Roughly 10 to 35 percent of your calories should come from protein. Are you meeting the mark? Some groups admittedly overdo it on the stuff, like teenage boys who presumably think they must eat nothing but steak all day to build muscles and thrive on their chosen sports team. Meanwhile, other research shows that older adults may not be getting enough of the stuff. There are some handy calculators that help you calculate how much protein you need every day, like this one, but talking to a trained nutritionist is also a smart idea. Not getting enough can lead to fatigue, muscle loss, and many other issues. Having too much protein can overload your liver and kidneys, as well as put you at an increased risk for coronary heart disease. So it is important to know where you stand and make adjustments if necessary.
Whatever you learn – that you need more protein, less, or as much as you’re consuming – we all need protein. When you do hit the grocery store, you can find that it’s the protein that quickly triples your grocery bill. The veggies, fruit, milk, and cereal cost barely anything. You’re thinking this will be a cheap trip. But after you hit the butcher and seafood counter, you’re scrambling to find coupons for this bill on your phone. It got high, fast! When it comes to buying protein sources, we’re often familiar with the obvious ones like steak and chicken breast, but there are some lesser-known forms of protein that are ideal for those on a tight budget. Like these.
Chickpeas – also known as garbanzo beans – are part of the legume family, and for that reason, offer a good amount of fiber in addition to their protein content. As for that precious protein count, a mere cup of the stuff offers nearly 40 grams of protein, almost knocking out the daily protein needs for some individuals. One 15-ounce can of chickpeas will run you about one dollar (maybe a little less for the generic brands or a little more for name brands), making it one of the most affordable options of protein. Plus, it’s vegan- and vegetarian-friendly for those who don’t eat animal products. This versatile food can go cold in salads, be added to pasta dishes, mixes well into broth-based soups, or can simply be gently fried, seasoned, and eaten as a snack.
You probably can’t eat tuna every day because, A) you would get tired of it and B) you may run the risk of mercury poisoning. The FDA provides a useful rundown of how much fish individuals in many stages of life, from childhood to pregnancy, can consume, and which fish types put you most at risk for mercury poisoning. Fortunately, albacore tuna, which is what you’ll typically find in your canned tuna varieties, is pretty safe. And it’s incredibly affordable. A standard can of tuna is five ounces, and will offer around 40 grams of protein. This is another item that will run you just around a dollar per can, depending on the label, and can be even cheaper per-unit when bought in bulk. Beyond the traditional tuna sandwich, you can also dump a can of tuna on a salad, make a tuna melt, or even just dip healthy chips or crackers right into your tuna.
Let’s not sleep on cottage cheese. This food has somehow been allocated to hospitals and elderly care homes, but individuals of all ages and all stages of life could benefit from this super-affordable, versatile, and nutritious protein source. Though we can fear cheese is high in fat, cottage cheese is actually very low in fat, as well as calories. Meanwhile, one cup of the stuff has just shy of 30 grams of protein, and lots of other nutrients like calcium and vitamin B12. Because its flavor is so mild, it’s easy to mix with other foods, like fresh or canned fruit, oats, honey, and even avocado. You can often find large tubs of cottage cheese that will create several meals, for just a few dollars.
If you enjoy this pink fish but the fresh stuff is too pricey, try the canned variety. It offers all the heart-healthy omegas of fresh salmon, in an efficient package. A five-ounce can of canned salmon offers nearly 30 grams of protein at just over 200 calories, so it will make you feel full without overeating. Like tuna, it tastes great mixed up with a little mayonnaise and relish to put on a sandwich or crackers, but it can also be used to make fried salmon patties, and you can also dress it up by putting it in your Salmon Wellington (baked pastry dish with cream cheese), or on top of a French salad nicoise. You can often find a five-ounce can for under two dollars, making it much cheaper than a filet of salmon.
While poultry, in general, can be rather affordable, ground turkey really shines as a budget-friendly choice. You can often find one-pound packages for just a few dollars. Select Vons stores are currently selling this one for $3.99, and I’ve found this exact variety on sale for $1.99. Four ounces of the stuff (roughly the size of a standard burger patty) yields 22 grams of protein. There are so many things you can do with this food, like add it to chili with kidney beans, season it for taco night, or make meatballs for a spaghetti night that’s light on the red meat.
You know eggs have protein but have you truly run the numbers on this magical food? One large egg yields six grams of protein, so three yield 18 grams, which is enough for a meal. You can get an 18-pack of eggs for around four dollars, which will make you six of those three-egg meals. That’s six entrée-size servings of protein for around four dollars, making each one around 66 cents. That’s about the cheapest protein you can get. And you know you can make things like egg salad, deviled eggs, omelets, eggs benedict, scrambles, egg tacos, eggs in a hole, egg quesadillas…the list goes on.
While many yogurts on the market can provide a lot of empty calories loaded with sugar, and would require you to eat far too many calories before reaching your protein needs, Greek yogurt is different. This thick and creamy yogurt offers 17 grams of protein and just 100 calories in a six-ounce serving. Its unique flavor goes well with sweet and savory items, so you can mix it with fruit and oats, you can spread it on your everything bagel, you can put it on toast, and you can even make interesting dips with it for chips and raw veggies. You can often find 32-ounce tubs of this food for under four dollars, and that should yield several meals.
The price here will depend greatly on the type of the nut, as items like cashew and macadamia butter are famously more expensive than your good old-fashioned peanut butter. But don’t overlook this protein source since, in addition to being nutritious and affordable, it’s also very shelf-stable so it can last a long time. If you stick to classic peanut butter, you can usually get a 16-ounce jar in the two to three dollar range, and two tablespoons of the stuff offers eight grams of protein, making it great for snacks like (obviously) peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with peanut butter on celery, or peanut butter with apple slices.
While sardines may not make it onto many grocery lists, since tuna and salmon often trump them, they should be added to your affordable protein options. One little tin offers around 23 grams of protein. Another great thing about this fish, is that the tiny bones are meant to be eaten, which also makes it an excellent source of calcium. You can find sardine cans for as little as fifty cents per unit, and they’re very shelf-stable, so you can store them for a while. When you are ready to eat them, spread them on toast, dump them over your salad, or even go old school and put them on a pizza. They even add delicious saltiness to certain soups.
Lentils are highly nutritious, no matter what variety you get (brown, red, green, or yellow). In addition to offering lots of protein, they’re loaded with fiber, copper, iron, and many other important vitamins and minerals. As far as the protein goes, one cup can offer 18 grams and just about 220 calories, making it a good light food. You can make lentil soup, blend cooked lentils to make dips, add them cold and cooked to your salads, and make mash with them as a base for other foods. You can often get big bags of lentils for just a few dollars, and this is one food that, until opened, can last months and months in a pantry, making it a smart emergency food, too.