Figuring Out Which Meals Really Are Cheapest For Our Family

Most people have all these misconceptions about what kinds of meals are cheapest and what kind are not, and I've discovered sometimes that what people thought was cheap wasn't actually that cheap, and what people thought was expensive wasn't actually expensive, either.

Before I get into anything further, I need to mention that nearly always, vegan proteins are cheaper than animal proteins, and if you're looking to prepare meals as frugally as possible, vegan proteins are your best bet. I do make quite a few vegan protein based meals for my family. However, with my very sensitive stomach I can't eat vegan proteins, and stick to only animal proteins, which definitely can get expensive. Additionally, my family does eat animal proteins as well, so I wanted to figure out, when I serve them animal proteins, which type of meal actually is cheaper.

A few years back I did some intense calculations about how much meat you're actually getting, when you factor in bones and weight lost when cooking, and consequently how to figure out exactly how much actual meat you're getting per pound. It was very enlightening to me and has since changed how I shop- I went from seeing chicken wings as a waste of money because it's all bones, and thighs and drumsticks being my staple, to rarely ever buying thighs and drumsticks, as they are the same percentage bones as wings, more or less, but twice the price. 
And I've discovered that the common thought that chicken breast was the cheapest meat out there because it has no bones is not 100% true but has its basis in truth- that it is more expensive than chicken wings even once you factor in the bones, but when it comes to comparing chicken breast to thighs, as long as chicken breasts aren't more than $1.55 more per pound than chicken thighs are, they still are cheaper. I've even been able to convince friends who thought chicken wings were a waste of money because of all the bones to give them a shot, once I showed them how the cost really compares.

But as I mentioned in another post not so long ago, when it comes to figuring out cost of meals and figuring out what is cheaper, it isn't necessarily what is cheaper per pound of meat, but which meal ends up being cheaper. And a lot more goes into how much a meal will cost than just how many grams of meat you're eating, because eating is not just something physical, it is psychological as well.

Many different factors go into how satiating a meal is, and for everyone, that will vary per person or per family.

Things I've noticed:

When I have a whole piece of fish fillet, it is more satiating for me than that same exact fish fillet broken up and put in a salad with other veggies or a stir fry. I can know that for a fact that it is the same food, I can watch myself make it and know that it is exactly the same amount, and yet I end up wanting more overall when it is mixed in to the stir fry/salad than when I am eating a salad/stir fry separately and a piece of fish separately.
Oddly enough though, when I am making a chicken stir fry, I am satisfied with less chicken in the stir fry than I would be with a whole chicken cutlet and a veggie stir fry. 
I mean, actually when I think about it, that isn't so odd, it probably has to do with the fact that chicken breast holds its shape in stir fries and salads, where fish often just mushes into nothingness, so you don't actually feel like you're eating the fish when its in a stir fry, so you feel (or I do, anyhow) like you're eating a big dish of veggies with a slight fishy taste, whereas with chicken breast you feel like every bite you're eating chicken, so the entire size of the stir fry, every bite of the stir fry, pretty much, feels like you're eating chicken + yumminess, vs the fewer bites that you eat of just a plain chicken cutlet. 
So I try to be conscious about this when I am making fish vs chicken- fish I tend to not mix in with other things, but chicken breast I do try to mix with other things, because it makes a difference to how satiated I feel from that meal.

Another thing that I feel makes a difference is how much of your place, size-wise gets covered by your protein. If you have 100 grams of chicken breast and it is cut into a very high and not wide or long piece, it feels less satiating than if you have the same 100 grams cut thinly into a wide (even if very thin) cutlet covering a large portion of your plate.

There is also the matter of how much time it takes you to eat something. If you have to cut it up with a fork and knife, working to get the meat off the bone, it tends to feel more satiating than something that you just can pop into your mouth right away. 
Because of this, bone in chicken, covering the same amount of plate as chicken breast, for me, anyhow, feels more satiating than boneless meat covering the same surface area.
But because it is psychological, when you feel like you're barely getting any meat because it is all bone, you might be of those people that end up feeling the need to eat a lot more when its bony chicken vs boneless. 
For me it doesn't work like that- 3 small sized or 2 average sized chicken wings, approximately 160 grams, is satiating for me to the same extent than a 100 gram cutlet of chicken breast, which upon doing the math, is actually the same amount of cooked meat- 100 grams of meat on the cutlet and 100 grams of meat on the wings. However, I know people that would be content with 100 grams of chicken breast cutlets, but would eat 6 or 8 wings to feel as satisfied.
I have noticed, though, that while chicken wings are as satisfying for me gram per gram of cooked meat as chicken breast, chicken necks and such are not. In a meal I feel satiated after eating between half and three quarters of a pack of chicken necks/bone parts (sold locally as "chicken for soup), approximately 600 grams or more, despite that being approximately 225 grams of pure meat, more than twice the amount of meat on the amount of chicken wings or breast that is enough to satiate me.
Psychology is a tricky thing.
And it's not because I'm unaware of how much meat is on it. I know, and I still am not satiated. It's weird.

Speaking of psychology, you have to factor in stretching proteins. Ground meat and ground chicken, when they are made into crumbles, spread over your plate more so overall they look like more, because, at least in my mind, the white space between them is still considered in the quantity it appears to be. 
Then, you can stretch the meat. If you make it into meatballs, kebabs, burgers, or even meat loaf, it doesn't just taste ok stretched, but tends to be more enjoyable, tastier, and with a better texture when you mix the meat with some breadcrumbs and/or instant potato flakes and/or grated carrots/sweet potatoes/zucchini/potatoes, with grated carrots or whatnot, and if you grate the carrots small enough, it still feels like you're just eating meat, not like a stretched meal, as long as you don't make the proportion of fillers to meat too high. So you probably need less ground beef or ground chicken per person for a meal than you would chicken breast or wings. The actual math isn't so simple, because you're stretching things different amounts, but lets give an example that you're mixing ground beef or ground turkey/chicken with 20% of the volume in fillers, so instead of 100 grams of beef/chicken, you're having 120 grams meat+fillers. I'm not going to factor in the count of the fillers because that varies and fillers can be very cheap. 
For myself and my husband, about 100 grams of burgers, meatballs, or kebabs would be satiating for us, and 50 grams for each of my kids, so altogether that would be 400 grams of this for our meal. Factoring in the fillers, that would be 333 grams of meat for our family for a meal. Locally beef is $5.07 per pound (and I don't usually see it on sale), and ground chicken or turkey ranges from $2.60-$3.25 per pound, making a meal of stretched beef cost $3.67 per meal and with ground poultry $1.89-$2.36 per meal. 

Other things that I've realized in terms of psychology is how there can be two cans, approximately the same size, and yet in terms of satiation, completely different.
Tuna, for example, strained out of a can is 105 grams. Sardines, strained, are 90 grams. Yes, slight difference, but not extreme. And yet, sardines, I eat the whole can, all 90 grams, but with tuna I'm fine with just half a can, 55 grams. It's weird. Or maybe because tuna is generally mixed with mayo, which makes it spread more, and visually is more. Maybe if I mashed sardines and mixed them with mayo I'd view them the same way, but mashed sardines gross me out for some reason (but whole ones don't at all), so it takes more sardines to satiate me than tuna.

Take eggs. 
I don't eat eggs, but my kids and husband do.
Eggs are considered to be a very cheap animal protein, highly recommended by people trying to be frugal. And yet, for my family I would say it probably is one of the more expensive animal proteins. Eggs locally cost about 25 cents an egg for medium eggs. My kids typically eat 2 eggs each, and my husband eats 3 or 4, which means that for my family of 5 (not counting myself since I can't eat the eggs), a meal of eggs typically costs $2.75-$3 for the eggs alone, whereas a meal with chicken wings, where each kid is content with one, maximum 2 wings, and my husband and I each eat 2-3, so an entire pack of chicken wings costs approximately $3.42 for a package of about 14 wings, not on sale, at $1.28 per pound, and since our family eats 10-12 wings in a meal that is $2.44-$2.93 for a meal for 6, vs $2.75-$3 for a meal for 5 people. And that is without even buying wings on sale. On sale, I can get them for 89 cents per pound, which would make this meal cost $1.70-$2.04 for our entire family. So eggs? Not such a cheap meal here after all.

Now compare that to turkey gizzards, which cost $1.30-$1.55 per pound, raw. Cooked, they end up costing $1.94-$2.31 per pound. For my family, 1 entire gizzard is too much for each, 3 gizzards is enough for the 4 of them (those things are huge), and 3-4 are enough for myself and my husband combined, so for the entire family we're good with 6-7 cooked turkey gizzards. That works out to $2-$2.40 for the meat for my family for an entire meal.

Which, as you see costs less than chicken wings, an already cheap meal, and 1/3 the price of a "cheap" egg meal for 5/6 members of the family. 
Comparing like with like, I really need to share how it would cost to serve a chicken wing or turkey gizzard meal to those same five members of the family: $1.70-$2.44 for wings not on sale, and $1.18-$1.70 on sale. Turkey gizzards for 5 would cost $1.57-$1.88.

So in order of cheapness for a meal for those 5?
Chicken wings on sale: $1.18-$1.70
Turkey gizzards: $1.57-$1.88
Chicken wings not on sale: $1.70-$2.44
Eggs? $2.75-$3
It's really a no brainer that eggs, at least how my family eats and at our local prices, are not the cheap meal they're made out to be.
They're convenience foods, yes, so that's something going for them. But if I'm going to compare like with like, canned tuna is also a convenience food here, and it is, not on sale, $1.42 per can, and on sale $1.14 per can. My husband and 4 kids (and sometimes myself as well) are content with 2 cans of tuna for the meal, which works out to be $2.28-$2.84 for the meal, which, again, is cheaper than an egg meal here, and tuna isn't remotely a cheap meal here.
Another convenience meal? Hot dogs. The ones I buy are $2.14-$2.50 per package of 11 smallish hot dogs, and each kid is content with 2-3, and adults with 3-4. I can get away with serving the kids and my husband one package if there are enough side dishes. So that's $2.14-$2.50, again cheaper than eggs. (Though eggs do satiate them more than this meal of hot dogs.)

My husband, for his meals at work lunch, usually has a can of tuna mixed with corn and mayo on some rice cakes. 
I tried showing him the numbers, and how if you take cheap frozen fish, that I buy at $2.07 per pound, which works out to be $0.81 per 100 gram serving, and use it as you would tuna in the recipe, he can spend between $0.33-and $0.61 a day, and with about 26 work days a month that is $8.58-$15.25 less every month or $103-$183 less he could spend on lunch for a year, just by switching one fish for another. But convenience is a big factor, which is why he generally ends up with tuna, but is happy to take fish if its prepared for him the night before (which I try to do when I remember). 
However, another convenient fish is sardines, which I can buy for $0.82 a can or $0.71 a can on sale (as I said, less than 100 grams, only 90, but its close enough that he's content with just those 90 grams in his lunch instead of the 105 grams of tuna or 100 grams of fish). 
So sardines on sale are the same price for the meal, approximately, as bought cheap fish, when not bought on sale, and even cheaper when bought on sale.
Another alternative for lunch is chicken breast made into salad the same way. For 100 grams cooked chicken breast that would cost $0.63-$0.78 (depending on whether I bought the chicken breast on sale), which is certainly a frugal option!

And just another meal option- salmon heads. I get them for $0.95-$1.42 each, and half a head is a satisfying meal for me, so that works out to be $0.45-$0.71 per meal for me.

So now, a chart, for my own costs for animal protein per meal, also for my family (of 5, not counting myself), and then just how much it costs for protein for my meal.
Assume in all these meals that they are being served with a carb and a vegetable dish for my family. and a very large vegetable dish for me, because that's how we serve things.

Cost for my protein, one meal's worth:

Chicken wings$0.32-$0.45
Turkey/chicken gizzards$0.43-$0.69
Salmon heads$0.45-$0.71
Chicken/Turkey burgers/kebabs/loaf/meatballs$0.47-$0.59
Chicken breast$0.63-$0.78
White fish$0.81
Beef burgers/kebabs/loaf/meatballs$0.92
Chicken legs$1.06-$1.59
Chicken necks$1.18
Camembert/brie cheese$4.85-$5.71

Cost for my family's protein for a meal.

Chicken wings$1.18-$2.44
Chicken/Turkey burgers/kebabs/loaf/meatballs$1.29-$1.77
Turkey/chicken gizzards$2.00-$2.40
Hot dogs$2.14-$2.50
Cottage cheese$2.57
Beef burgers/kebabs/loaf/meatballs$2.76
Chicken legs$3.35-$5.02
Sliced cheese$3.43
These obviously aren't complete lists, just the proteins I tend to serve more often (that aren't legumes), and they are just straight and not really stretched. Most of these can be made cheaper by stretching them- the only ones I included stretched were the ground poultry/beef, but almost all the others, deboned, mixed with sauce or mayo or veggies could be stretched even further, but it does give me a basic idea of what I have to work with. (Not listed on the family's list is chicken necks, which, when deboned and stretched, actually works out to be as cheap as chicken wings on sale and cheaper than wings not on sale.)

That doesn't mean that I will never serve the things that end up being more expensive per meal, but it is a good thing to be aware of which things are cheaper overall, so that I can lean more heavily towards the cheaper animal proteins.

This was very enlightening to me, to be honest, because some foods that I thought were cheaper per meal (chicken necks) were actually some of the more expensive, and it also reminded me that despite the higher cost per can, I probably should use tuna for meals more than I do sardines, as per meal it does end up being cheaper. And I was also surprised that sardines are cheaper per meal than white fish- I was sure it was the other way around!

No, this chart isn't perfect, because I didn't involve in the calculations cost per gram of protein, because, quite frankly, I don't care. I have calculated the amount of protein I and my family get on any given day, and we get way more than enough to the extent that I don't find the need to factor in price per gram of protein, but rather, price per protein per meal.

This calculation, as much as it was helpful to me, might be less helpful to you, because it is based on my prices, not yours, and based on how much my family and/or I eat per meal, and that would be different for you.

But what I task you with, if you're so inclined, is to pay attention. How many grams of each protein does your family tend to eat per meal? How much does the protein for the meal for your family cost for the different types that you use? Do you ever find that different ways of preparing the same protein makes you eat different amounts? 
Once you have that figured out, then you can decide, with full knowledge, what really is a more cost effective meal for your family, and not just what others say is a cheaper meal.

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. Excellent points! We really do have to figure out what's cheaper where we are instead of going with blanket assumptions. Eggs here have been .69 a dozen for ages, so eggs are a great cheap protein source. Some veggies are $5 a pound, making some meat (chicken is often .69 a pound) cheaper.

    Keeping a price book is a wise move.

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