Red meats, particularly processed varieties such as beef jerky, sausage, and hot dogs, are under fire following a World Health Organization report linking them to increased risk of cancer. Not surprisingly, both health experts and the latest dietary guidelines issued by the federal government recommend consuming limited amounts of red and processed meats. Lest anyone worry about protein deprivation, here are 10 satisfying, healthy, and low-cost menu alternatives. (Prices noted come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and online and neighborhood food retailers.)
Packed with protein, selenium, and all the B vitamins, chicken is cheap, whether whole or in parts. Prices average about $1.50 a pound for whole chicken, $1.60 for legs, and $3.35 for boneless breast. The most economical way to substitute chicken for red and processed meat is to buy a whole bird and turn it into several meals. Use lean chicken breast for sandwiches, bones for a hearty chicken noodle soup, and dark meat for a chicken stir-fry with onion, green pepper, mushrooms, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic.
It's too bad that tofu and other soy products, such as crumbles (a ground beef substitute), don't often show up on grocery lists. Soybeans deliver considerable amounts of protein and fiber and are rich in calcium, magnesium, and iron. A 14-ounce container of firm tofu or a pack of bean curd sheets costs less than $2.50 at the supermarket. Soy products take well to Asian recipes, which feature umami and spiciness to compensate for soy's blandness. Try Szechuan-style tofu with peanuts from MyRecipes and Korean bean curd miso soup from Allrecipes.
If protein is what you're after, think pink, as in salmon. This deep-sea fish is loaded with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins D and B12. One pound of fresh salmon costs $6 to $12, depending on origin and whether it's fresh or frozen. Large cans (14.75 ounces) sell for $3 to $8, depending on variety. To save money, wait for sales at the supermarket and consider buying salmon heads, which contain a fair amount of juicy meat and cost about $1 a pound. Maximize the protein per serving with recipes calling for other primary ingredients, such as rice or pasta and vegetables, or salmon as a component in soups and salads. Real Simple offers up 37 salmon recipes, including a chowder with sweet potato and broccoli.
These legumes may be known to cause flatulence, but pile them up on the plate nonetheless. Beans are nearly cholesterol-free and high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and iron. They are very cheap, easy to prepare, and available in numerous varieties -- garbanzo, pinto, navy, and black, to name a few. Beans can be incorporated in numerous dishes. Pair them with a grain, such as brown rice or corn, for a complete protein and a low-cost, nutrient-packed meal. Alternatively, use with small amounts of meat, such as saut閑d ground turkey, in a favorite chili recipe.
This holiday bird gets a bad rap for dryness (the breast meat, in particular), which often results from overcooking. But for those who learn to cook it properly, turkey can serve as a year-round source of cheap protein. Turkey costs less than $1.50 a pound and is healthier than processed and red meat. It's low in fat and a good source of vitamin B, potassium, selenium, and iron. Fine Cooking offers eight tips for producing a juicy and moist roast turkey, and a roast turkey recipe from Natasha's Kitchen yields enough succulent meat for a week's worth of meals.
Tilapia is a freshwater fish that's most often farmed for sale at supermarkets. Fresh filet prices vary by retailer and region but hover around $6 a pound; Walmart sells a 4-pound bag for $11 at some locations. This fish is rich in protein, minerals, and unsaturated fat but contains fewer omega-3 fatty acids than other fish (such as salmon). It's higher in cholesterol than some fish but still contains less than a serving of beef, pork, or poultry. Mild-flavored and flakey, it might appeal to the fish-averse. The web is well stocked with recipes, but the simplest preparation calls for pan-frying the fillets with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, a pinch of garlic, and a drizzle of lemon juice when cooked through. Serve with a side of vegetables and rice for an inexpensive dinner.
Quinoa (pronounced keen'-wah) is the edible seeds of a grain plant. They're bursting with protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and heart-healthy fats while lacking in the carbohydrates and calories found in grains. At first glance quinoa isn't exactly budget-friendly, often selling at almost $7 a pound, but there are ways to maximize the value. Look for deals at bulk retailers such as Costco, which carries 4-pound bags of organic quinoa for about $16. Cook up a batch and serve with vegetable stir-fry or follow one of 12 quinoa recipes at Whole Living, including quinoa hash with vegetables and poached eggs, quinoa veggie burgers, and quinoa baked with spinach, eggs, and cottage cheese.
Fancy duck dishes often show up on French restaurant menus, but duck meat is worth adding to the grocery list as a healthy red meat substitute. Duck meat is rich in iron, zinc, and vitamin B and contains as much protein as dark cuts of chicken and turkey. Some supermarkets carry duck, but the price is far lower -- about $2 a pound for a whole duck -- at Chinese markets. It's also available from online vendors such as Maple Leaf Farms, which sells antibiotic-free ducks weighing 4 to 6.5 pounds for $16. To get the most servings from a single bird, in a recipe such as duck confit tacos from Food & Wine, substitute roast duck meat for the confit legs and decrease the ratio of duck to other ingredients.
There are few foods as versatile as eggs. They can be cooked simply, pan-fried, hard-boiled, whisked into an omelet, or all gussied up. No longer shunned by medical experts worried about heart disease (processed breakfast meats are worse offenders), eggs are loaded with protein and contain less than 100 calories each (dispense with the yolks if you're not convinced). Best of all, eggs are inexpensive, averaging about $2.70 a dozen. Build brunch around a baked avocado-egg bowl from Grillest or give eggs a starring role in stir-fry with zucchini noodles cut with a spiralizer.
Like quinoa, chia seeds are a new "it" food in the health-conscious universe. These tiny seeds don't suffice on their own as a meat alternative, but mixed into puddings, sprinkled on oatmeal, added to post-workout smoothies, and incorporated into lunch and dinner, they add a knockout punch of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, and zinc, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Try them in gluten-free chicken nuggets from Lauren Kelly Nutrition or in sticky chia brown rice with fried egg from the health and fitness site Life by Daily Burn. Chia seeds cost about $10 a pound at health-food stores, but bulk ordering online saves money; a 5-pound bag goes for $20 on Amazon. Chia has a long shelf life, so no worries about waste.