How to Buy Grass Fed and Pastured Meats on a Budget
Today we are going to be chatting all about how to buy grass fed and pastured meats on a budget. One of the most common concerns we get from readers who are transitioning to a more whole-foods based style of eating is that sourcing grass-fed, high quality-meat can come with a little bit of sticker shock when most people are used to the price of conventionally raised proteins. You know our approach – while we always wish it was as easy as transitioning everything to “cleaner” in one fell swoop, we know that most people need to work step-by-step to prioritize things over time so as not to break the bank!
We know that high-quality proteins can be expensive, hard to find, and all of the different labels can be SO confusing. There are so many sources, categories, terms, and ideas swirling around about how to pick and choose your source of meat that it can become a case of analysis paralysis so often – meaning that you don't know what to do, so instead wind up doing nothing because it's too overwhelming! Because conventional meats, eggs, fish, dairy, etc. can harbor some fairly questionable ingredients and be raised in conditions that contribute to the overall quality of the protein you're consuming, starting with sourcing quality foods in this department can make a big impact on your overall health. You'll also see that because higher quality protein sources have been shown to also have higher quality nutrition, you may not need quite as much protein on your plate, and can keep the bulk of your meals veggie heavy which also helps the budget tremendously! Our goal for this post is to always empower through information that at the end of the day helps you do what's best for you and your family. Let's jump in to how to buy grass fed and pastured meats on a budget!
Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein
Today, we're going to focus on animal based proteins. My personal nutritional expertise and the research I've done has led me to believe that high-quality, responsibly-raised animal protein is the optimal form for use in the human body, as it's the most bioavailable source of protein we can utilize. Here are a few reasons for this:
- Animal-based proteins are complete proteins. A complete protein contains 9 essential amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids, but these 9 are the ones that our bodies can't make on their own. These amino acids are also key to many of our body's processes, including protein synthesis, tissue repair and nutrient absorption. While you can find these essential amino acids in plant-based sources of protein, there is no one source of plant protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids.
- Animal-based proteins have higher bioavailability. When we compare animal-based to plant-based protein sources, we're looking at something called the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (that's a mouthful!), and their anti-nutrient considerations as well. Plant based proteins possess anti-nutrients as a totally normal line of defense against “predators”, and while these anti-nutrients are essential for survival of the plant, they can cause things like gastrointestinal distress and upset in humans and other animals that consume them.
- Animal-based proteins have much more protein per gram. Lastly, it's also important to consider protein density. We need a much smaller amount of animal protein to get the same amount of grams of protein that we need compared to plant-based sources, which means you would need to eat a LOT of veggies to get the same amount of protein.
What this essentially all means is that when it comes to prioritizing your protein, choosing animal based sources has a lot of benefits! For the purposes of this post, we'll be looking at some of the more readily-available sources of animal based protein including eggs, dairy, beef, wild game, pork, chicken, and seafood, and how to navigate the myriad of terms surrounding these foods.
Grass-Fed vs. Organic vs. Conventional Meat: What these Labels Really Mean
Cut to the grocery store – you're there, pushing your cart, and you're in the meat aisle surrounded by options like grass-fed, grass-fed/grass-finished, organic, choice, natural, and the list goes on and on. You're probably feeling overwhelmed wondering how to navigate all of these choices, so we're going to break down what these terms really mean. Also, keep in mind what we term “conventional” meats, won't necessarily be labeled as such, so it will be a little work to figure out what we're looking at when prioritizing your protein!
First up, and one that's potentially the most popular and buzz worthy term you'll see out there is grass-fed. If you REALLY want to deep dive into what grass-fed means, you can listen to one of the podcast episodes we've done recently that really digs into this term and how it's used. Sadly, this term is actually really unregulated, so fully understanding what you're getting as the consumer when you're purchasing grass-fed products is important! Grass-fed doesn't mean organic, and essentially the term really means that at some point in their lives, the animal was allowed to eat grass. A common practice is to allow cows to roam for a short period of time, and then to finish them off (or fatten them up) with grains. 100% grass-fed is a gold standard term that you'll want to keep your eyes out for. You can visit THIS post to learn more about the term grass-fed and how it can help in learning how to buy grass fed and pastured meats on a budget!
Grass-Fed & Grass- Finished
Grass-fed and grass-finished meats are the ultimate option when it comes to the beef options that you'll see in the marketplace. It essentially means that the cows are 100% grass-fed, and ate nothing but grass their entire lives! Happy happy cows, with incredibly nutrient dense meats.
Conventional meats, while they won't be labeled as such, are generally meats that lack the above labels, or utilize other seemingly unregulated terms to portray the appearance of a “cleaner” choice of meat. Conventional typically means that the animal was raised under conditions that may include the use of CAFOs, or concentrated animal-feeding operations. Most of the time they are fed a standard diet that includes corn, soy, and other grain-based feeds that yield rapid fattening, and can create an environment of illness within the group. Because of the potential for illness in these kinds of feeding operations, antibiotics are often very necessary in general. This is almost a necessity in these conditions because of the need for a high yield. To ensure a high yield, and a solvent business, the injection of hormones like estrogen, and testosterone may also be used to increase growth at a more rapid rate. You might also find that because these animals grow so quickly on this cocktail of grain-based feed, antibiotics, and hormones, the meats also tend to have less nutrients than their grass-fed/finished counterparts. Trying to avoid most conventionally raised meats when you can is a high impact step when it comes to buying grass fed and pastured meats on a budget.
The last term we’re going to cover, is organic. Essentially, what this term means is that the animal in question was fed organic feed – which is great, but it's also noteworthy that the diet could be 100% grain based. Organic cows also must not be given antibiotics or growth enhancing hormones, and farmers must supply outside access for their cows, and document that no pesticides or fertilizers were used on their farm or land for the past 3 years. In terms of budget friendly terms to look for, organic is a great one to look for if you can't do fully grass-fed/grass-finished meats, and a great first step to move towards when learning how to buy grass fed and pastured meats on a budget.
Wild Caught vs. Farm-Raised Fish
These terms are utilized mostly in regards to seafood options. What I've learned over time is that you CAN find farm-raised seafood that is a decent option when we're considering both quality AND sustainability. While wild-caught, in general, is the preferred seafood choice to look for, the factor that we can't always account for is that we don't always know the conditions that the wild seafood was caught in. A great resource to navigate whether to go wild or farm-raised, would be the Seafood Watch (both an app and a website) which is run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With this app, you can see what the best seafood choices are based on where you are in the country at that point in time – so you just may find out that farmed salmon from a certain coastline is a really good, affordable choice at that point in time.
When it comes to seafood, I really encourage you go to consider canned seafood, as it's generally much less expensive than fresh. Look for canned seafood that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, which will be identified by a small MSC blue checkmark on the product. You can find more info on this topic here. When it comes to non-canned options, prioritize wild and/or line caught options (preferably with the MSC check mark meaning it's a sustainable choice), look for as fresh as possible or flash frozen options, or use the Seafood Watch app to determine a good farm-raised choice.
Prioritizing Proteins to get the Best Bang for Your Budget
This is where it can get a little tricky because every person and family is going to have to choose what works for them in terms of access, budget, and dietary needs. We can make some general recommendations, but your goal should be to take all of this information and weigh it against what is feasible for YOU! This section will focus on prioritizing your protein when purchasing it for at-home meals, mostly because my prerogative is that when eating out, you do the best you can with what you get and don't worry too much about the impact of an occasional meal out.
In a perfect world, we want to look for grass-fed AND grass-finished animals and dairy. We'd also want to prioritize pasture-raised poultry, pork, and eggs. Next in line in terms of quality would be grass-fed, organic, and grain-finished meats. Following those options, we'd be looking for organic and soy-free products. Last on our list in terms of quality would be proteins from conventional sources.
A few things to consider here – first, if you are going to grab conventional beef, I encourage you to grab a leaner cut of meat when possible. Fattier tissues in red meat can really hold onto and store a lot of those things that we want to avoid in conventional animal proteins – like hormones, antibiotic residue, and any of the other inflammatory properties that might have found their way into the meat. You'll also want to know that conventionally raised poultry can be one of the most concerning proteins to ingest when it comes to how they're raised, and the additives that you could potentially be consuming when you're choosing conventional poultry. This means, if I were going to consume poultry products I would always look to find pasture-raised, antiobiotic and hormone free options when possible, or potentially avoid consuming them as the alternative.
Budget Highlight: Eggs
Eggs are a GREAT source of budget-friendly protein as well, and we typically like to look for pastured, organic and soy-free eggs whenever possible. They are such a cost-effective way of getting high quality protein on your plate if you look at cost per pound. Let’s say you're comparing grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, and wild seafood to pastured eggs – pastured eggs will almost always win in terms of quality of protein combined with cost. I know that when you're standing in the egg aisle, and you're looking at the cartons, you're probably feeling overwhelmed – it feels three times more expensive to buy the pastured eggs than it does to buy the conventional eggs. There is a HUGE difference in the equality for $3-4 dollars extra, and eggs tend to go a long way in breakfasts, but also lunch and dinner as well! I absolutely love Vital Farms pastured eggs, and you can often times find them on sale at your local grocer – so stock up! So if you have to pick one protein to upgrade at this point in time for your family, my stance is I would upgrade the eggs first. If supermarket pastured eggs are too expensive, or if you really just want to double down and make sure you're getting the good stuff, go to your local farmer’s market. Don’t be shy about beefing your diet up with eggs. They're the cheapest healthy protein option that you can put on your plate!
Quick Resources for Quality Proteins
Again, in a perfect world, when thinking about how to buy grass fed and pastured meats on a budget, we'd be looking to source as locally and as high quality as possible. For a lot of us, this means trips to the farmer's markets or local farms to chat with someone who can answer all of your questions about the conditions your animals were raised in. For many people this might not be feasible for a variety of reasons, so let's talk about some other options you might want to consider!
Meat shares can be a really great option for a wide variety of larger animals such as cows, pigs, wild game etc. With a meat share, you can typically purchase a whole, half, quarter or other designated size of the animal that is then divided into select cuts or types of meat. It's usually priced per pound, and then frozen and delivered or picked up at your convenience. This can be very budget-friendly when you're looking at price per pound of high-quality meat with a low carbon footprint. You can visit www.eatwild.com to help find a source for shares local to you! Now remember, not all cow shares are made the same. Not all of them are going to have grass-fed, grass-finished beef, so make sure you do some research. Get to know the rancher, what they're feeding their stock, and then deciding from there if this is an option that works for your family. A few pro-tips on making a share work for you – you'll want to make sure you have plenty of freezer space (we have a few deep freezers in our house), and/or you can consider splitting the cost and the meat with friends and family!
Meat Delivery Services
After cow shares, which would be the most budget-friendly option, I would start to look at meat delivery services as a way to get a variety of affordable meats during the prioritizing your protein process. Our personal favorite for a wide variety of cuts (beef, pork, and chicken), and the ability to personalize your own monthly order is Butcher Box. I love that I trust the source, I love the cuts, and I love that they are sometimes varied, which forces me to experiment in the kitchen! They’re commitment to quality (100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef, heritage breed pork, and free range organic chicken) is something I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. I also adore that it's a little bit more of a nose-to-tail kind of operation, and that makes me feel really good about supporting them!
Pride of Bristol Bay
We eat A LOT of salmon. For salmon needs, I absolutely adore Pride of Bristol Bay as a way to get bulk frozen salmon directly from the source. The salmon is a beautiful, deep and rich color, that has a flavor and a texture like butter! We buy the large filets, and stock up so that we can pull one from the freezer every week to have on hand for a quick and easy dinner.
Five Mary's Farms
I love to source some of our specialty meats (like lamb) from Five Mary’s Farms (we have a whole podcast episode where we chat all about their story!). This family is just the loveliest, and they’re take such great care and thought into how they’re ranching, not to mention following them on Instagram is one of my favorite things!
Another option for bulk delivery of high quality chicken is Primal Pastures. They do a fabulous job raising really healthy, happy birds, and if you do plan to consume a lot of chicken, sourcing in bulk from a chicken expert like them would be smart!
US Wellness Meats
For organ meats, I love to utilize US Wellness Meats! They have really budget-friendly, grass-fed liverwurst and braunschweiger, as well as organic chicken livers, and high quality soup bones for bone broth! When you're deep in the midst of prioritizing your protein, you'll want to bump up switching to high quality offal meats (heart, liver, kidney, etc.) as a priority if you plan to consume these meats regularly!
While the options at your local grocery or large chain membership stores are going to vary wildly by region, access, and demand, it’s been really great to see everyone from our local chains (H-E-B down here in Texas) to stores like Costco really making an effort to have options for buying grass fed and pastured meats on a budget. As a rule, you’re going to really need to be able to read labels, know what you’re buying, and maybe even do a little digging, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see products like Jones Dairy Farm breakfast meats (a higher quality convenience food) and well-priced grass-fed beef in our local Costco! I love that you can buy so many of these options in bulk for an affordable price more and more often.
I hope that this post has outlined a no-pressure, shame free direction for how to buy grass fed and pastured meats on a budget. The real thing to note here is that there is no RIGHT way to attempt this task, only what works for you and your family and the needs that exist within your little unit! Budget, availability, amount of meat you consume, and the nutritional needs of your family are going to vary greatly, so I hope that you use this guide as a resource to help you prioritize your needs. Always, our mission is to empower you with information so that you can feel good about the choices you make, and prioritizing your protein is just one of the many steps you can take towards a well balanced, healthy lifestyle!