Almost all books and articles you read about eating healthy on a low budget will tell you that protein foods cost the most money. This can be pretty discouraging when you're trying to come up with simple high-protein meals to eat before or after a workout.
Fortunately, those books and articles are only partly correct. They deem proteins the most costly part of a food budget because they look almost exclusively at meats. It's a protein-rich world, folks! It's time to pound some alternative protein sources.
The key to eating a high-protein diet on a low-protein budget is to get strategic. Skimp on the packaged protein foods like bars and shakes, and use proteins other than meats to stretch the meat you do use. Know what you're looking for when you go to the store, so you can do price comparisons and recognize a smokin' deal when you see one.
Once you've got the hang of targeted food shopping, it requires far less work than you might expect. Plus, you'll see the difference in your checking account right away.
It's Not All About Steaks And Chops
There are plenty high-quality protein sources that don't cost a lot of money. Your grandparents or other relatives who grew up during the Great Depression knew this; your baby boomer parents probably forgot it. If times are lean now, then you need to pick your staples wisely. Let's meet the new all-stars.
If you haven't already started eating quinoa, you should. Quinoa is actually a seed, but it's easy to use in place of grain-based foods like pasta, rice, and oatmeal. It still has a lot of carbs, about 62 g per half-cup. Yet that same half-cup is packed with 10 g of protein, far more than other carb sources.
Quinoa is also relatively cheap, given how hip it has become in recent years. You can buy a one-pound bag of organic quinoa at the grocery store for about $5, or less if you hit the bulk bin—which you should. That'll make about five half-cup servings. Five servings of organic steak or chicken would cost significantly more.
One of the great things about quinoa is that it can be used in both savory and sweet recipes. With a little sweetening or some fruit, it makes a great dessert or hot cereal. A handful of it can add protein and texture to a salad, and it's a perfect ingredient for healthy baking.
Greek yogurt is another food that should be in any high-protein diet. One cup delivers as much as 14 g of protein, which is twice what you'll find in other yogurts. Greek yogurt typically has much less sugar, but make sure to read the label to confirm. In general, fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt has a good deal of sugary syrup and is best avoided. Stick with vanilla, honey, or plain yogurt and add other ingredients on your own.
You've probably heard this before, but it's always worth repeating that eggs are the ultimate low-budget staple. One egg costs about 10 cents and has about 4-6 g of protein. If you're watching your fat and cholesterol, two egg whites have no fat or cholesterol and 7-10 g of protein.
If you can, find someone who raises chickens, and you might be able to get an even better-tasting egg for even cheaper.
Stretch The Meat You Eat
One way to eat meat protein on a budget is to use recipes that feature meat more as a flavor than as the star of the meal. Stir-fry, soups, and wraps all do this, and they're also all great ways to use any vegetables about to turn bad. Remember: Food tossed is money lost.
Another trick: Buy what's on sale and plan your meals around that, rather than planning a meal and then buying the ingredients at full price. If you've got space in your house or apartment, a small chest freezer can help you squeeze more than one meal out of a bulk buy. The freezer will pay for itself in no time, especially if you can find someone who is moving and needs to get rid of one for cheap.
While we're talking freezers, meat is the perfect item to buy big and freeze. For instance, boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be purchased at wholesale stores like Costco in packages of 8.5 pounds for about $25. This is a lot of lean protein that can be used in a variety of recipes and cooked ahead so your meals are ready and the temptation to eat out is eliminated. Even if you don't have a Costco membership, trust me, you know someone who does.
Lean ground turkey should also be on your menu somewhere. It is low in fat, high in protein, and can be purchased in bulk packages for $15 or less for 6 pounds of meat. I can't even begin to list all the ways you can use it, but one that springs to mind—no recipe necessary—is a lightning-fast batch of turkey tacos cooked up with onion and cumin, then topped with avocado.
Borrow From Somewhere Else In Your Budget
Do you have to drink an expensive coffee? Do you really need to buy your veggies cut, washed, and bagged, or can you prep them yourself to save money? How much more grocery money will you have if you skip eating out at lunchtime? Take a look at your food budget and see where you can redistribute the wealth.
The most important thing to remember is that if you can't afford much, what you buy needs to be as high-quality and as nutritious as possible. Scour the Internet for tricks to make healthy foods like vegetables last longer in the fridge. As for cheap food that's filling but lacks nutrition, you know it's a waste of money. So maybe the time has come draw the line.
This means more cooking for you, but I think you're up to the task. Here are some great-tasting recipes that cost little money, are easy to prepare in 30 minutes or less, and pack a nice dose of protein.
Chicken and Peppers with Brown Rice
This recipe gives you some of the flavors of your favorite takeout, but without all the fat, salt, and dough (both literal and metaphorical). This takes about 20 minutes to cook—less if you cook the rice ahead—and will cost a whopping $6 or so for two big servings.
Quinoa and Yogurt Parfait
This recipe is great for breakfast, but it also makes a nice snack or dessert. You can cook the quinoa the night before if you're having this for breakfast. Just reheat it in the microwave for about one minute before you put the parfait together.
The total cost for two servings is only about $3.50, and potentially significantly less if you buy the ingredients in bulk.
Open-Face Florentine Omelet Sandwich
Breakfast is an important meal. If you've been skipping it because you don't have time, try this recipe. It takes about five minutes to make and it will provide the energy you need to start the day.
This big breakfast cost about $1.50 to make and is great for lunch or a quick dinner too.
Chicken Hummus Wrap
This wrap is a great quick lunch that travels well, so you can take it to work or the gym. It's a versatile recipe; add any fresh vegetables you might have on hand to bulk it up and add more fiber.
The cost is only about $2.50, and equally important, it'll keep you out of the deli.
Peach Protein Smoothie
This smoothie harnesses the protein power of Greek yogurt to make a sweet snack or breakfast. It takes about a minute to make and it tastes as good as anything you'll get at a smoothie bar, for a lot less money. This can be made for about $2, or less if you find frozen peaches on sale.