It’s not your imagination: Buying food has gotten expensive. Even as we collectively recover from the trauma of the Great Egg Price Shock of 2023, overall grocery prices continue to rise—nearly 6% over the last year. And while everything is more expensive than it used to be, one common ingredient that is poised to get really expensive is meat. Due to a bunch of different factors, this common protein source is probably going to remain expensive for the foreseeable future.
These kinds of prices lead to some desperate thinking, like cutting back your budget elsewhere, taking out dodgy loans on the fly, or eating stuff past its sell-by date. But there’s a better way to manage higher meat costs: Stretch it. Whether we’re talking about ground beef, chicken, or turkey, bulking up the meat you have with non-meat stuff can make your supply last longer, reducing your grocery bills without sacrificing anything in terms of flavor, nutritional value, or enjoyment.
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The key strategy here is to add fillers to your meat to increase the sheer bulk of it, while complementing the flavor and texture. If you choose your ingredients thoughtfully, you can generally increase your “supply” by about half—although this can be adjusted depending on your own palate (and budget). There are four fundamental choices for meat fillers:
- Grains: Oatmeal and oats, breadcrumbs, barley wheat, bulgur wheat (often used as a vegetarian substitute for ground beef, in fact), quinoa, rice, or couscous make great fillers for ground meat. There’s also Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), which is made from soy flour. One feature of using TVP is that it will take on the flavor of the meat itself, blending invisibly into the dish.
- Vegetables: Unsurprisingly, chopped or pureed vegetables are natural fillers for meat, as are mushrooms. Carrots, peppers, onions, potatoes, cabbage—just about any vegetable will work.
- Legumes: Lentils and beans of just about any variety will work well as fillers. Black beans work very well with burgers, for example.
- Eggs: Adding an egg to your stretched meat mixture can help bind the meat and fillers together so the mixture doesn’t turn into a crumbly mess. Whether this impacts your grocery budget positively depends on the current price of eggs, of course.
Keep in mind that there’s no rule saying you can only use one filler ingredient—mixing them up and using a combination will add flavors and variety to your cooking.
To enhance the budgetary benefit here, rummage in your pantry and use what you have on hand—if you have a bag of rice in there, don’t spend more money on something else, just use that. You can even use dry cereals in a pinch. The two crucial things to keep in mind are
- Preparation: You’ll want to cook your fillers before adding them to the meat, and you’ll want to grate or cut everything up very fine (or, ideally, puree your filler mix) so that it blends in with the ground meat. Rice and grains should be cooked and dried prior to adding them.
- Proportion: You’re stretching your meat, not necessarily replacing it (though there’s nothing wrong with a vegetarian or vegan meal!), so don’t overdo the fillers. A good rule of thumb here is one cup of filler and one (optional) egg per pound of meat—although if you’re following a specific recipe and it calls for a different proportion, that’s fine.
Stretching meat to save money has a long and storied history in this country. Done right, the resulting meal is just as tasty—it’s just cheaper.