12 Cheap & Tasty Protein Options When Money’s Tight


February 28, 2023

Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet. It plays a vital role in keeping our bodies healthy and strong. And depending on your weight, you may need at least 50 grams of protein each day. 

But what if you’re on a budget and can’t afford pricey meats?

Well, the good news is that you don’t have to break the bank to get your daily dose of protein. In fact, there are plenty of affordable protein sources that can make it into your daily meal plan.

Whether you’re a student on a tight budget, a mom trying to feed a handful of growing kids or just someone looking to save some cash, there are many cheap and delicious protein-rich options available to you.

Here are 12 of them (with recipes!):

#1) Dried Beans

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average price of dried beans is about $1.703 per pound as of January. Prices vary based on where you live, of course, but that figure is based on the average across major U.S. cities.

There are about 12 servings of beans per 1-pound bag. Each serving costs about $0.14.

Beans come in many varieties, including kidney, pinto and black. In general, you’ll get 8 grams of protein in each 1/2-cup portion. Beans are great for fiber, too.

You can use beans in soups or toss them on salads. Beans also work well in tacos, and they’re a perfect pairing for rice.

If you’re short on time, use canned beans instead of dried ones. They’ll cost a bit more per serving and may have high amounts of sodium, but they’ll still be affordable. And some canned beans come in a no-salt-added variety, so look for those if you’re watching salt intake.

Recipes to try

#2) Dried Lentils

Another low-cost protein option, lentils come from the same family as beans. Lentils are smaller, though, so they cook more quickly.

A serving of cooked lentils is 1/2 cup. It will give you about 12 grams of protein plus potassium and fiber.

You can get 16 of those servings out of a 1-pound bag of lentils. One Chicago supermarket is charging $1.99 for a bag of lentils in early 2023. That’s about $0.12 per serving.

Adding lentils to a batch of ground beef is a great way to stretch the meat. You can also use lentils as the base for a salad or form them into patties.

Recipes to try:

#3) Whole Chicken

Choosing affordable protein doesn’t have to mean forgoing meat. Take chicken, for example. It may be cheaper to grab a whole chicken than to get individually packaged pieces. BLS figures show that whole chicken costs, on average, about $1.86 cents a pound.

You can get about 1 cup of meat from each pound of a whole chicken. That’s around 1.5 servings. In other words, the price per serving is $1.25, give or take.

And a 3.5-ounce portion of cooked chicken — just over 1/2 cup — provides 19 grams of protein.

You can prepare a whole chicken in a pot on the stove, in your slow cooker or in the oven. The meat from one chicken may stretch for several days’ worth of meals. Use it in sandwiches, tacos, soups or salads. Plus, you can use the bones and leftover bits to make chicken stock or bone broth, stretching your grocery dollars even further.

Recipes to try:

#4) Canned Chicken

For chicken that requires less prep work, turn to the canned variety. You might be able to purchase a 12-ounce can for $3 to $4. Each one contains 3.5 servings, so canned chicken costs around $1 per serving.

Each serving has 15 grams of protein, but the sodium can be high, so if you’re watching your sodium intake, keep canned chicken as an occasional dish.

On busy days, though, it’s a quick way to throw together a meal like enchiladas, fried rice or chicken salad.

Recipes to try:

#5) Canned Tuna

Like canned chicken, canned tuna is cheap and convenient.

One New York City grocery store is currently selling small cans of chunk light tuna for $1.89. If you can stretch that meat between two sandwiches, you’ll spend $0.95 per person.

A 3-ounce portion of tuna includes 21 grams of protein plus potassium and selenium

Tuna is shelf-stable, so you can always keep some on hand. In addition to using it on sandwiches, serve it over a salad or include it in pasta dishes.

Recipes to try:

#6) Peanut Butter

Peanut butter might be a childhood staple, but don’t let its simplicity fool you. This creamy spread is actually pretty versatile. You can use it for both sweet and savory dishes, and it’s an affordable pantry good that lasts a while with proper storage.

According to ThePricer.org, you can buy an 18-ounce jar of store-brand peanut butter for $2.50. That jar will include 16 2-tablespoon servings. The cost breakdown comes to about $0.16 per serving.

A serving of peanut butter has 7 grams of protein and contains vitamins E and B6, too.

Not only can peanut butter be the star of a dish, but it also doubles as a snack food. Dip apples in peanut butter, or spread PB on celery or even carrot sticks.

Recipes to try:

#7) Eggs

Yes, eggs are pricier than they used to be. But they’re still more affordable than many other types of protein. According to current USDA data, eggs cost about $4 a dozen right now.

Two eggs make a serving, so you’ll spend about $0.67 per serving. In exchange, you’ll get 12 grams of protein.

Eggs are usually sold by the dozen and can be kept in the refrigerator for several weeks. They make a great breakfast dish, but that’s not all. You can top your lunch salads with boiled eggs or serve a frittata for dinner.

Recipes to try:

#8) Cottage Cheese

Dairy products offer more than just calcium. They’re also a valuable source of protein. Every 1/2-cup serving of cottage cheese contains 14 grams of it.

As of February 2023, one San Francisco supermarket was selling cottage cheese for $0.47 per serving.

You can eat cottage cheese on its own or bake it in pasta dishes. It also complements fruit and salads well.

Recipes to try:

#9) Milk

Why not fill your glass with a serving of protein? According to the BLS, it costs about $4.20 to buy a gallon of milk right now. A gallon jug holds 16, 8-ounce servings, making each glass about $0.26 cents.

An 8-ounce glass of milk has 8 grams of protein. It provides calcium, vitamin D, niacin and phosphorus, too.

If you’d rather not drink plain milk, pour it over cereal or blend it into a smoothie. You can also make milk the main feature in your meals.

Recipes to try:

#10) Tofu

Perhaps you’ve never tried tofu before, but you’re looking for new ways to add protein into your diet. Although costs may have increased a bit, a 2019 article listed tofu prices that ranged from $0.27 to $0.48 per serving.

Depending on the variety, the protein content may be anywhere from 7 to 14 grams per 3-ounce portion. Tofu also offers calcium, manganese and copper.

Many supermarkets carry tofu. You’ll find it in a refrigerated case, typically near the produce section alongside pre-packaged sauces and readymade vegan staples. Look for the “extra firm” variety if you want your tofu to mirror the texture of meat when fried or baked. Softer varieties can be more like scrambled eggs.

You can use tofu in place of meat in many of your favorite recipes. Try it in stir-fries, kabobs and pasta.

Recipes to try:

#11) Pasta

Yep, plain old noodles contain protein. You’ll get about 7 grams in each 2-ounce serving. Pasta is a good source of carbohydrates as well.

The BLS says that pasta costs $1.475 per pound right now. A 1-pound box of pasta holds eight servings, costing around $0.18 each.

Noodles are extremely versatile. Eat them with a touch of light sauce or drown them in cheese and tomatoes for a luxurious dinner. The sky’s the limit with pasta.

Recipes to try:

#12) Pork Roast

If you’re in the mood for meat, pork roast could be an affordable option. BLS data show that such cuts of pork cost, on average, $3.61 a pound.

That’s more expensive than whole chickens, but you’re not paying for any bones when you buy a pork roast. Each pound will give you about four servings of pulled pork. That comes to $0.90 per serving.

A 1/4-pound portion of pork provides around 23 ounces of protein.

A slow cooker is a convenient way to prepare tender pork roasts. Serve the meat alongside baked potatoes, or shred it for quesadillas or barbecue sandwiches.

Recipes to try:

Protein is a key ingredient for a healthy and strong body. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to meet your protein needs. There are plenty of affordable protein sources out there that you can include in your diet, both animal and non-animal sources. With a little creativity, you can enjoy delicious and healthy meals that pack a protein punch, even on a tight budget.

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