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How to Stretch Your Meat and Keep That Protein Source Going

Back when my husband and I went from being “Double Income No Kids” DINKs to suddenly single income, one kid, practically in-the-red, desperate young people, I used to stretch our meat to save on the budget.

As we transitioned into eating more sustainably grown, traditional foods, the price of meat doubled because organic, grass-fed beef and pastured poultry are just more expensive. Then I made the meat last longer again to protect the budget so that I could afford the better meat.

bbq ribs over rice

Now, thanks to COVID-19, there isn’t a speck of ground beef to be found in most stores, and I’m pretty much done shopping for a while anyway.

RELATED: Here’s my whole list of resources for cooking from home during quarantine

I’ve stocked my freezer, my pantry shelves, and my five-gallon buckets of dry beans in the basement. I’m ready to hunker down and see this through, which means I will be implementing my meat-sparing techniques once again.

In case you are in a similar situation — which you probably are unless you’ve been hiding under a rock — I hope these simple strategies are helpful.

10 Tips to Stretch Your Meat Supply

1. Ditch the Meat-Centric Meals

First, clearly, you’ll have to ditch the meat-centric meals. My apologies to those who fall back on grilling multiple times a week.

My father, an old Polish man from a family of nine kids, thinks a meal just isn’t complete unless it has meat, potatoes, and bread. The meat is the star, the centerpiece, the shining crown of the meal. And forget those fancy three-ounce, deck-of-card-sized portions. Each person is going to consume at least a quarter to a half-pound of meat.

bbq, potatoes, corn and tomatoes

That’s not going to fly if you’re trying to make your freezer last. You need to think more like soups, casseroles, one-pot meals, or stir-fries. If you have steaks that you want to use, you can stretch one steak to feed the whole family if you make it into a stir-fry or serve as part of breakfast, all chopped up rather than one big slab on each person’s plate.

RELATED: Here are some of our favorite meatless recipes if you want to cut out meat entirely some meals.

If you have a roast or something that just lends itself to being the centerpiece, the next tip is for you.

2. Serve More Side Dishes

For those cuts of meat that don’t go well in a casserole or a soup, make sure there are more sides, and let the family know that they need to take seconds of all the sides if they’re going to have seconds of the meat.

Food on a plate

This might look like a roast in the Instant Pot with cubed sweet potatoes in the oven, steamed cauliflower on the stovetop, and seasoned rice and beans in another pot (or, if you’re lucky, your second Instant Pot).

If you’re not counting carbs, add a roll or some toast to the side.

3. Creative Leftovers to Stretch Your Meat

This is a companion tip to number two because if you do have a meat-centric meal, like a roast, you can make the leftovers stretch by serving them in a different way.

Put shredded beef on a sandwich with some additional toppings.

Cut up just two cups of that leftover roast and make a lovely vegetable-laden soup with noodles or rice.

bowl of soup

Add the meat to an egg frittata, if you are lucky enough to have eggs.

Mix it up with a bag of frozen veggies and some sauce for a stir-fry over rice.

Beef stroganoff with egg noodles is another great way to use leftover beef roast. And you can stretch that by adding canned mushrooms, even in a one-to-one ratio with the meat so that you double its power.

4. Use a Half-Pound of Ground Meat

This tip only works if you’re already following number one, “don’t have meat-centric meals.” You can’t use a half-pound of ground beef if you’re serving hamburgers unless you want the family to mutiny!

But in dishes like chili, spaghetti squash and sauce, soups, and casseroles, you can often get away with cutting a pound of ground beef in the ingredients down to a half-pound. I used to do this with about three-quarters-pound meat at first, and that’s a great place to start if you’re nervous the family may still mutiny.

In most recipes, I was able to get that down to a half-pound. Sometimes I will fill in the gaps by adding additional ingredients like mushrooms, lentils, other legumes, or a whole cooked grain, but other times it’s not even really necessary.

cheesburger soup

For example, if I make a hearty chili or a lentil soup, I almost always double the recipe without doubling the meat. I do the same in meat and potato casseroles with a creamy sauce and with pork sausage in other homemade soups or egg dishes.

Most of the time no one is any the wiser. (I even made our favorite sausage lentil soup last week completely meatless and just used sausage seasonings instead of the meat! Uncanny how “normal” it tasted.)

5. Make Nachos Instead of Tacos (& Other Creative Remakes)

I feel like I’m dissing my poor dad in this post, but he’s a meat lover, so stories about him fit well as we try to stretch that meat!

My dad would literally put a half-pound of meat on one taco if we let him, so my mom has figured out the genius solution: nachos instead of tacos!

Basically, if you can take a meat-centric meal and make it something more in the chef’s control, you win.

My mom will lightly sprinkle taco meat over chips, add plentiful cheese and a generous portion of homemade refried beans, and voila! My dad gets a very reasonable portion of meat, and she has leftovers.

refried beans

So what else can we apply the “nacho remake” rule to? A few ideas:

  • Put chuck roast in a casserole or on sliders instead of letting people serve large portions next to their baked potato.
  • Instead of grilling chicken breasts alone, cut them up and make skewers.
  • Serve Instant Pot BBQ as sliders or in small tortillas, pre-filled, with lots of toppings.
  • Consider any leftover remakes you can apply too, like meat in casseroles or soups or pasta salads…

Bonus tip: To stretch the cheese, try making a homemade cheese sauce starting with a roux. If you’re low on milk, use canned coconut milk thinned with water, and a cup of shredded cheese suddenly becomes 3-4 cups of cheese sauce!

6. Fill In with Legumes to Stretch Your Meat

I know what you’re thinking. What about tacos? My family will still want to have tacos.

It’s actually pretty easy to bulk up taco meat with other foods. Lentils are my favorite choice. I would start out with a 2:1 ratio, in other words, two pounds of ground beef or turkey with about two to three cups cooked green lentils. Once the seasoning, water and thickener are all in there, and especially if the taco meat is wrapped up in tortillas already, it’s pretty hard to ascertain the difference.

You can work up to a 1:1 ratio. I usually just imagine the mass of a pound of ground beef, which is about two to three cups, and match that with lentils or black, kidney or pinto beans.

lentil chili

I recommend cooking more lentils than you need and freezing the excess in two to three cup portions. That will make taco night all the easier!

You can use other lower-carb foods to bulk up your taco meat as well such as finely chopped mushrooms, shredded zucchini, and many other vegetables. Some will add more flavor than others, so experiment with caution if your family does not have extremely adventurous palates.

7. Buy Chicken on the Bone

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts were being rationed to two packages per customer the last time I was in a store, so I’m guessing they are in pretty short supply like the ground beef.

Perhaps you are one of those people who visited a store and wasn’t able to get the chicken you wanted, so you bought bone-in chicken for the first time. What are you going to do with this stuff?

Never fear! You actually got the best buy out there.

Dark Beer Marinade Recipe with Chicken

First, bone-in chicken is going to be juicier and more succulent than any boneless, skinless chicken breast. But also you can make some magic with those bones.

If you have a whole chicken or split chicken breasts, I would not recommend serving them as a meat-centric meal, for all the reasons we’ve listed above. Roast the chicken in your oven or cook it in an Instant Pot or slow cooker and then pick off all the meat.

You’ll generally get 8 to 12 cups of shredded chicken, sometimes more, obviously depending on the size of the bird, which you can now use to apply the other rules we’ve talked about so far. You only need two cups of chicken for a huge pot of chicken noodle soup and generally two to four cups of shredded chicken for most casseroles.

You can even make tacos out of that shredded chicken — but again, I highly recommend either cutting the meat with another food like legumes or serving refried beans as part of the meal. Strongly encourage your family to go halfsies when they fill their taco shell, or just do the serving for them (my mom’s other strategy on taco night for my meat-loving father to prevent him from eating one-pound tacos!).

Paleovalley Meat Sticks

It can be hard to find healthy snacks that you can take with you on the go. When I want the convenience of a jerky stick, but want a healthy, protein packed snack option, I grab Paleovalley meat sticks. Paleovalley ingredients have these high standards that you can feel good about:

100% grass fed beef sticks, pasture raised beef sticks
  • 100% Grass Fed Beef & 100% Pasture Raised Turkey
  • Never given antibiotics or hormones
  • Gluten free, soy free, dairy free
  • 0 grams of sugar*
  • Contains no artificial nitrates or nitrites
  • Non-GMO
  • Naturally fermented and contain gut-friendly probiotics!

*With the exception of Teriyaki, which contains 2 grams of sugar from Organic Honey.

These beef sticks and turkey sticks taste delicious! My favorite is the Jalapeño but my kids love Summer Sausage.

Use this link to get 15% off your order at Paleovalley. Read my Paleovalley Review to learn more!

8. Make Real Bone Broth

This is where the magic of bone-in meat comes in. Did you know that there is all sorts of nutrition packed into those bones that you usually throw away?

Here’s what you’re going to do with the bones (even the ones that people might have nibbled on at the table):

  • Put them in your biggest pot or Instant Pot.
  • Add some skins from the outside of onions, ends from your carrots and celery, and even the little paper peely things from garlic. Yes, that’s right — all things you usually throw away. You’re about to make something out of nothing here folks!
  • Cover all that mess with at least a gallon or two of clean water.
  • Bring to nearly a boil, and then simmer for 4 to 24 hours or cook in the Instant Pot for 70 to 90 minutes. You can also use a slow cooker 8 to 24 hours.
  • When finished, you’ll have a lovely golden broth that’s packed with gelatin (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!), a compound supportive of hair, skin, nail, and joint health.

There’s some evidence that you may get some additional minerals in that broth and that eating a small amount of meat with broth may increase its protein power for your body, yet another way to stretch the meat.

Here’s my complete guide to bone broth.

But wait, there’s more!

9. Reuse Bones for Another Batch of Broth

My favorite budget hack for making chicken bone broth, which is already obviously extremely inexpensive, literally pennies to make, is that you can reuse those bones up to three times!

Bone broth

Throw away the vegetables as their nutrition is completely spent, but start the whole process over again with the bones. The second batch of broth is still great for soup, and the third is a bit thinner but can be used for creamy soups or to cook rice and really bulk up the nutrition of your whole grains.

Plus, no matter how well you think you picked your roasted chicken, you’ll probably get another cup or two of perfectly edible meat once you cook the heck out of it using this system. Always be on the lookout for food to eat when we are in a situation like this!

10. Save the Fat

I’ve been telling people for years to save their bacon grease when they buy pastured organic bacon. But in these times, whatever bacon you have, I would recommend stretching it to feed your family more.

If you’re going to eat bacon, might as well embrace cooking in bacon fat, because you’re already eating it anyway. Instead of pouring the bacon fat off into the trash, pour it into a reused glass jar from salsa or spaghetti sauce. Let it cool on the counter. And you can store it either at room temperature for a week or in the fridge for a very long time.

Use that bacon grease to cook your eggs; saute your green beans, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts; or really to cook just about anything on the stovetop.

This is literally free food, and it may mean the difference between having to run out for more or butter or olive oil and being able to stay quarantined for a few more days. I can’t think of any reason not to.

Heart-Shaped Bacon

Plus, it makes all your vegetables taste amazing. I’ve gotten picky eaters to eat vegetables just because I call them bacon asparagus or bacon green beans.

So there you have it, hacks to get animal protein in at far more meals than you would have. And after this is all over, you’ll be able to save so much money and increase your family’s nutrition in a lot of new ways. What a great silver lining to learn some new skills out of necessity.

Do you have any great tips to stretch meat?

Some of our favorite recipes to stretch your meat:

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

7 thoughts on “How to Stretch Your Meat and Keep That Protein Source Going”

  1. When our children were young they never knew you could eat meat all by itself as it was always 1 pound of meat with tons of veggies and a starch. I also made chili with a sneaky secret. That is, very little meat but I made up for it with cracked wheat which I cracked in the blender and then cooked it in beef broth. You honestly couldn’t tell that from ground meat. The chili seemed “chock full” of meat, looked and tasted like it was, and I let everyone believe that to be the case! Haha Saved on money, boosted nutrition. Nearly 50 years later I’m still using that trick. You really can transform cracked wheat into a ground meat substitute using the beef flavoring and if food prices inflate as I believe they will it will certainly be easier on the food budget.

  2. Hey Katie, here in Australia meat is expensive and I have a husband who loves his meat at every main meal.
    In the past if I ended up having visitors and needed to stretch our meat I would turn the meal into a casserole type meal and chop the meat up whether it was sausages or steak, chicken or pork chops.
    I would then add in extra veggies and or rice or pasta. The sauce was then used to bulk it out as well whether it was tomato based or creamy.
    A couple of steaks would then become stirfry with lots of veggies or sausages would become a casserole or curried sausages.
    Love your work, I really enjoy reading your posts,love from Australia

  3. I’ve been making my own bone broth for several years now, but I had no idea I could REUSE the bones to make a second batch! Thanks for tip! 🙂 I will continue to stock the freezer with homemade broth – it tastes SO MUCH better than the cubes!

    1. You can also even out the nutritional value of your bone broth if you mix the batches together as that second or third batch finishes. I typically reduce mine down simmering on a back burner, then add the next batch on top and continue to reduce. If you’re low on space or storage containers you can reduce it in your dehydrator and make it into bouillon powder by grinding the sheets of dried broth in a clean coffee grinder.

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