fillet is about 1/3 the size of the entire steak, or about 1/2 the size of the piece of meat on the opposite side of the bone.
You will need to carefully examine the steaks in a package before you purchase the package because many grocery stores will put a T-bone price on a Club Steak that only has a tiny sliver of fillet on one side of the bone.
Some grocery stores will also put a Porterhouse price on a package that is really just a T-bone Steak.
Finally, most grocery stores will cover the fillet piece of the steak when they are selling more than one steak per package and they will put the steaks with the smallest fillets, or almost no fillets, below the steak that has the best looking fillet on top. What you will not see in the package is the fillet piece of meat on the opposite side of the bone for all the steaks below the top steak and you will not be able to determine the size of the fillet. Therefore it is usually better to purchase steaks that are sold one steak per package or two steaks per package where you can see the entire steak inside the package without having the expensive fillet side partially or completely hidden from view.

Other Cuts of Meat: There are a variety of other cuts of meat that your family may wish to consider, such as sirloin, round, chuck, rump, rib eye, London broil, and so on. Meat that does not contain a bone may be compared to other meats that don't contain a bone on a price per pound basis and the amount of visible lean meat in comparison to fat. Taste is a very personal issue and some people, and some families, prefer to eat specific cuts of meat and they find other cuts objectionable.

If your family is experiencing the hard times and your meat budget is extremely limited then you should only buy meat when it is on sale.

Meat Tenderizer: You may also wish to consider the application of "Seasoned Meat Tenderizer" to both sides of the meat before you cook it. The "5th Season" brand of "Seasoned Meat Tenderizer" is available at Walmart in a 5.5 ounce jar for 50 cents per jar. One of these jars will usually last between two to four months depending on how much red meat your family eats. It may be used on roasts, steaks, and hamburger.

Other Seasonings: In addition to the "Seasoned Meat Tenderizer" you may also wish to experiment with sprinkling both sides of the meat with "Garlic Salt" and with "Black Pepper" and letting it absorb into the meat inside the refrigerator for about one-hour before you cook it. My family enjoys the flavor of red meat with all three of these spices absorbed into the meat before it is cooked. However, since taste is a very individual experience your family may disagree.


Pork

Pork Chops: Pork chops are like T-bone Steaks and the fillet side of the pork chop is the expensive piece of meat. If most or all of the fillet side of the pork chop has been removed then you are not getting a good value for your meat dollar.

Pork Loin Cooked and Sliced Pork Loins: A better way to buy pork is to purchase boneless pork loins. A pork loin is usually one of the more tender and better tasting cuts of pork. Each grocery store will label their pork loins as pork tenderloins, or as pork loin roasts, or as whole pork loins. Some stores will sell one-half of a pork loin per package and some stores will sell a whole pork loin per package.

Whole pork loins usually cost between $3.99 to $4.99 per pound when they are not on sale. When they are on sale they can be purchased for between $1.99 to $2.99 per pound with a good price usually being about $2.29 per pound or lower.

A whole pork loin will be cut almost all the way through the center of the loin and the two halves will be folded over together into a "U" shape inside the package. If you examine the center cut area you can see what the center of the pork loin looks like. The center of the pork loin should be almost 100% lean meat with a very thin layer of fat on the top side of the pork loin. Generally a pork loin will contain a top layer of fat that is 1/8 inch thick or less. If the package contains a top layer of fat that is 1/4 inch or thicker then you are getting more fat and less lean meat.

To determine the true quality of the pork loin you will need to look at the two opposite ends of the pork loin. One end will be larger than the center cut and one end will be smaller than the center cut. Look closely at both ends of the loin and make sure you are getting mostly lean meat with very few sinews or white streaks of fat.

A whole pork loin may be cut in half and each half cooked, grilled, or smoked and then sliced into individual servings. An example of this method is shown in the above picture.

Slicing: Or you can slice a whole pork loin into individual serving slices before you freeze it. You should package the correct number of slices for one meal in each plastic bag so you can thaw out the exact amount your family will eat each time you decide to serve pork loin.

Many grocery stores will cut a whole pork loin into thin slices for you in their meat department for free. I suggest that you ask for 3 slices per inch, or a thickness of a little less than 3/8 inch per slice. Two slices per inch means each slice would be 1/2 inch thick. Four slices per inch means each slice would be 1/4 inch thick. You will need to determine the number of meals that you need to get out of one pork loin and then slice the individual pieces to that thickness. Remember your objective is to provide your family with a balanced meal that contains some meat and some vegetables. During hard times a 1/4 inch thick pork loin may be enough to satisfy the meat craving of each member of your family. During prosperous times you can afford a thicker cut if you prefer. This is a decision that each family will need to make based on how much of your food budget you can afford to invest in meat.

If your grocery store will not slice the pork loin for you then you can slice it yourself when you get it home. This is what I sometimes do because I know that I am getting the entire pork loin without any waste being discarded at the discretion of the butcher. I recommend that you put the whole pork loin in the freezer for between four to six hours until it is partially frozen. This will make it easier and safer to slice the meat by hand. I also recommend that you slice the pork loin using a bread knife with a serrated edge and not a steak knife or a meat knife.

Bread Knife: A bread knife that has a serrated cutting edge and a blade width of approximately one-inch is ideal for slicing whole pork loins. I also use this same bread knife when I need to carve a whole cooked turkey at Thanksgiving, and when I need to carve a cooked ham at Christmas. A bread knife is one of the most practical, useful, and versatile knives that I have in my kitchen. However, as with any type of knife, please be extremely careful or you could quickly and seriously cut yourself.



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