hen it comes to a traditional diet, we save a hefty portion of our grocery budget for quality meat and dairy products. Truth is, these products just cost more! Unless you have land and the know-how to raise your own livestock, you’re going to shell out a pretty penny for these products. If you find yourself struggling with your budget, take a look at the following posts where we’ve shared our tips to lessen the financial burden that comes with these healthier choices:
- Tips for sourcing raw milk.
- How to cut costs and save money in a traditional kitchen.
- How to save money on dairy products.
While cruising through the meat department at the grocery store, staring at row after row of beef, one’s head can start to spin with the options. I used to just grab the package with the best price tag and call it a day. Now, my eyes are on the quality of the meat, not necessarily the price (although I nearly pass out seeing $9.99 for ONE POUND of grass-fed ground beef!). Anyone else relate? This brings up the question…
Is grass-fed beef really a better choice?
At nearly three times the cost of their conventional counterpart, I struggle with the unknowns about the health benefits of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef. I mean, I am trying to maintain a somewhat reasonable grocery budget! And if I can save a few bucks by buying conventional beef without the threat of harm to my family, I’m in!
Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed Beef
Both grass-fed and grain-fed cows start out the same. They both drink milk at birth, then free-range for grasses, shrubs and other plants for the first few months of life. Grass-fed/finished cows remain feeding on grass for the remainder of their lives, whereas factory farmed cows are moved to feed lots (called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs) between 3-12 months of age. Generally speaking, these feed lots are over-crowded and pretty abysmal. The unsanitary living quarters pose potential health risks to the cows, therefore the farmers routinely dole out antibiotics as a preventative measure against disease. Furthermore, these CAFOs make more money the more meat they push out, so to speed up the rate at which the cows grow and put on weight (and subsequently visit the butcher), they’re given hormones. In case you’re wondering, these antibiotics and hormones don’t magically disappear when the animal is slaughtered. Rather, they remain in the meat (or dairy) and are then consumed by us where they can do significant damage, especially to young, growing children. (Source)
Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
You’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat”? Well, you’re also what you eat, eats! The hormones and antibiotics given to feed-lot cows changes their nutritional makeup, especially when it comes to their fatty acid composition. Grass-fed and -finished beef has either similar, or slightly less saturated and monounsaturated fats and similar omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. But when it comes to omega-3s, grass-fed comes out on top containing up to five times as much omega-3. And grass-fed wins again with about twice as much CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) as grain-fed beef (which has been shown to reduce body fat, improve the immune system and prevent certain types of cancer). (Source)
Both grain and grass-fed beef is loaded with Vitamins B12, B3 and B6, as well as highly bioavailable minerals such as Iron, Selenium and Zinc. It also contains protein, creatine and carnosine, which are important for muscle and brain development and function. But grass-fed beef contains more Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus and Sodium than grain-fed. Grass-fed also takes the cake with Vitamins A and E. (Vitamin E is an antioxidant that sits in your cell membranes and protects them from oxidation.) (Source)
You may be surprised to find out that the “grass-fed beef” you’re buying at the grocery store may not quite be the “grass-fed beef” you thought. Some, but not all, grass-fed beef is actually grain-finished. It’s a common practice to grain-finish beef as this allows the cows to put on a bit more fat before visiting the butcher. And we all know, “fat is flavor”. But how does this grain-finishing change the quality of the grass-fed meat?
Even as little as 30 days on grain at the end of the life of a beef cow can completely alter the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. It almost completely eliminates the significant health benefits listed above of grass-fed beef. To be sure your grass-fed beef is also grass-finished, check the label…if it doesn’t mention “grass-finished” it’s worth a call to the company to find out. Marketers will play tricks all day long with wording on packages. As long as their consumers feel good about the product, they’ll buy! It’s also why the words “free-range” on a carton of eggs doesn’t actually mean the chickens “free-range” at all! (But that’s a post for another day.)
How to Make Grass-Fed Meat More Affordable
So when it comes to grass-fed vs. grain-fed we’re left with two options:
- Sell a kidney to fund your grass-fed beef supply.
- Buy sub-par, grain-fed beef.
Not so fast…before you go selling organs on the black market, try these money-saving tips:
- Buy a whole cow – Find a farmer nearby (or not so nearby if the savings are worth the drive) and see about buying a whole, half or even quarter of a cow. If this is too cost prohibitive, go in with a couple families and buy a quarter of a cow, then split it. Our family of six bought half a cow two years ago and it lasted us about 14 months. Our average price per pound rounded out to $3.50 (and that’s even for the steaks ya’ll!). If you have the freezer space, this is definitely your best money saving option.
- Raise your own cow – OK, so this isn’t feasible for most of us…but it may be possible to make nice with a farmer who raises cattle and buy a calf that they’ll raise on their farm for a fee. It can end up being mutually beneficial for both you and the farmer. Some farmers even butcher and package their own meat, saving a butchering fee which can often be a hundred dollars or more. It may be a long-shot, but definitely worth the mention here.
- Buy from a small farm or a friend – Do you know anyone with a few acres of land? Here in the Idaho Panhandle, farmland is plentiful, and the livestock tax breaks for raising three or four cows significant. We know many people who like to take advantage of these tax breaks by raising three or four cows, keeping one for themselves and selling the others. More times than not, these people aren’t looking to make bank, but simply recoup their expenses from raising the animals, so you might get a better deal than buying from a larger farm.
- Buy in bulk – I’m not talking about a whole cow here. Many meat departments will offer discounts on larger purchases of meat. We have a local butcher’s shop that discounts purchases of 20 lbs. or more.
- Buy from Butcher Box – Butcher Box is a customizable monthly meat subscription that delivers 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef, free-range organic or pastured poultry and quality heritage pork delivered directly to your doorstep. Their prices are extremely comparable to organic cuts of meat you might find at your local grocery store, but the taste is far superior. If we didn’t have farms aplenty near us, Butcher Box would definitely be our next choice.
- Buy off-cuts of meat – Fancy cuts like T-bone, Ribeye and New York Strips will demolish your budget in a flash. Stick with the less-expensive cuts like stew-beef and certain roasts. These meats do well with cooking “low and slow” to tenderize the meat and impart great flavor.
- Get “gutsy” and try offal – (<– see what I did there?) Seriously ya’ll, if you’ve never had offal you’re missing out on some of the tastiest cuts of meat. If you have no idea what I’m talking about then read this post. And if you’re still not convinced check out this Tacos de Lengua recipe. Most people don’t realize how delicious and nutritious offal is, and when they take their cow to the butcher to be processed, the offal is left behind. Our local butcher gives away this forsaken offal for free! Use caution though, unless you know the cow the offal is coming from, you may not be getting grass-fed beef. Be friendly with your local butcher, they may put you on a list and give you a call when the product you’re looking for comes in. It never hurts to ask!
Join in the conversation
Is there anything I’ve missed in this post? Have any tricks to on how to ease the cost of buying grass-fed beef? Please, share your tips with us in the comments! We all like saving money, tell us how you save!