3 Simple Ways to Stretch Your Meat Budget

posted by Andrea | 11/19/2018

I’m sure you’ve heard the concept of “Meatless Mondays” as a clever way of encouraging people to eat vegetarian on Mondays — partially to improve their health, but also as a very simple way to lower grocery costs, as meat is often more expensive than other foods.

Well, my family isn’t big on meatless meals, but I do have 3 really simple tricks to stretch our meat AND add a little more protein and fiber into our diets!

I’ve been using these tricks for years and years and my family has never complained (well, rarely ever!)

1.  Beans

Adding any type of beans (black beans, refried beans, garbanzo beans, etc.) is probably one of the simplest, easiest, and most straight-forward ways to stretch a pound of meat and add a little protein and fiber to your meal.

They are very frugal, super convenient (just open the can), and they don’t have an overly-strong taste so they usually tend to absorb the flavors from the rest of the foods they are cooked with.

Of course, the texture is a little different than meat — so picky eaters could revolt and refuse to eat them. If this is a concern for you, I’d start by adding a small amount of refried beans to your ground beef or turkey. Mix it in well and see if anyone notices. If not, add more the next time. Then try black beans and corn added in together (if your kids like corn) as colorful additions to the meal. They might be more focused on the yellow corn than the black beans (fingers crossed!)

Very recently, I started experimenting with soaking and cooking my own dried beans — which is even cheaper than buying canned beans, with significantly less sodium.

It took me a few tries to figure out the best way for me to do this, but this is what I do:

  • Soak one pound of dried beans in water overnight (I fill up the bowl of my slow cooker — but I do NOT turn the slow cooker on)
  • The next morning, drain and rinse the beans (pick out any stones), put them back in the slow cooker with 8 c. water.
  • Simmer beans on low for 6-8 hours (you may add salt, onions, garlic, or other seasonings if you’d like)
  • Drain and rinse again
  • Divide into food storage bags or containers for the freezer (I freeze 1 and 3/4th cup portions as that’s about how many beans come in a 15 oz. can)
  • Lay bags of beans flat and freeze… or refrigerate and use within 2-3 days

I certainly do NOT do this every time we eat beans, but since I often only use a half can for different recipes, it’s nice to be able to dump half a bag of frozen beans into a recipe and put the rest back in the freezer.

Here’s how I use beans to stretch meat in many of my meals: 

Refried beans + cheese and a little ground beef or shredded chicken for quesadillas for the kids.

Black beans + peppers and onions + chopped steak for fajitas.

Black beans + refried beans + ground beef or turkey for tacos, quesadillas, or enchiladas.

Garbanzo beans + refried beans + grilled or shredded chicken for tacos, quesadillas, or enchiladas.

Cannellini beans + veggies + ground beef or turkey in all sorts of soups.

Kidney beans + great northern beans + ground beef or turkey in chili.

Black beans and garbanzo beans on a variety of salads (often in place of meat or in addition to a small amount of grilled chicken).

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2. Lentils

If you’re anything like me, you might think that lentils sound “too healthy” or “too complicated”. That’s what I thought for years — but then I actually read the cooking instructions and realized it only takes 15 -20 minutes to boil up a full pound of lentils (roughly 8 cups cooked) and they are SO frugal!

Like beans, lentils tend to absorb the flavor of the foods they are cooked with… but unlike beans, they almost blend in seamlessly with ground meat as they are a very similar color.

Once you add any additional ingredients, spices, seasonings, sauces, cheeses, etc. it’s almost impossible to see the difference in various casseroles, soups, and stews.

Here’s how I cook lentils: 

  • Rinse 1 pound of lentils under cold water (pick out any stones or weird-looking things)
  • Put lentils in a large pot with 8 c. of water
  • Bring to a boil and let simmer for 15 minutes
  • Drain, rinse again, and divide into smaller bags or containers for the freezer (I freeze mine in 2-cup portions)

I always keep a few bags of frozen lentils in the freezer and add a few handfuls to so many foods — taco meat, chicken casseroles, almost any type of soup, tatertot casserole, even breakfast burritos!

Lentils are SO cheap, and have SO much fiber — it’s an easy swap my family never notices!

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3. Mushrooms

Mushrooms aren’t necessarily as frugal as beans or lentils (especially if you buy quality fresh mushrooms) but they often go on sale for much cheaper than meat, they pack a lot of nutrients, and, when chopped up into bite-side pieces, they REALLY do resemble the look and feel of ground meat.

My kids don’t even realize how many mushrooms they eat on a weekly basis!

For many years, I was intimidated by the idea of using fresh  mushrooms, but now, I buy 3 or 4 containers of fresh mushrooms every week and they never go to waste because I’m always finding new ways to cook and eat them! As with the beans, I always keep a few cans of mushrooms in the pantry in case we run out of fresh, but our preference is now fresh mushrooms.

I add them to soups, salads, quiche, pasta dishes, tacos, burgers (with balsamic onions), meatloaf, and more.

We often sauté the mushrooms and pile them on top of steaks, roasts, briskets, pork chops, sausages, etc. — seriously, it’s SO tasty, and helps to stretch those pricier cuts of meat.

Other times (when I’m trying to hide them), I mince the mushrooms super small and NO ONE ever knows the difference!

Two tips for storing fresh mushrooms: 

  1. Don’t wash them until you are ready to use them.
  2. Store them in a brown paper bag (in your fridge) to keep them fresh longer.

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A Time-Saving Freezer Tip:

One of my best and simplest time-saving (or maybe dinner-saving) tips is to ALWAYS keep several smaller bags of ground beef, ground turkey, shredded chicken, ground sausage, lentils, beans, rice, etc. in the freezer for quick and easy meal prep.

They defrost SO much faster in flat bags, plus, they stack really nicely too!

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If you’re looking for a simple, frugal, healthful way to stretch a variety of meat in any of your favorite recipes, I would highly encourage you to give one or more of these tricks a try (sometimes I use all 3 in one meal!)

Start out by adding a very small portion of beans, lentils, or mushrooms and see if anyone notices. If they do, just say it’s a new recipe you wanted to try and don’t highlight the actual names of the ingredient (kid’s generally don’t get excited about beans, lentils, or mushrooms)!

Continually look for new and different ways to sneak in a few of these frugal meat alternatives into your meal and enjoy your savings (calories, fat, cholesterol, and dollars!)

Instead of a Meatless Monday… you can have a “less-meat Monday” today!

What are your favorite ways to stretch meat?

Recipe links encouraged!!

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42 comments

  1. Anna

    11/27/2018

    Thanks for the ideas! Usually to stretch food they recommend to add rice or pasta and being diabetic I have to limit those each meal/day, etc.

    This is a new idea for me as I never use any of these ideas to stretch a meal.

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  2. Gaynor Williams

    11/20/2018

    Red kidney beans, as we call them in the UK – the purple beans used in chilli – contain a toxin which can cause severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. They need to be soaked for at least five hours and then BOILED FAST in fresh water for at least 10 minutes to lower the toxin content to a safe level. Do not use the water used to soak the beans, which will contain some of the leached-out toxin. Cooking red kidney beans in crock pots or slow cookers may not heat them enough to destroy the toxin.

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    Andrea Reply:

    huh… interesting information! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Ana

    11/20/2018

    I love your blog and other U.S blogs about food, frugal life, this and that. I live in Spain and it’s very surprising to me the fact that most of you don’t eat fresh fish on a regular basis.
    Here in my country the fish is very important but it’s way expensive than the meat or chicken.

    We usually have fresh fish 3-4 veces per week, cod, salmon, hake, red tuna, fresh anchovies, sole, sea bass, you name it. It’s plenty of good nutritions items and our Ministre of Health encourage us to consume it at least 2/3 a week. I buy my fish every other week and I freeze them in portions.

    Sometimes I go for the cheap, and bake a good chapata bread (lightly toats with a sprinkle of olive oil) and cut it into slices. In a bowl I combine tuna caned with my own tomato sauce and its delicious.
    You can also ask for the fish-bone to the fisherman and make a delicious and inexpensive fish broth; you can use for a delicious soup o for a paella.
    I like to hear from you about fish dishes, please. All ideas for streetch the fish are welcome.

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    Andrea Reply:

    ah yes — we don’t eat all that much fish… and when we do, I’m certain it’s not great quality (I almost always buy frozen because it’s easier and cheaper). I’m certain you are correct about the health benefits, but it’s just not as much a part of our culture I suppose!
    So alas, I don’t have any great tips for stretching fish — maybe another reader will chime in though??

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    Jenny Reply:

    Ana, I love to hear about life in other countries- like Spain! It’s so cool to think that we have so many similarities, and the differences are interesting, too. Your English is very good.

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    Andrea Reply:

    my thoughts exactly!

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  4. calliope

    11/20/2018

    In my family, we eat meat once or twice max per week. Usually red meat on Sunday and chicken some day of the week. So a typical week would be:
    Mon: pasta (with marinara sauce, bolonaise or tuna sauce)
    Tue: eggs (omelete, soufle, fried eggs etc)
    Wed: legumes (giant beens in the oven, chick peas soup, lentil soup)
    Thu: vegetables (ex stuffed tomatoes, caserole green beens, eggplants etc)
    Fri: something chicken based
    Sat: anything with fish
    Sun: anything with red meat
    If we have leftovers we eat them as a light dinner because our main meal is lunch and not dinner like in your family.
    My husband and son are really dificult to feed as they don’t like vegetables but somehow we make it! I usually have some rice or pasta salad on the side so as to serve less meat. Also when I make burgers I mix the ground beef with lots of bread to stretch it out.

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    Andrea Reply:

    That must be challenging for your husband and son if they don’t like veggies. I would say meat is usually the main part of most of our meals here in the US. It’s so interesting how different cultures have different views and preferences on food! Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Becky

    11/19/2018

    After the beans are cooked, I freeze them on a cookie sheet, then put them in the freezer in a glass jar, and scoop out whatever I need when I use them in a recipe. Feels easier to me and contributes to my goal of using fewer disposable storage containers and less plastic.

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    Jenny Reply:

    That’s a great idea! Sort of like I do with berries.

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  6. Sarah

    11/19/2018

    I usually add a handful of porridge oats too. Healthy and like minced up mushrooms they disappear into minced dishes.

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    Andrea Reply:

    are porridge oats the same thing as what you’d make oatmeal with? Or are they something special?
    if so, they are REALLY frugal and would probably work well in many dishes!

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    Sarah Shipman-Moore Reply:

    Yes, sorry, porridge in the UK usually just refers to a hot breakfast dish made with oats.
    I just googled and found that porridge can refer to many different types of dish! I use rolled oats rather than jumbo oats as my kids prefer it a bit smoother but I think it’s all good for lowering cholesterol and costs 🙂

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    Andrea Reply:

    good to know. Thanks!

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  7. Debbie

    11/19/2018

    What a great idea of cooking the lentils and freezing them. I need to start adding some of these to my taco meat. I just never thought about that. Would it work for spaghetti meat sauce too?

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, very good for spaghetti sauce! Someone else just commented that they use red lentils for spaghetti sauce so they are “camouflaged” a bit better. I’m going to try this next time!

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  8. Tamaira

    11/19/2018

    I also add beans to some meat dishes. The other way is to add wheat bran to ground beef. Start with a few tablespoons per pound 🙂

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    Andrea Reply:

    so with the wheat bran… that doesn’t really “stretch” the meat in terms of making the meal feed more people right? It would just add more nutrients and fiber? Unless it expands a ton, I can’t imagine adding a few tablespoons would be able to reduce the amount of meat I’d have to make to fill my family!

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    Tamaira Reply:

    Yes that is true it isn’t a huge meat saver but I was able to cut down from 1 lb to 3/4 lb in some recipes by slowly increasing the bran 🙂 I figured it might give people another idea 🙂

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    Andrea Reply:

    no, I’m glad you shared — I just wanted to make sure I was picturing the situation correctly and not adding several cups of bran to ground beef (which I assume would not be as appetizing!)
    Thanks!

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  9. Margaret

    11/19/2018

    I haven’t eaten meat since 1976. I try to curb my missionary zeal, but I’m always happy to see posts like this, since both the personal health benefits and the environmental impact of “less meat” are significant. Thanks, Andrea.

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    Andrea Reply:

    wow — that’s a long time without meat! obviously you don’t miss it!
    I’m not sure my family would be ready to go meatless, but I do like subbing in a few “less meaty” recipes each week. Tomorrow, I’m making homemade tomato herb soup with salad and grilled cheese sandwiches — so it will be a vegetarian meal!
    Question, what is your “main dish” for Thanksgiving and other holidays? Do you just pile up the dish dishes and let others eat turkey?

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    Margaret Reply:

    I haven’t cooked a Thanksgiving dinner since I was living in Northern Ireland in the early 80’s, when I would round up the local Americans–but even then I told people that I would make everything else, but if they wanted turkey they’d need to bring their own. I will not handle meat, except the meat-based kibble I feed my dogs and cat (the price of having omnivores and carnivores as domestic companions).
    This Thanksgiving I’m having homemade vegetarian chili. It’s one of my favorite foods, so why not? If I accept an invitation to someone else’s house for a holiday I just eat sides; if I don’t think I can trust the person to tell me truthfully about the presence of meat-based stock or bacon in the salad–or lard in the piecrust– I decline the invitation. Some people think I won’t mind if I don’t know there’s meat in something–they’re wrong.
    At church fellowship meals or potlucks almost everyone posts a list of ingredients due to food allergies. That’s also very helpful for me.
    BTW, I’m not vegan; I do eat dairy and eggs. For myself, I only buy organic milk from pastured cows (not confined), and free-range eggs, but I’ll eat what you serve me. We all make compromises, right?

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  10. Diana

    11/19/2018

    Yes, legumes and mushrooms are a great way to stretch meat! I always do this with taco meat–one can black beans, one can pinto beans, and one pound ground beef. The texture still isn’t my preference, but with all the spices I definitely tolerate it just fine and it’s amazing how much farther a batch of taco meat will go.

    I have also done the mushroom trick–with ground pork and Asian spices for lettuce wraps, and in a meatball recipe I have called porcupines (mix the meat/mushrooms with rice and cook in a tomato/Worcestershire sauce mixture) and it is literally unnoticeable (coming from a recovering picky eater!).

    I don’t prefer regular lentils added to most things–I can taste and see them and don’t want them in non-lentilly foods 🙂 But I do have a great lentil chili that stretches a pound of ground beef really far and is delicious!

    Have you ever tried red lentils? After they are cooked, they smash up into a mush. They also have a more delicate flavor that is easier to add to things–I have put them in spaghetti sauce successfully and even sloppy joes (although that combo had to grow on me a little bit).

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    Andrea Reply:

    I have not tried red lentils — but you’re right, I should!

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  11. Bonnie'sMama

    11/19/2018

    Andrea, since you enjoy canning, you might like to try canning dried beans. They are very easy to can, more convenient to use than frozen, and less expensive than commercially canned beans. The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving tells how to do it with soaking and cooking.

    My friends and I use the simpler method of putting dry beans, spices and/or salt, and water in jars, then canning. It’s not the USDA-approved method, but it’s worked beautifully anyway. The Haphazard Homestead has a post about it, and there are other posts elsewhere.

    I do not like mushrooms at all, but I know they’re very nutritious. Maybe I’ll have to try chopping them very fine and hiding them in various dishes. I also have lentils sitting around which I almost never use, but I know they’re very nutritious and high in protein. This post has inspired me to find a way to use them.

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    Brenda Reply:

    I’m not familiar with the Haphazard Homestead method of canning beans, but all other methods require pressure canning. They aren’t acidic enough for water-bath canning. (But pressure canning is also very simple to do.)

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    Andrea Reply:

    Good to know — Thanks Brenda!

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    Andrea Reply:

    hmmm… I’ll have to look into this. Thanks!

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  12. Jamie

    11/19/2018

    I’ve just recently started doing this with our taco meat. I get away with only 1 lb gr beef and 1 can refried beans (or any other bean) for our family of 6. I have tried cooking (dried) beans several times and have not had consistent results. Excited to try your way in the crockpot. Thanks!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yup, that’s what we almost always do too. he kids love it and it’s cheaper and just as filling!

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    Jenny Reply:

    I, too, had trouble cooking dried beans so that they were tender and tasted good! Now, this way, it comes out perfect every time!

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    Andrea Reply:

    good to know!

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  13. Jess

    11/19/2018

    This is great! I have somewhat picky eaters, but I’m definitely going to try this and see if they notice.

    My biggest way I stretch my meat is to only stick to the cuts that I know I can cook well. If the meat leftovers aren’t great tasting, then we won’t eat them and they go to waste. I am terrible at any kind of pork or large beef cuts, so I just stick to ground meats and bone-in chicken cuts, as well as boneless skinless chicken thighs. Fortunately those are some of the cheapest things to buy!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, definitely! Good point about the wasted food that no one wants to eat. Thanks for sharing!

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    Mary Reply:

    Try a large roast in the crockpot. Brown first, throw it in the crockpot with a bit of beef broth or a bit of water simmered in the pan after browning. I season with a mix I make of salt, pepper, garlic and onion salt. Or some Lipton onion soup. Towards the end of cooking add carrots and potatoes. We get enough meals out of a nice roast, I think the cost per serving isn’t much different than hamburger.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, yes, yes… YUM!!

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  14. Crystal

    11/19/2018

    I started sautéing up a few packs worth of mushrooms at a time. (Usually sliced). Then, flash freezing them prior to putting into freezer bags. I can just grab a handful to toss into whatever I’m making & it’s even more convenient when I’m trying to get food prepped quickly. It doesn’t hurt that they are yummy too!

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    Andrea Reply:

    oh this is a good idea! Even though it only takes 5-7 minutes to sauté mushrooms, it would only take 1 minute to pull them from the freezer… and I assume the taste is much better than canned?

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    Jenny Reply:

    Whenever I freeze cooked mushrooms, they are terrible- rubbery and chewy and soggy all at the same time! Yuck!! This happens whether they are plain, seasoned, alone or in a soup or sauce or casserole. Helpful hints?

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    Andrea Reply:

    That’s what I was wondering about — I don’t like the canned mushrooms as much because of the rubbery feel… so I was wondering if frozen would be different. Maybe I’ll just need to try a small batch and see for myself!

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