Frugal food: Protein that doesn't kill your pocketbook

Oct. 17, 2011 at 7:56 AM ET

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Beans can be a good source of protein, especially with rice.

The news last week that the price of peanut butter is going up left many readers fretting about their options for cheap, protein-rich food, especially at a time when many of us are pinching our pennies.

It’s not just peanut butter that’s getting pricier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects food prices to rise by 3 to 4 percent this year, after rising by less than 1 percent between 2009 and 2010.

Meat — a favorite protein choice in many households — is already be one of the higher-cost grocery items, and it’s been getting even more expensive.

Beef prices rose by more than 10 percent between this August and the year earlier, according to government data. Pork prices are up by 7.5 percent over the same period. Poultry prices have not risen as much.

We asked Amy Yaroch, executive director of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition in Omaha, Neb., to give us some options for healthy, protein-rich foods that aren’t too pricey.

Here are some examples:

Beans and rice:There’s a reason these two foods appear together in many traditional meals. Yaroch said that beans themselves are a good source of protein, but they work especially well when paired with rice for a complete protein.

You don’t have to eat them exactly at the same time, but Yaroch said eating both low-cost foods within a couple hours of each other is a great way to boost protein levels at low cost.

“It’s really important to eat rice and beans,” she said.

Eggs: Yaroch noted that eggs have gotten a bad rap in recent years among people who watch their cholesterol. But scrambled eggs, omelets and other egg-based foods can offer a filling, high-protein meal that doesn’t break the bank.

“If you don’t have high cholesterol, eggs are a really low-cost way to get good, high-quality protein,” Yaroch said.

Health-conscious eaters can just use the egg whites, she said.

The price of eggs is up by nearly 15 percent, according to government data, but they still remain a much cheaper option than meat.

Dairy: Yaroch notes that many people forget that dairy is a good source of protein. A glass of milk, a serving of yogurt or cottage cheese or a helping of plain old cheese are all good options for adding affordable protein.

Quinoa: OK, so this one may not regularly appear on most people’s shopping list. But Yaroch said quinoa is actually a great source of protein and has other nutritional value.

Soy: Yaroch concedes that many people may think of tofu as a flavorless, and it can be if you don’t know how to cook it right. But when cooked well, tofu can be a tasty addition to smoothies, stir-fry meals and other foods.

Meat: Yep, you can still put meat on your grocery list if you’re pinching pennies, but just don’t buy as much. Yaroch notes that many families would be healthier if they served smaller portions of meat and instead filled the rest of the plate with veggies. Another option is to mix meat with cheaper protein, such as beans or tofu.

You can still have a great meal (with) a smaller piece of chicken or meat,” she said.

What are your tips for lower-cost, protein-rich meals? Share them below.

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