Looking for cheap dinner ideas? How to cook chicken thighs, flap steak and more

In the market for meat? Consider less costly cuts that will help you get more for your money.
Make the most of your meat with a hearty stew.
Make the most of your meat with a hearty stew.Tatiana Volgutova / Shutterstock

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/ Source: TODAY
By Katie Jackson

As a culture, Americans eat a lot of meat. But is the country's definition of meat too limited? Perhaps.

Most mainstream cuts of meat are popular because they taste good, are relatively easy to cook and offer nutritional value. However, butchers always have cheaper, and occasionally better-for-you, alternatives if you're willing to experiment.

Here are a few lesser-known cuts of meat to consider trying the next time you find yourself in front of the meat counter.

1. Pork collar

Revival Market

“Pork collar is the extension of the loin that goes into the neck,” Ryan Pera, chef and co-owner of Houston’s Revival Market, named one of America’s best artisan butchers by Bon Appétit, told TODAY Food. But “it’s not as pricey as the loin would be," he added. Pork collar is usually about $3 to $4 cheaper per pound than the tenderloin but you’re getting the same tender muscle with incredible marbling, which means it's very flavorful. Pera recommends slow cooking it or roasting it.

2. St. Louis pork steak

Andrea Behrends / Porter Road

This is a lesser-known pork cut (unless you live in St. Louis, where it's a staple) that comes from the hog's shoulder — aka the Boston butt. "Most people gravitate towards a pork chop, but St. Louis pork steak is one of my personal hometown favorites," said James Peisker, co-founder of Porter Road, an online whole animal butcher shop.

Peisker, who was once based in St. Louis-based, calls this cut a "lazy cook's fantasy come true" because it just needs a little salt and oil for seasoning before cooking over high heat. This cut is also slow-cooker friendly and pairs well with tangy barbecue sauce. Porter Road's St. Louis pork steaks sell for about $8 per pound ($4 cheaper per pound than boneless pork chops). Butchers who are familiar with this steak will leave the shoulder blade bone in to maximize flavor.

3. Beef kidney

Grassland Beef

Organ meats may not be for everyone, but kidneys warrant attention for their nutritional value. They're high in protein and low in calories and fat. They also contain essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, folate, zinc, magnesium and iron. If you’re not sure about cooking with kidneys, consider gradually introducing them into your recipes. Susan MacTavish Best likes to serve a hearty beef steak and calf kidney pie. “By mixing kidney in with steak, you not only bring on a richer flavor, but you cut the cost down, too,” said the entertaining expert. “I also love them for breakfast! Sautéed in a knob of butter with a splash of sherry on a crisp English muffin.” Your best bet for finding kidneys is at a butcher shop or specialty shop. Kidneys are usually about a third of the price of most steak cuts.

4. Flap steak

Bob Hodson Photography / The Butchery

Formally known as sirloin bavette, flap meat is also sold as fajita meat, carne asada and steak tips. It’s versatile, lean and incredibly flavorful. It’s also relatively healthy. Bavette steak has about 32 grams of fat, whereas the same-sized ribeye steak has more than 100 grams of fat. If you’re making carne asada, make sure to tell your butcher, so they can cut the meat accordingly. If you’re cutting it yourself, don't forget to slice it against the grain, which makes it more tender.

5. Lamb neck

Andrea Behrends / Porter Road

For many people, lamb is a luxury. But unlike lobster, which is pretty much a one-price protein, lamb offers different cuts at different costs. For example, at Kleoppel Meats, a meat processor in Missouri, lamb neck is $7.99 per pound whereas lamb leg is $10.99 per pound; lamb chops are $11.49 per pound. In addition to being cheaper, lamb neck is more versatile. "I love it because it has a great meat-to-fat ratio and holds up well to a lot of different types of cooking," says Chef Marcus Jacobs of Marji's Grill in New Orleans. Jacobs, who specializes in recipes featuring underutilized cuts, prefers to slow grill lamb neck for a few hours and serve it sliced, like beef brisket. But you can also braise it, cook it in a slow cooker and use it in soups.

6. Chicken thighs

grilled chicken thighAlamy Stock

When Chef Brian Malarkey goes shopping, he reaches for chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. The co-partner of Herb and Wood restaurant in San Diego and judge on Food Network’s "Guy’s Grocery Games" says that thighs average $1.25 per pound, while chicken breasts average $1.75 per pound. "Thighs taste better, too," added Malarkey. If you're trying to lower the fat in your diet, you should remove the skin. According to the National Chicken Council, a skinless 3.5-ounce portion of uncooked thigh meat has about 4 grams of fat whereas the same portion with skin on it has around 15 grams of fat.

7. Coulotte beef steaks

Jennifer Marx / National Cattlemen's Beef Association

If you’ve ever put sirloin strip, sirloin top butt cap or top sirloin cap steak in your shopping cart, you’ve bought this lean, boneless cut. The coulotte steak is similar to the tri tip roast or top sirloin, but it’s typically 10-20% cheaper. “It’s usually at least $1 cheaper per pound than other cuts of beef,” said chef Reagan Roach of Harris Ranch Beef. “And if you don’t overcook it, it’s also tender and delicious.” Roach recommends letting the coulotte steak come to room temperature before grilling it on a medium-hot grill for a few minutes. Always let the meat rest for about five minutes and then slice it thinly, against the grain.

8. Bone-in turkey breast

Devin Alexander

Ever wanted to make your own lunch meat? With a bone-in turkey breast, you can. It's one of chef Devin Alexander’s grocery store go-to’s. Alexander, who has appeared NBC's "The Biggest Loser," said because bone-in turkey breasts are much fresher and healthier than what you’ll find in the deli meat aisle since they haven't been processed. If you make your own deli slices at home, you can really cut down on the sodium content, too, Alexander told TODAY. To make sliced turkey at home, the chef removes the skin, pokes the breast with a fork (“So flavor seeps in during cooking”) and then coats the breast with a mixture of mayo and sriracha or butter and herbs before roasting it.