This post is part of the Real Food, for Real People, on a Real Budget. You can read more about the series here.
Today we're talking about meat. Mmmm...meat. If you're a vegetarian, you may wish to skip this post and just come back another day when I'm telling fart jokes and complaining about my husband and his mangina when he gets a cold. For everyone else, let's get to the brass tax.
The US Government currently regulates labels for how meat is grown. It is meant to inform customers about what they are buying, but per usual, it's more confusing that helpful.
Anti-biotic free: this one is pretty straightforward...it means the animals weren't routinely injected with antibiotics during their lives. If they caught a sniffle or something, they could be given medicine, but were not killed for a restricted period before the meds left their system. Side note: the idea of a cow getting the sniffles is cracking me up.
Free-range: this means the animals were allowed outside at some point. It doesn't mean that it spent ALL day outside, or even had access to lush pasture, it just means they went outside. Think of it as a range from animals grazing lazily on grass, to an inmate getting "rec time" in a cement pen.
Pasture-raised: this one means the animal has been allowed to graze in the pasture.
Vegetarian-fed: animals were not fed byproducts of other animals. There are reports of cattle in CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) being fed chicken feathers, chicken poop, and other icky stuff. I'm pretty sure if you put chicken feathers or grass in front of a cow, they would choose the grass every time.
Now, when chicken is labeled as vegetarian-fed, I scratch my head a bit. I've watched my six chickens fight over a worm, a bug, and a slug when they're scratching in the yard. If a chicken hasn't been fed anything but grain, corn, etc., I feel kinda bad for those chickens.
If you've been buying traditional meat from a normal grocery store, looking at meat with certain labels can be a HUGE price shock! Traditional whole chickens run about $.99 a pound, but "fancy" chicken usually starts at $2.79 a pound - the difference of about $8 per bird. Oy vey.
When we made the switch to meat that was a bit less "conventional", we took baby steps...very tiny baby steps. We'd replace one kind of meat with the fancy meat, let our food budget adjust, and then start on another type. When we moved home in 2008, we continued on this path with meat found at Costco or Fred Meyer (grocery store).
Then, in 2010, I stopped by a small local butcher than I had driven by hundreds of times before. The meat in this place didn't have organic certification or cute labels or anything like that.
I can't remember what I first bought - I think it was burger - but I do remember that when we went home and cooked it, it smelled really weird. It took me a few minutes to realize why. Because it smelled like meat. Like normal meat. Not like chemicals, or icky feed the animal had eaten. Just basic meat. And hot damn, the taste was unlike anything we had experienced before. Even better than the more expensive properly labeled meat from the store.
I returned to the store time and time again and spoke with the employees. I got to know about their farm sources and how the animals were raised and all that good stuff. Once I started doing the math, I realized that their meat was actually cheap than many traditional cuts at the grocery store. They also sold freezer packs of various cuts for at a discounted price if you wanted to buy 25 or 50 pounds at a time. It was a great find, and a resource that I've turned to time and time again.
Other people contract directly with a farmer to buy a "share" of an animal like a cow or a pig. The farmer takes care of the raising, the butchering, and the parceling and you pay a certain price per pound. For people who eat a lot of meat or have large families, and want meat raised in a humane manner, this is the way to go. We don't eat near enough beef or pork to purchase it in that quantity, but it is quite cost-effective.
A reader recommended that I talk about wild game meat in this post. I'll tell you, I don't know much about it, other than when my brother-in-law goes hunting, my sister tells me that elk is tasty and she hopes he comes back with one. Sorry, but that is what I know about that.
I know quite a bit about wild seafood, because my family did a lot of fishing, crabbing, and shrimping growing up. Wild caught seafood is exactly how it sounds - caught out in nature. Farmed fish and seafood is usually similar to CAFO with cows - a ton of animals crowded in to a small space eating whatever they are fed. They're not out catching their food and hunting it down. Seafood is a catch 22 since there is not enough wild stock left to support the world's seafood habit, but on the other hand, many farmed fish is raised in countries that have sketchy safety records.
For people who eat a paleo diet, aka a lot of meat (Tina, you know I'm looking at your family!), your meat consumption will likely not match up with how I prepare meat for our meals. You'll rarely see things on my meal plan that requires a large quantity of meat. I have gleamed a lot of insight from looking at how many traditional Asian families prepare meat. They use it as an accompaniment or garnish to the dish; it is rarely the focus. I love recipes like cashew chicken or arroz con pollo, because chicken is a part of the meal, but veggies or another ingredient really takes center stage. Soups are an amazing example of how a little meat can go a very long way in providing nourishment and protein, without breaking the bank.
When Troy and I went gluten-free for a one month experiment in 2012, our meat consumption definitely went up, but not by as much as we had anticipated. About once a week, Troy would grill up chicken breasts and some flank steak, and we'd portion it out to use in meals. I'd make a chicken salad, or we'd have sliced chicken on spinach salads, and other things like that. Even without bread as a filler in our meals, we still rarely had "just" a piece of meat on our plate.
Meat is such a personal issue for many people, and I am not here to tell you how to eat it, if to eat it, or anything like that. A personal choice is exactly that - choices that you make that are best for you and your family.
Do you eat meat? If so, what is your family way to serve it to your family?
Labels: for Real People, on a Real Budget, Real Food